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Misguided expectations

While many lawyers opt to stay put amid the current economic uncertainty, employee retention remains a key issue for Australian law firms in 2012. Briana Everett reports

While many lawyers opt to stay put amid the current economic uncertainty, employee retention remains a key issue for Australian law firms in 2012. Briana Everett reports

The issue of employee retention in the legal sector, and how to improve it, seems to resurface every year.

While more and more law firms appoint engagement and retention experts and implement newfangled policies in an effort to hold on to their prized staff, lawyers – and in particular young lawyers – are still leaving firms and the profession in droves.

The increasing presence of global players in the Australian market, poor management skills amongst senior staff, a toxic firm culture and a lack of workplace flexibility are just some of the many issues continually earmarked as key reasons for poor retention rates in the legal profession.

“There are a number of reasons why lawyers leave firms. Often it might be to do with what they perceive as a lack of training and opportunity to develop their careers,” says Lisa Gazis, the managing director of Mahlab Recruitment (NSW).

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“For some lawyers, they leave because they don’t feel there’s necessarily the flexibility in the workplace that they’re looking for, or they don’t feel there are enough policies in place to encourage their development into leadership roles … and salary tends to be an issue, particularly that notion of being recognised for what you do in a climate where perhaps they’re expected to work harder and produce a lot more.”

Lisa Donohoe, the principal consultant of HR Fundamentals, notes the increased competition for talent in the legal industry in 2012 and the impact the arrival of global firms will potentially have on a firm’s ability to retain staff.

“There has been a lot of movement in the law firm market and obviously a lot of media surrounding the overseas players that have come into our market. That’s going to be really attractive to some people,” says Donohoe.

“There are also increasing options [for lawyers]. A law degree is increasingly seen as a general business degree as well now, and you may do your law degree with no intention of being a lawyer long term, but to move into business. I think there are increasing options for lawyers in terms of career paths outside of private practice or in-house.”

Why do lawyers really leave?

Although issues such as a lack of training or workplace flexibility are no doubt contributing factors to the poor retention rates of firms, some suggest a greater, underlying problem: the unrealistic and mismatched expectations of what life as a lawyer is really like – an issue which no internal retention policy, and no amount of fruit baskets, biscuit jars or office espresso machines, can remedy.

“We’re seeing a greater focus on retention policies … It’s a focus the firms are having at the moment and they’re making a real point of it,” says Gazis. “However, it’s not so much whether firms have the policies [in place], but whether they can deliver what they promote.”

In many cases, the image promoted by Australian firms is very different to the reality faced by its lawyers once inside. This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and the departure of lawyers from their firm or the profession altogether.

“I think that one of the primary causes of unhappiness and therefore turnover is the disconnection between what a firm says about itself – in particular, what it says about how it treats its own employees – and reality,” says Michael Bradley, the managing partner of Marque Lawyers.

Lisa Gazis, managing director, Mahlab Recruitment

“The bigger that gap, the more they’re setting themselves up for disaster. And that’s endemic. There is a lot of aspirational rubbish being spoken and that’s just creating expectations that cannot be met,” he says, adding that firms should “try being honest for a change”.

Holding nothing back, Bradley says it is now harder than ever for law firms to retain staff because “it has become an even more hideous place to work” and things are only going to get worse.

Added to this, he says, is the generational shift in people’s attitudes to work and their willingness to move around, away from sub-standard rewards “in every sense, not just financial”.

The declining willingness amongst lawyers to deal with the “reality” of working in a law firm – which in most cases involves the use of timesheets – is another contributing factor to the industry’s poor rate of retention, according to David Vilensky, the managing director of Perth-based Bowen Buchbinder Vilensky Lawyers (BBV).

Vilensky, whose firm will have phased out the billable hour by 30 June this year, says there is a “much more relaxed atmosphere within the firm” since the move to value-based pricing.

“I absolutely believe that firms which move to an alternative billing model, like us, are going to find it easier to retain talent,” he says.

Noting the mismatched expectations between what Gen Y and Gen X lawyers expect out of their career, and the reality of working in some of Australia’s larger firms, Vilensky labels the process of hourly billing and timesheets as “the worst form of micromanagement” and one of the key reasons why law firms struggle to retain their staff.

But while the negative impact of timesheets has been well-documented, Dononhoe says the issue of time billing is not something that has arisen during the exit interviews she conducts.

“I run a lot of focus groups with firms around various push and pull factors. [Timesheets] have never come up,” she says.

While Bradley agrees time billing is “not a contributor to happiness”, he questions the extent to which timesheets drive lawyers away from firms given the lack of alternative on offer, except for the few firms, such as his own and BBV, which have made the move away from the billable hour.

However, Vilensky is adamant that timesheets are causing lawyers to go elsewhere.

“What’s driving young, talented, smart people away is the relentless billable hour cycle. They just can’t manage it. They hate it and think, ‘This is not what I signed up for. This isn’t what I went to law school for,” he says, adding that since the switch to an alternative billing model, his firm has received a lot of interest from lawyers wanting to make a move.



David Vilensky, managing director, BBV

“Your whole life is broken down into six-minute units. It’s very demeaning and if you are new at this game … after a couple of years, you get tired of it. It’s not what [young lawyers] want. It’s an extreme form of micromanagement. It’s what they don’t want and they leave.”

Lawyers are individuals

Aside from time-billing and the inherent culture problems faced by firms, a common mistake they make in their efforts to improve retention is to treat all their lawyers the same.

“Not everyone is going to be motivated or want the same things,” says Donohoe. “You have to tailor [strategies] to the individual and also to the people you want to keep.”

According to Bradley, Australian firms place too much emphasis on measuring retention rates, and by adopting a policy-based approach to retention, firms are “avoiding the issue”.

“I think firms are just spinning their wheels. It’s the same as the debate about mental health and the debate about women in the profession; as long as people continue to adopt a policy-based response then they’re just avoiding the issue,” he says. “What should be focused on [is] each individual case. If there’s something you can learn from someone’s departure, then that’s really worthwhile.”

He adds that one of the biggest challenges to retaining staff in the legal industry is its bureaucratic nature and the “intense corporatisation of the practise of law”.

“It’s treating staff and particularly lawyers as if they’re all the same … The [profession] ignores individuality and in fact, it militates against it, so it’s not a recipe for engagement in the workplace,” he says.

“We treat our employees like human beings, with individual aspirations.”

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