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Rules of engagement: Effective strategies for law firms to improve employee engagement

Law firms are yet to master effective strategies to engage staff, but building relationships is a good start, reports Briana Everett.

SHIFTING GEARS: "Executives aren't getting the basics of performance right,"
Despite the elevation of employee engagement as a top strategic objective, law firms are still struggling to shift engagement levels upwards - a factor that is affecting their ability to retain staff.

"Lawyers are certainly looking to move more than ever given the stability in the Australian market," says Carlyle Perring senior consultant Belinda Fisher.

The main reasons they're proffering to move are first and foremost to progress their career and challenge themselves ... The second and third reasons are mentoring and remuneration. The three things that lawyers want are mastery, autonomy and purpose."

A 2011 Blessing White Employee Engagement Report - which surveyed nearly 11,000 individuals across North America, Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand - revealed engagement levels have increased world-wide since the global financial crisis. However, less than one third of employees are actually engaged and more are looking for new opportunities in 2011 - suggesting that the existing engagement strategies are not hitting the mark.

According to the report, managers are not doing the things that matter the most, suggesting that they focus more on their relationship building, rather than their actual skills or actions.

"Employees' knowledge of their managers as 'people' behind their title appears to impact engagement levels more than manager actions," the report states.

In addition, the report notes that executives continue to struggle in their renewed efforts to engage with their employees.

"Executives appear to struggle with key leadership behaviours correlated to engagement, yet our findings suggest executive behaviours can have a greater potential impact on engagement than manager actions," the report states. "Executives aren't getting the basics of performance right."

According to Fisher, despite increased efforts, law firms could do more to address the employee engagement and retention, particularly with respect to career progression and ownership of work.

"Employers need to show their staff that they trust them to do their job by allowing them to take ownership of their work," Fisher advises. "Thank your employees or praise them in front of their peers when they exceed expectations and see your employees as individuals - not just as part of a broader team of workers."

Fisher adds that law firm managers should help their lawyers to develop their skills for the next stage of their career - in addition to CLE.

"A lack of training can cause bright and ambitious team members to feel unfulfilled for a lack of professional challenges," she says.

"Law firms need to treat their lawyers as assets and not dispensable commodities."

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