People and clients are a law firm’s main assets. There is a lot written and said about how to
take care of your clients. There is much less written about how to successfully manage and inspire people at a law firm.
Larger firms have been developing clear career tracks and performance management
systems for the lawyers. Some of them have implemented partner coaching and mentoring
programs. They have hired HR teams and acquired HR system tools. Smaller firms have
followed in more recent years, but some of these firms still need to make more progress on a basic HR approach and related infrastructure.
Notwithstanding an increasing investment in the HR function at many law firms, we have not
seen a clear correlation between the increased investment in the HR function and the
attrition rates and satisfaction of the lawyers in these firms. Based on our data on European
law firms and studies in the US, there is a large variance in lawyer attrition and job
satisfaction between law firms and that variance cannot be explained based on their HR
infrastructure as such. In other words, once a basic HR approach has been implemented a
further increase of the investment in HR people and related infrastructure does not
necessarily translate in an increased level of job satisfaction or lower attrition rates of the
lawyers. In our experience it means that once you have reached a sufficiently professional
level of HR staff and infrastructure, further investments in HR staff (in terms of number of
people) or related infrastructure will no longer positively impact the jobs satisfaction and /or attrition rates.
This does not mean that one should not invest in HR tools and staff, nor that a clear career
track and/or a performance management system are not necessary in a law firm. They are
basic requirements for any law firm that wishes to professionalize itself. However these
investments will not necessarily differentiate between law firms when it comes to job
satisfaction or low attrition.
There has been much speculation as to the reasons for high attrition or low job satisfaction
at law firms. The remuneration levels have been recognized as an important factor, but not a
decisive factor. The clarity of the vision and direction of the firm have been mentioned as
having an impact, as well as the firm’s ability to execute their vision. The access to quality
training and exposure to clients has been raised. Of course all these factors play a role, but
there is another critical factor that we have identified during our more than ten years of
working with law firms in mainland Europe. This is a “meta-factor” in that it is resistant to
changing generations of people and changing (market) circumstances.
We have identified a clear relationship in law firms between, on the one hand, the
performance, job satisfaction and low attrition of the lawyers and, on the other hand, the
skills of the partners in inspiring, leading and encouraging their teams.
Law firms that have good people managers as partners perform better, assuming a
professional HR infrastructure.
It has convinced us of the relevance and importance for law firms to invest in their people
acquiring excellent people management skills. Still too often in medium sized law firms in
mainland Europe, the people management skills of the partners are ignored as long as they
run a substantial book of business. Some even argue that many partners or lawyers can
never become good people managers. While we agree that some iconic partners cannot
much improve their people management skills, we have seen that it is possible with the
overwhelming majority of partners. Partners need to understand and see the positive impact
it can have on their work and life as a lawyer. It is certainly not a reason to ignore the
importance of bringing people management skills to the young upcoming talent in law firms.
So what does this mean in practice ?
Of course mediums sized law firms need to have a good HR infrastructure in place. They
need a clear career track for their lawyers and some sort of performance management
system. They will need good professional HR staff to manage or process the administrative
part of the HR function. However that alone does not allow a firm to stand out when it comes to how they can retain and attract top talent.
We recommend law firms to take stock of the people management skills of their partners.
We encourage them to map the people management skills of each of their partners against
the key drivers of good people management at a law firm. These key drivers are broadly
universal, but can be tailored to the specificities of a law firm and its vision. In our model,
the key drivers are built around a number of core competencies such as the motivational
power of the partner, the role model dimension of the partner, her/his coaching and mentoring ability and their leadership/inspirational dimension.
Those partners with a low score against one or more of these drivers should be encouraged
and coached to work on improving these skills. The progress on these people management
skills can be a performance indicator for the partners and part of their annual review. Law
firm management can be set an objective of improving the average partner score on people
management skills. We recommend a law firm to have a communication approach supporting its efforts.
The coaching and assistance of partners in their people management skills will require an approach on an individual level, but also on a firm-wide or team level.
We also recommend to have people management skills training as an essential part of the training curriculum of any of the lawyers at the firm.
While the real difference will be realized on the ground by the partner or senior lawyer better managing her/his teams, it will also offer the HR staff an exciting role in terms of supporting their partners and lawyers effectively become people managers who take care of their people.
By doing so, the people management skills of the partners will substantially improve, the
overall law firm’s capability of managing people will increase, attrition rates will become
lower and job satisfaction will improve. As a result ,the performance of the lawyers and staff
will improve, leading to improved performance of the law firm overall. It is a necessary way
for seeing a higher return on your investments in HR and further upgrading the role and
impact of your HR staff. We call it “Smart HR”
Steven De Keyser