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AUTEUR : Steven De Keyser

DATE : 28 août 2018

HR and law firms

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.

Why ?

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
August 2018