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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Shifting roles: Managing the evolving changes to firm structures & employee expectations

Phyllis Weiss Haserot  Multigenerational Workplace Change-Agent & Author

Phyllis Weiss Haserot  Multigenerational Workplace Change-Agent & Author

Despite long existing and accepted law and accounting firm structures, pressures from clients and firm personnel are bringing changes today that will present challenges and opportunities for many firms

Accommodating multi-generations of workers and differing functions working together while striving to retain valuable talent will require role shifts not contemplated in past decades of practice. Planning ahead and being respectful of status and culture changes will produce the most harmonious and profitable results.

Why role shifts are more necessary today

There are multiple reasons why the legal and tax & accounting industries are seeing shifts in the long-established roles within their firms.

For example, many firms have abandoned a required retirement age. Chronological age doesn’t correlate with competence, and the definition of “competence” has expanded to include a wider range of skills. Plus, fewer senior lawyers (Baby-Boomers) have wanted to retire, although that has changed among some owing to pandemic-related circumstances.

Younger lawyers (Gen X and older Millennials) are eager to move into key roles serving clients as well as within firm management and practice leadership. Indeed, more Millennials are interested in lattice careers, not just partnership. More lawyers of various generations are unhappy or disappointed with lawyering roles, and they may want to stay in the field but in different functions.

Also, there are new needs in today’s firms that beg for the creation of new roles to be filled, in areas of strategy, wellness, knowledge management, training, information technology, artificial intelligence use, and innovation.

Dealing with resistance to structural change

Resistance is a natural part of any period of change, and it persists for firms’ long-term sustainability. Necessary steps to make role shifts more acceptable (and maybe even appealing) to individuals, especially senior partners, require at least three components:

Positive Recognition — Role shifts are an organizational issue, in which the desired result is a benefit for the firm in terms of filling a needed skill or function, as well as a benefit to the individual in maintaining a career, continuation of paid employment, and elevated self-worth.

Especially in the self-esteem and self-worth aspects, the role shift must not feel like or be regarded by colleagues as a demotion. In the days when lockstep business models were prevalent, shifts to of counsel or other roles were expected and more readily accepted. Today, changes in culture and mindset may be necessary to overcome resistance. The firm must still feel like a partnership to get ready acceptance.

The firms that do this best have set an expectation among partners that there will be a conversation at a particular career level or age with senior management about how senior partners see their day-to-day responsibilities unfolding and about what matters to them.

Emphasize career legacy-making, especially for Boomers and Gen Xers — Fulfillment and purpose are important to high-achieving professionals. If a lawyer is asked to move to an unfamiliar role, especially when letting go of a leadership position, remind the lawyer of their career legacy. Use a consultant to lead chosen lawyers through exercises to identify what they want to be remembered for at work, reflect on their achievements and proud moments, outline what else they want to accomplish at the firm, and identify any outside activities they desire to make for a fulfilling life.

Provide appropriate compensation — For role shifters, financial compensation (as well as non-financial recognition) is an important indication of their value at any level. Fulfilling such roles as mentor, trainer, coach, recruiter, senior client link, or ombudsperson, as well as other contributions, should be paid commensurate with the value the firm receives from these tasks.

8 ways individuals can achieve more challenging roles

The economic and health pandemics have forced firms and individuals to re-think their careers, examine their roles within their firms, and get creative with new roles. These eight steps are useful for professionals of any generation at any level or phase of career.

      1. Provide support and implement a needed project — For example, role shifters could pursue their interests around wellness, diversity, equity & inclusion, knowledge management, cross-generational conversation, or new recruit orientation — all of which are challenging and useful roles.
      2. Look for problems that need solving — Interested professionals could volunteer or accept a role shift to work on solutions they or someone else has identified within the firm, including those around establishing better processes and procedures, improving client or employer experience, or creating more external visibility, among others. Millennials and Gen Zers can become go-to problem-solvers early in their careers, leading to more diversity and inclusion.
      3. Look for career growth — Interested professionals could scout for conferences, webinars, podcasts, and teaching to promote growth of firm personnel.
      4. Advocate for yourself — Professionals should make sure they get appropriate recognition, whether financial or non-financial, and learn when to say “no” to a work overload that will affect your ability to produce high-quality results.
      5. Suggest and follow through on project implementation — If professionals get the go-ahead to work on projects that they suggested, they should be ready to act on implementation, including lining up needed help and resources. They also need to track costs carefully so there won’t be later surprises for the firm leaders.
      6. Ask good questions — Professionals interested in other roles within their firms need to learn how to use questions to make suggestions without appearing to criticize others or appear clueless.
      7. Be generous — They should also speak up when they have comments to help others. They should be generous with advice and feedback without appearing arrogant or condescending.
      8. Don’t be thin-skinned — If their idea is rejected or the commitment to improvement isn’t recognized, professionals might want to rethink it or go on to another suggestion. They should not take it as a failure, especially as a younger professional or a senior attorney or accountant seeking a role to maintain a position. Persistence pays off, so they should keep trying with additional arguments and by seeking wider support.

Professionals interested in shifting their roles within their law or accounting firms should remember to take advantage of the opportunities to make a change for the better that is now presented by a turbulent business environment.