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How to win the war for legal talent

The executive director of the Centre for Legal Innovation discussed the key things employers could do to attract and retain top legal professionals. 

user iconJess Feyder 07 March 2023 Big Law
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“There’s always plenty of people available; what we have is a shortage of really good people, because they always have somewhere else to go,” stated Terri Mottershead, executive director for the Centre for Legal Innovation, at the recent Smokeball Spark 2023 conference. 

If you’ve got good people, “you want to be creating the sort of environment where you retain them, but you might also want to encourage them to go and come back”, Ms Mottershead highlighted. 

“We used to say, come here, and stay for life. Now we’re saying go away or get seconded but come back because you’ll bring back with you such valuable experiences for us to incorporate into our practices,” she illuminated. 


It’s a different way of imagining your workforce and also how and where they connect with you.”

Retaining people can be about taking stock of the capabilities within a firm and retraining them in a particular role that is needed, Ms Mottershead maintained. 

It’s not always bringing them from outside or getting rid of somebody; it’s thinking thoughtfully about the capabilities that you’ve got,” she stated. The good thing about that route is that they “have a huge amount of institutional knowledge already”.

Ms Mottershead outlined several key employment differentiators.

Looking at the research, the strongest determining factor of how people choose their employer is based on culture, time and time again, Ms Mottershead explained. 

Establishing a good culture is based on the actual translation of certain policies that the firm hopes to maintain, such as diversity, equity, inclusion, bullying and belonging.

“It’s about practice and not policies,” she said, “you’re not great at mental health and wellbeing because you have a policy on it. It’s where the rubber meets the road.”

“What are you actually doing on a day-to-day basis?”

“The really great people — they’ll just go and work somewhere else that has the sort of culture that they’re looking for,” she added. 

Flexibility and work/life integration is another key factor to retaining people, she highlighted.

“It’s about trust and respect,” she explained. “It’s about outputs and not hours.”

The outlook on flexibility should respect “that people have holistic lives, and they’re not separated, they are indeed integrated”.

“Not surprisingly, firms that show up on those most-loved-employer lists have adopted flexibility and work/life integration,” Ms Mottershead added.

Autonomy and engagement are two key qualities that affect an employee’s satisfaction in the workplace, she continued, “it’s about ownership and opportunity”.

“People want to be able to take ownership of something, to be able to have client contact, to be able to work on something on their own. 

“It’s not to say that they’re not supervised,” she explained, “but that they’ve got something they can claim and make a contribution to early on, and not have to wait the traditional 10-to-20-year time period”.

“If they can’t find it, then we will increasingly see those folks as we have already gone out to work on their own,” she said. “They’ll start their own practices.”

Rewards and compensation are other key factors that Ms Mottershead highlighted. 

Salaries are important, and people make decisions based on that, particularly in the early stages of their career,” she explained.

But if you’re working with high-performing individuals, what they’re also looking for is connection with you and recognition of a job well done.

“Things as simple as celebrating the end of a great matter and giving people some time off after that, giving them tickets to their favourite football team — it’s customised.”