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The laws of partner attraction

The laws of partner attraction

Globalisation, a shrinking talent pool and a shifting workforce mean firms can no longer afford to utilise their existing strategies for attracting and retaining the best senior talent. Briana…

Globalisation, a shrinking talent pool and a shifting workforce mean firms can no longer afford to utilise their existing strategies for attracting and retaining the best senior talent. Briana Everett reports

At the recent World Masters of Law Firm Management seminar it was revealed that today, the average organisation turns over a quarter of its employees every year, the average university leaver will have up to fourteen different jobs by the time they're 38, and one in four workers are working for a company that they have been employed at for less than one year.

And in a world driven by technology and globalisation, employees are moving around more than ever imposing huge implications on the nature of work and the structure of organisations.

For the seminar's audience - who included some of the legal profession's most senior leaders - the above stats provided a startling look into the emerging talent challenges they may soon have to tackle.

"Firms and organisations that are looking to push the same attraction and retention strategies [as the past] will fail because the issues are more complex," says lead partner of Deloitte's NSW human capital consulting practice, Nicky Wakefield. "There's no doubt that we need to pull out all stops in order to attract talent and in order to retain talent."

The forces of globalisation, technology and the shrinking talent pool are reshaping the legal profession, according to executive chairman of Johnson Executive Search John Colvin, and firms need to place the attraction and retention of talent at the top of their agenda.

"We're witnessing a labour market now in a world where people move around far more than they used to, so the issue of making sure you're really tuned-in to what people are looking for in an employer is far more important today than it has ever been," Colvin says. "The acquisition and retention of talent is now the most important issue facing boards across the market. All of a sudden this soft and cuddly area has now got centre stage."

The push factors

If law firms are to have any success in tackling the increasingly challenging issue of talent acquisition and retention, they must examine the reasons why partners leave firms.

Based on insight gained through 25 years of consulting experience and as chief executive officer of major professional services firms - including the then named Blake Dawson Waldron - Colvin says in the majority of cases people experience a "push factor" before ever considering making a move.

"People who are by and large happy where they are, are extraordinarily difficult to shift even if the alternative is demonstrably better in terms of brand or the amount of money," he says. There are a number of different reasons why partners consider moving, according to Colvin, but it's usually the combination of multiple factors that will provide the catalyst for somebody to wake up one day and decide that they have no other choice but to leave.

"In a large number of cases people have mentally decided to leave their firm before thinking about alternative options. By that stage it is too late to stop them," he says. What really pushes partners to leave, according to Colvin, is a lack of vision within the firm; poor management; broken promises and inconsistent behaviour; a negative culture and a lack of flexibility.

"People want to be part of a firm that's going somewhere, where there's a coherent strategy in place that's real and is being acted on to actually make that vision come alive," Colvin explains. He says partners become concerned when there is no real analysis being undertaken on the forces impacting the firm today and tomorrow, and when no strategies are in place to deal with those issues.

Not surprisingly, culture is one of the biggest issues affecting partners today. Colvin emphasises the need for a true partnership culture in law firms which provides partners with opportunities to discuss current issues and to feel they have some input into what's happening in the firm. He warns that if leaders are not living the values that have been agreed to, then a culture of cynicism will develop. "The cultural glue needs to be built. It doesn't happen by itself."

The pull factors

To attract the best senior talent, Colvin and Wakefield emphasise the importance of building an authentic value proposition.

"It is important that a firm be very clear about its value proposition," Wakefield advises. "We need to get a little bit more real about what we're actually about and the value that we can bring to the people that are within the firm, as opposed to trying to sell them something [and for them to realise] they're not getting it and then walk out the door."

While firms must develop an ambitious vision and strategy that is realistic, Colvin says firms must also maintain a genuine partnership. "As law firms get bigger and bigger, they become less and less like a partnership. People don't like that. People are looking for a place where they feel they have real ownership in an organisation," he says.

Being part of an international network is another aspect that Colvin has seen increase in importance for partners. With the arrival of international firms such as Allen & Overy, he says there is a lot more discussion amongst senior talent about being part of a global set-up.

But while being a part of a successful business and an international network might provide some top selling points for senior talent, Colvin says that ensuring staff satisfaction still has a lot to do with the firm's client base, the depth of work that is available to each partner and the opportunities for career progression.

Keeping them happy

The key to keeping senior staff happy and preventing them from looking elsewhere is to develop a strong, shared vision and collegiate environment within the organisation, according to Colvin.

"It's all about creating an environment where people genuinely want to come to work and connect with their colleagues," he says.

Colvin says in many situations no amount of money will get a person to move if they're happy.

"It's very commonplace for people to knock back a 50 per cent increase in their income, so long as they really enjoy the colleagues they work with and they enjoy the environment and culture."

To build such an environment, Colvin says there must be a strong and healthy culture and staff must be treated with respect - in particular by the leaders of the business and the way in which they handle issues and people in day-to-day situations.

Fair reward for fair effort is another important issue identified by Colvin, but he warns that some firms get too consumed with working out who gets what share of the pie.

Rewarding employees is vital but the firm also needs to be a well managed business and this is particularly important for partners.

"People want to be a part of a success story," Colvin says. "The leaders of the business need to make sure that somebody with the skills is appointed to run a successful business."

Another key driver which ensures partners are happy and fulfilled in their current position, according to Colvin, is that they are given the opportunity to focus on practice areas that have the greatest potential for quality work. "Sometimes, that means you've got to change people's practice areas mid-stream," he suggests. "Refreshing them by readapting them in a different direction is often the answer to refresh someone's career rather than forcing them to press on with what they've been doing for 10 or 15 years."

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