Review the skills you have now to help identify gaps in technical, technological and strategic capacity.
Use this to guide future hires.
Provide a path for young lawyers, mid-careerists and more senior personnel that provides both professional and personal progression.
Engage with all team members to understand what they value and what they want from their careers.
Seek expert advice on how to balance employee expectations about remuneration with the reality of running a firm.
HOW TO PUT OUT THE FIRE
Mapping your ideal employee to your ideal client
The importance of engaging good staff for your legal firm cannot be overlooked, but attracting the ‘right’ people means looking beyond the image you have of the ideal employee to consider how those employees will interact and develop relationships with your ideal client.
We recommend firms start this process by building an employee profile that aligns with the intended client base, then focus on attracting people who resonate with your culture, values and this market.
Too many firms rely on the job to be enough to get a young or mid-career lawyer in the door, and spend too little time thinking about their Employee Value Proposition or EVP.
Having an attractive EVP that marries the employee experience with the ideal client experience helps to flesh out the offer, quantifying the benefits of working for your firm beyond the simple salary.
We know that positive client experience and employee experience are intrinsically linked.
When these two things are balanced, the relationships formed between employees and clients help a firm to thrive — and keep high-performing legal employees engaged.
Managing salary expectations
A perennial issue law firms raise with us is the need to find the right talent at the junior end.
As one of our clients puts it: “I have had a number of junior staff who have left over the past six months which has made it difficult to grow as I’m now spending time and money replacing them rather than implementing growth plans.”
In other words, losing a junior lawyer can be more expensive in senior time wasted than it can be in fees lost.
But the desire to jump is a strong one.
Thomson Reuters estimates nearly one in three Australian associates changed jobs in FY2022, making this group 1.3 times more likely to jump ship than a senior associate and 6 to 7 times more likely than a non-equity or equity partner.
Often, we find young lawyers quickly become disillusioned with their first firm, perhaps feeling they are valued only for technical output, lack career advancement opportunities, or can’t find the balance many are looking for between work and other passions.
There is also a gap in expectations around salary and flexibility that is hard to bridge, particularly when starting salaries in top tier firms rose as much as 20 per cent last year, prompting $100,000-plus packages for some first-year-out solicitors.
Smaller firms can rarely match that request — legal sector recruitment firm Mahler estimates the gap between remuneration at a large and small Melbourne firm for a graduate lawyer can now be $35,000 a year.
The stronger the non-remuneration value proposition, the more a firm can compete with these spiralling salaries, and it pays to look beyond the dollar value to consider what else younger solicitors want.
As a rule of thumb, salary packages should be competitive where they can be and include other incentives where they can’t — such as the opportunity for hybrid work, interstate or overseas travel and time to pursue passion projects.
Keeping senior associates engaged
For mid-career lawyers, the reasons to stay or leave can be quite different.
Once again, salary speaks volumes, but there are often questions of work-life balance.
At this stage in their careers, many want the opportunity to build specialist experience that will translate into fees or high salary, or pursue a fast-track path towards senior leadership.
Countering the fear of missing out is critical in retaining lawyers in this stage of their career — the common belief is that if you are good enough, you will be poached, and if you are not, you will be ignored.
It’s why annual turnover for senior associates, while not as high as for juniors, is estimated at 22.5 per cent.
Leaders need to give mid-career lawyers confidence that they are contributing to the path of the firm and that they will be rewarded for sticking around.
But they need to be aware the promise of partnership alone has lost its lustre.
For many mid-career lawyers, buying into equity seems out of reach when mortgages, school fees, additional study and other costs have to be managed.
If mid-career lawyers are going to be enticed to stay, grow and shape the future of the firm, they need to be engaged in the conversation early and be given a chance to build on their own terms.
Keeping poachers at bay
At the senior lawyer and partner level, competition is not only fierce but at times breaks into open warfare, with poaching of teams rife across the major firms.
While the rate of partner departures has declined since 2020, there has been a spate of high-profile poaching cases; in some cases teams of up to eight enticed away by rival firms.
From the poacher’s perspective, this can be strategic.
They simultaneously bring in a cohesive team, capture a net of new clients, avoid the trouble of having to build up a practice or specialisation over months and years — and weaken a competitor in the process.
But it’s also risky business that can equally take the firm’s eye off the master plan.
To avoid the poachers, ensure your senior leaders have a stake at the table, either with a clear path for succession or an opportunity to adapt their roles over time, maybe broadening their client base or undertaking development opportunities that keep them engaged.
Communications is also critical in detecting niggles that can precede an abrupt departure.