Talent approach for sustainable law firms

September 1st, 2022
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By Melusi W Kubheka

We have recently seen the global commercial ecosystem being reorganised as the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed untold destruction on trade, lives, and livelihoods. The professional services industry was not spared from this destruction, especially the legal fraternity. Two years later, the pandemic has somewhat eased up, the economy is recovering, courts are now accessible, and we are seeing some degree of return to normality.

Even as we return to what may look like the pre-pandemic operating context, many are counting the cost of human capital on the pandemic. Together with a host of other forced business considerations on revenue and capital management, legal practitioners would be wise to rethink their approach to managing people, otherwise referred to in the business context as talent management. There is a lot that goes into managing your human capital than simply processing payments at month end.

This is especially true for legal practitioners who operate practices that employ several people in administrative and professional roles. Law firms have the potential to exist and continue to be viable practices even when the founding partners are no longer around. We must often think about what will happen if the principal in a law firm, is no longer in a position to work on a permanent basis due to retirement or death or even on a temporary basis due to incapacitation.

The answer lies in effective talent management approaches, and these rarely happen by luck. Deliberate efforts to hire the right talent, invest in their development and retain them are some of the building blocks of effective talent management. It is not a process that is suitable only to big business, but it is even more relevant to small and medium sized businesses who face a real threat of extinction due to unexpected talent constraints.

A law firm is as good as the people it employs and what sets one law firm apart from another is its ability to attract talented individuals and keep them productive and motivated over time. From an employee’s perspective this requires the employer to answer the question of ‘what is in it for me?’ This concept is known as an employee value proposition. You may run a firm of three people, or 30 people and still need to consider the question of why employees would choose your firm as opposed to the one down the road. Only running a vanilla type of a firm, that just blends in with every other firm, does very little to attract talented individuals to your firm. The ‘war for talent’, a phrased popularised by the Mckinsey Consulting Firm in 2001 is just as relevant to professional services firms as to big corporate (Scott Keller ‘Attracting and retaining the right talent’ (www.mckinsey.com, accessed 3-8-2022)). The suggestion by Mckinsey is that every firm requires top talent to be successful and this cannot be attained passively. The firm must have a strategy and approach that is appealing to its intended talent pool for attraction and retention purposes. The emphasis is on the word ‘choose’ as opposed to being the only one hiring at the time. There are several differentiators that law firms may want to explore when it comes to building a unique employer brand instead of the generic approach.

Some of these initiatives may include the following:

  • The type of work the firm engages in – criminal, civil, generic, community based, good of the nation at one end and highly complex commercial litigation on the other end. This aspect also talks to the purpose of the practice. No matter the type of work or assignments, it is important that candidates are clear about what their day-to-day engagements will entail to avoid disappointment and recruitment failures.
  • The values and culture of the law firm. Is it an inclusive environment where each person is valued and given the space to contribute for instance; are results achieved at all costs or do values set the boundaries? What are the views on diversity for instance?
  • The approach to developing people, investing in continuous professional development, providing critical experiences through how work gets assigned, and designing a clear career development path aligned to individual aspirations.
  • By ensuring a competitive reward and remuneration system; ideally one that is linked to performance and contribution.
  • By developing and adhering to documented policies and procedures to create an environment of transparency and trust.
  • How are wins celebrated and how losses are remembered? Is there a punitive culture or one that fosters continuous learning from unsuccessful events, respect for individual dignity and encourage honest conversations?

The above are basics that the practice will need to think about in order to start the path to sustainability. These activities are not an end on their own, but aimed at achieving the following outcomes:

  • Happy employees equal to happy clients. Your employees become your brand ambassadors, and this not only may lead to new business, but also other talented employees may be interested in joining your firm.
  • Legal work is built on reputation, lasting relationships, and trust. Retaining your team for longer minimises the risk of losing clients as they ‘follow the trusted practitioner’ to wherever they may have gone to. Above that, the team learns to work well over time, building on each other’s strengths and augmenting developmental areas. The system takes time to optimise and realise the return on time and money invested.
  • The approach also enables you to plan for long term firm sustainability and start having quality succession conversations and plans. The plans may be about cover for critical jobs in the firm and future leadership/partnership opportunities. Development can also be linked overtime to building this succession pipeline.

The twist, however, is that the return derived from investing in talent development will only be limited by who you have recruited. This is one of those instances where the old adage rings true, ‘you cannot force a horse to run faster than it has strength’. With the right interventions, individuals will certainly improve, however, it is imperative to have a clear understanding of what the talent pool looks like. Gone are the days of simply looking at an academic record to shortlist candidate legal practitioners and then at the interview ask them a few general questions to decide on who to hire. This is a person that may be with your firm for years to come; they will interact with your clients and other colleagues, more effort must be employed to ensure that there is a comprehension of the future growth and deployment potential to be exploited.

Needless to say, the above requires expertise in talent management and lawyers are not quite specialists in this area; neither do they have time. The cost of employing a full time Talent Management Practitioner may not be justifiable in a firm that employs a handful of individuals. The use of consultants as appropriate is a cost-effective alternative that can save you money and reputational harm in the long run. At the hiring stage, for instance, psychometric assessments may need to be conducted to determine the cognitive ability, personality, and aptitude of the candidate. While these come at a cost, they are essential for ensuring that the new hire fits in with the longer-term plans of the firm. This will also be applicable when considering who to develop for future leadership positions or succession. It must always be borne in mind that technical excellence does not always equate to leadership potential. We have seen many brilliant lawyers and even salespeople fail dismally at leading others and coordinating strategic priorities that guide the firm into the future.

Taking business management courses, even online, may bolster the firm’s knowledge of talent management and so is attending conferences and seminars in this area. These are overheads and a small price to pay for ensuring sustainability of your practice. Simply ignoring the issue and hoping for the best may not be a fruitful exercise. This article does not solve the firm’s talent problems, however, it is aimed at igniting an appreciation of how legal practitioners think about talent management and how it is built into their sustainability strategy.

Melusi W Kubheka BA (UKZN) BA Hons (UNISA) LLB LDRP (Wits) is a non-practicing legal practitioner in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2022 (Sept) DR 35.

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