By Patrick Smith for The American Lawyer
Unprecedented demand for legal services, a free-flowing string of transactional work and a pandemic-fueled exodus from the workforce have firms fighting tooth and nail to staff up and retain their talent. The firms that will come out ahead in this “talent war” are likely going to need more than deep pockets.
While compensation is a primary driver for many attorneys, it can be hard for firms to differentiate themselves from their peers using only cash. Several industry insiders point to a firm’s ability to keep their people engaged, having their attorneys believe they are playing on a “winning team,” and allowing for a level of flexibility around work that didn’t exist pre-pandemic as ways firms, regardless of size, can come out ahead when it comes to getting and keeping good people.
“People that leave firms tend to be less satisfied with their job,” Dr. Evan Parker, founding partner of data science company Parker Analytics, said. “If you can’t get people engaged, then they will likely leave again.”
Parker said keeping people doesn’t all have to be about money.
“Being a rich firm isn’t just about money,” he said. “But also about having built a firm that is welcoming and inclusive.”
For example, firms that make a point of placing women and diverse attorneys in positions of leadership send a note to the market that their culture is welcoming.
“It’s a signal of their culture,” he said. “And if you look at the people who work the most, they are engaged and happy. Firms that have thought hard about how to get people and keep them are going to come out ahead.”
Kent Zimmermann of Zeughauser Group said keeping someone engaged during boom times may not be so hard, but it is important for firms to clearly address what happens to attorneys when things aren’t so rosy.
“Up-and-coming lawyers increasingly want to know the answers to some hard questions, like when there is an economic downturn, what happens to me?” he said. “Or if I want to work remotely most of the time, how am I going to be stitched into the fabric of the firm and how am I going to be able to build relationships with partners to get good work assignments that allow me to ascend in my career?”
Everybody likes to play for a winner. Attorneys are no different. But what a “winner” looks like can be very different based on what attorneys are looking for.
In terms of law firms, Zimmermann defined a “winner” as a firm that has strong size relative to its market.
“When I say market, I am defining that broadly,” he said. “Areas of focus in practice, industry sectors and geography all play a hand. In other words, if you are trying to be the best firm in a particular city, then your size relative to other firms there matters. If you are trying to be the best firm in life sciences or transactional work, then your size relative to other firms doing that matters.”
In other words, firms don’t need to be the biggest, as long as they know who they are competing against for said talent and know their market.
“It leads you to be careful in how you define your markets. Too broadly and it’s hard to balance those core factors like size relative to market, profitability relative to market, quality relative to market and culture relative to market. I think it is challenging to balance those factors as they frequently conflict,” Zimmermann said.
While Big Law as a whole has not adopted a uniform back-to-the-office strategy, most firms at this point realize that in order to get and keep people, they must be a bit more flexible than they were in the past. And that means more than providing remote working options, although that is often the first thing that comes up when the topic of flexibility comes up.
Firms have said they’re aiming to provide more balance, especially as lawyer mental health has become a greater topic of discussion. But delivering on that promise is tricky when workload is heavy, as it has been for much of the last year-plus, and when work is billed by the hour.
“Flexibility doesn’t go with being overwhelmed with so much work,” Parker said. “So that’s tough.”
But a strong culture that embraces flexibility can mitigate that, Deborah Farone, founder of legal consulting firm Farone Advisors, said.
“I think the firms that have serious plans to integrate the partners into the fabric of the firm and are willing to spend time and effort on them are going to do well,” she said. “A strong culture and the firm being a place where people are reinforced and contributing to the firm, those things are really important when you are trying to hold on to people. They are vital.”