At a recent event, law firm managing partners offered their insights on the major issues confronting the legal industry — not surprisingly, talent concerns topped the list.
LONDON — While it will surprise no one that talent is the subject that is most on the minds of law firm leaders at the moment — and is increasingly a challenge with lawyers from associate to partner — the talent challenge is becoming a major issue for business services professionals as well.
At Thomson Reuters’ recent Insights Council dinner, 23 law firm managing partners from the US, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Canada, and the UK offered a truly global perspective on how the legal industry is confronting its talent issue and other ongoing challenges.
Everyone was quick to acknowledge the remarkable adaptations that had been made, force majeure, during the pandemic. Now, remote working with Zoom or Microsoft Teams has become the norm, and scarcely a beat has been missed in attending to clients’ needs. As we know, the initial fears of a business collapse during the darkest days of the pandemic was quickly replaced by the task of servicing something of a boom in legal work, especially in areas like M&A and labor & employment.
Offering learning and experience that goes beyond the law is seen as a vital component in staunching the hemorrhaging of young legal talent.
Indeed, the expectation within the legal industry is that this demand will likely continue for much of 2022 though perhaps with some tailing off in the M&A space, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Now, however, new challenges emerge, as the Council members discussed. Law firm leaders are convinced that there are losses emerging as a result of prolonged working from home, and that more junior staff have never absorbed the norms of team-working in person. More worrisome, these junior staffers are not naturally picking up the trade, and some firm leaders think this has made it necessary for firms to become more intentional about learning and development. Indeed, they feel that if you can’t rely on the water cooler encounter, then firms need to structure that same learning in other ways.
This intentional effort in career development means that the bygone time when lucky associates learned at the feet of a talented partner and the unlucky ones got the poor mentor needs to remain in the past. Today, firms have to ensure that learning and career opportunities benefit all legal staffers alike.
Offering learning and experience that goes beyond the law is seen as a vital component in staunching the hemorrhaging of young legal talent. Many associates are burnt out by working alone at home during unequaled periods of high activity. They don’t even get the fun party at the end of the transaction.
As a result, many firms are keen to encourage their people back into the office. What they are finding, however, is that groups respond quite differently. The younger attorneys, fed up with working with laptops on their beds, are keen to return. Yet, the more senior associates and some partners have enjoyed the reduced burden and cost of commuting and are markedly more resistant to returning.
The in-house perspective
All of these challenges were reflected back to firm leaders the morning after the dinner, when we invited three General Council to form a panel and discuss their expectations for their outside law firms. What emerged was that many of the same challenges in balancingtalen work and home seen by law firms apply to in-house teams too. Corporate law department leaders likewise tread a delicate balance on how much to encourage their people to be back in the office, though obviously, that works better for some roles than others. More interestingly, our GC panel observed that there are risks in an almost empty office — such as things not being noticed or conversations not being overhead that, prior to the pandemic, would have raised the alarm on something that then could have readily been handled early.
During these two sessions there were some interesting takes on technology as well. Everyone is profoundly grateful to have had Zoom and Teams, of course; yet now, lawyers are having to figure out how to manage hybrid meetings. Unfortunately, the consensus is that the technology is not good enough. People sit in meetings separately logged into Teams, often fussing over who is or is not muted and how much longer they can cope with screeching feedback.
The GCs also made a plea for better integration and collaboration around legal platforms. The pandemic has laid bare the frustrations of having to log into multiple firms’ systems in order to transact a deal.
Finally, the group explored whether the culture of sharing and collaboration has been the winner or loser of the past two years. Some felt that it’s been much harder to start new relationships virtually — and tougher to keep them going in between transactions. Savvy firms have invested more in advanced tech solutions to better equip their partners, but at the same time, this technology often is falling short. Unsurprisingly, not one firm was prepared to sing the praises of their CRM system.
Yet perhaps the greatest obstacles to robust function law firms still remain: Compensation systems that continue to favor individuality over team working, and many partners ultimately remaining quite insecure about introducing their younger colleagues to the client relationship.
These discussions gave us the chance to explore some significant new challenges that are currently confronting the legal industry, while allowing us plenty of time to acknowledge some old perennials that have demonstrated that they haven’t gone away.