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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Advisory Services: Feedback & career mobility at the heart of law firms’ talent management innovations

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

· 6 minute read

According to a recent roundtable of law firm chief talent officers, issues around talent management still remain at the top of many CTOs' minds

Recent feedback from chief talent officers on their top issues — beyond their law firms’ economic concerns, of course — illustrated how the challenges of how best to offer their top talent reward structures beyond compensation and career paths beyond partnership continue to plague law firm leaders.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, law firm employee expectations have evolved to include the desire for more flexibility, expansion of career mobility options, the willingness to draw boundaries around personal time, and the need to continue the culture of care that began in the immediate days following the sudden work-from-home mandate in March 2020.

Addressing talent challenges

During the most recent chief talent officer (CTO) roundtable, an open discussion with 25 participants from law firms earlier this year, participants described how their law firms are addressing these challenges.

Seek regular feedback

The first action recommended by CTOs is collecting feedback from associates and lawyers regularly through one-on-one meetings. The purpose of these meetings gives the law firm the opportunity to: i) check in with each employee on how they are doing; ii) ask each individual what they need; and iii) explore how each person feels about their career development.

Investing time in meeting one-on-one with each associate enables an “in-depth conversation about how they are doing” to identify priority areas of focus to action improvements, says one CTO roundtable participant, adding that taking the time to “listen to concerns and needs lends itself to engagement.”

Further, the roundtable described how those law firms which initiated efforts to gather feedback proactively used such tactics as stay interviews and enlisting the firm’s associate committee. In fact, using stay interviews rather than exit interviews, can offer firms a proactive way of retaining existing employees to collect data on their current employee experience, as well as their decision to stay at the firm. One CTO participant indicated that she and her firm’s professional development director undertook stay interviews with all 800 lawyers at the firm.

Another CTO, for example, used their firm’s associate committee to identify how comfortable associates feel in bringing up interest in non-partner career tracks.

As the result of initiating these informal conversations with associates, several CTOs re-prioritized their efforts around common themes, such as reframing professional development now as talent management. Indeed, while the term, professional development comes with an outdated paradigm around training, which historically has had lawyers sitting through a seminar consuming information rather than engaging with it actively, talent management has no such rhetorical baggage.

Additionally, this terminology change effectively shifts the paradigm away from training and more toward learning. This further underscores the evolving perspective from professional development that redefines training, transforming it into a new way of thinking regarding learning, which suggests a more active and engaged approach to skills development content.

This process further allows firms to prioritize client development skills earlier in associates’ careers. One firm partnered with the heads of marketing and business development to create learning opportunities for mid-level and senior associates, its CTO said.

Expand career options

The second recommendation from the CTO roundtable is that law firms need to increase the flexibility of career mobility beyond partnership. This process includes transforming approaches to both skills development and learning.

To this end, many law firms are expanding options for career tracks in a number of ways, including expanding some pathways that have been around a while, such as promoting secondments, career mentoring, and of counsel positions, and other, newer tactics such as firm-sponsored coaching. Most CTOs cited success in using secondments and coaching.

The success of using of counsel or special counsel titles as promotions was more mixed, and the adoption of these tracks came down to firm culture. More explicitly, intentional efforts by firm leadership, partners, and the firm’s HR department to elevate these positions was key to instigating stronger buy-in for additional career tracks as viable alternatives to partner.

Two firms even offered greater mobility temporarily to off-ramp the partner track based on the life stage of lawyers. For example, law firm attorneys who were experiencing parenthood indicated that the flexibility does not take the partnership track off of table for good; rather, it shifts the direction and focus of the lawyer to what they are experiencing currently at their stage of life, but it doesn’t mean that this direction will remain that way forever.

Utilize an individualized approach to career learning

Finally, on the learning front, one of the most common ways that law firms are meeting their lawyers’ preference for expanded career mobility is by taking a custom approach to individual skills development both in terms of core and technical competencies and integrating these with individual preference for career tracks.

In addition to individual learning and development career plans, several CTOs highlighted that they created bespoke learning programs based on the unique outcomes from the pandemic and the shift to hybrid work. For example, one CTO found the need to offer “respect in the workplace” training in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Another firm invested in additional skills-building for partners in the areas of leadership, project management, respecting personal time, and how to allocate work effectively, especially when associates communicate that they are not available for urgent work assignments.

Still, young associates whose law school experience was primarily focused on virtual or remote learning in the early years of the pandemic still needed specialized attention on basic communication, executive functions, and learning how to prioritize.

Solutions to continuing hybrid work impediments

One big conundrum with which law firms continue to grapple — and the CTO roundtable discussed — is how to ensure productive work while still providing white-glove client service and meeting the new expectations of hybrid-working employees. A major part of this challenge is the ongoing obstacle of how or whether law firms should strongly encourage lawyers to return to the office. One incentive touted as being successful was to offer jeans-attire workdays so that people could be “as comfortable at the office as they are at home.”

Another major career development barrier is how to replicate mentoring in a hybrid work environment. To meet this challenge, one firm asked associates “how can we better mentor you?” and used testimonials from associates to help partners better understand how to meet these employees’ needs.

Overall, this and past CTO roundtables have suggested two tactics for engaging employees today: i) ask for feedback continuously; and ii) employ regular check-ins. By taking the time to listen to employee concerns, firm leadership can encourage engagement and promote individual well-being. For law firms, these actions can help build an overall positive employee experience and improve valuable lawyer retention.

Learn how an engagement research study can help measure and manage perspectives on the crucial elements of your workplace culture and values today.

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