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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Law firm Chief Talent Officers weigh in on the tight talent market

The red-hot market for talent in the legal industry is causing concern among many law firms. Here's what several firm chief talent officers are saying

According to research from Thomson Reuters SharpLegal and Stellar Performance, 40% of lawyers within law firms are flights risks. The percentage is even higher for lawyers that are younger, women, or ethnic minorities.

This situation is having a dramatic impact on law firms’ recruiting and attrition, as the heated lateral hiring markets continues onward and shows no signs of slowing down in the short term. To retain these lawyers, law firms need to maintain employee engagement; and based on our research, the top 5 key drivers of engagement include:

      • showing employees fairness and respect;
      • demonstrating a path of career growth and progression;
      • clearly communicating the firm’s direction
      • exhibiting leadership; and
      • encouraging collaboration among individuals and groups.

When these drivers are leveraged well, the level of employee satisfaction — a key indicator of engagement — increases dramatically. Further, according to our research, engaged lawyers are:

      • four-times more likely to commend the culture of their firm;
      • six-times more likely to applaud their firm for being collegial and collaborative;
      • six-times as likely to talk about their firm’s ability to treat people fairly and with respect; and
      • three-times as likely to say their own values align with their firm’s values and ethos.

Given this, understanding what elements are most impactful when it comes to employee satisfaction and retention is imperative; however, it’s important to recognize that the strongest drivers are also those that are most under pressure from remote or hybrid working. Indeed, remote or hybrid working puts unique strains and pressures on law firm leadership, which is the third most impactful attribute for driving lawyer engagement.

During the recent Thomson Reuters Chief Talent Officers Roundtable, we sat down with a few law firm chief talent officers (CTOs) and asked them what they are doing to invest in employee engagement.

How to maintain employee engagement & head off flight risk

The role of leadership — Leaders play a critical role in employee engagement by supporting lawyers through tremendous change because strong leaders provide a feeling of connection to the larger firm entity, insight into what’s happening at the firm (such as successes and key changes being made), an invitation to add employees’ voices into their role in the firm’s strategy, and tools and tactics for better well-being management.

The best law firm leaders, after fundamentally important functional areas like strategy, culture, and financial performance, have impressive character traits that resonate with others. Our research indicates that the external perception of strong leaders is someone described as ambitious, confident in their ambition, and decisive, which cements how such leaders are visionaries who exercise smart and methodical judgement. Additionally, leaders must be honest and authentic throughout their careers, in order to earn and maintain the trust and respect of their lawyers and other employees.

Listening, then seeking feedback and communication — While effective leadership and key drivers of engagement are simple and well-known, putting them into practice is the challenge, especially in a workplace now dominated by remote or hybrid working. Some of the ways CTOs said they have achieved success over the course of the pandemic include:

      • Over-communicating, as they did at the beginning of the pandemic, shows that leaders understand that more personable methods of communication are necessary today. One CTO said she found success by acknowledging the current difficulties — in the case of the pandemic, it is recognizing employees’ exhaustion — to better drive engagement.
      • Seeking employee feedback and viewpoints consistently on how the firm is doing in identifying, evolving, and reinforcing culture throughout the pandemic was another way CTOs found success in promoting engagement. For example, one CTO strengthened firm culture by initiating conversations around the value of teamwork or inclusion.
      • Listening to employees and acting on feedback has a multiplier effect on engagement because it generates the belief that employees are helping craft the direction of the firm.

Recruiting in a “post”-pandemic world

CTOs saw their firm’s ability to recruit new or experience talent in a more difficult light at the moment. One Roundtable attendee even noted that recruiting is currently über-competitive and raises issues within the firm relating to partner pressures. Most of CTOs agreed that being calm and not over-reacting to short-term issues because of such pressure, as well as demonstrating prudence about who and why the firm is hiring are critical to recruitment efforts.

To achieve success in this area, some CTOs said they sought to:

      • evaluate key efforts, such as understanding the values of the firm and its practice areas.
      • cautiously align expectations for younger or less experienced lawyers.
      • ensure the highest drivers of engagement are part of the recruiting strategy.
      • enable an honest dialogue between partners and associate candidates about the path to partnership within the firm.

Beyond the current tight market conditions for talent, the firm’s recruitment messaging strategy is important. One CTO noted there is a vast misalignment between recruitment messaging and what clients think, muddying the clear message of what top qualities the firm can offer. Crafting clear core messages resonate around vision and values in an effort to entice people to join you and ensure their alignment and success is vital, especially under the unique working circumstances at the moment.

The most difficult part about recruiting and training the next generation of leaders, most CTOs agreed, is managing the tension between what might be deemed as a successful career progression for one leader and that leader’s qualities not always being those desired in a successful leader.

This is where a firm’s consistency in walking the talk on purpose, vision, and values really comes into to play. The only true way to avoid flight risk and increase retention on a wide scale within a firm is to ensure consistency between management’s words and actions. In other words, always be working toward earning and maintaining trust.