WITH THE legal industry in Brisbane hotting up, firms are increasingly wary of keeping junior lawyers challenged and motivated.
As Lawyers Weekly reported last week, the Queensland capital is seeing huge growth, particularly in energy and resources and infrastructure.
And as demand grows for experienced practitioners, both from national and foreign firms alike, it has never been more important to foster a strong sense of loyalty in lower level staff.
Establishing a healthy firm culture and opportunities for client and partner contact are common strategies employed to retain senior associates. But in a competitive market such as Brisbane, it is becoming more important to stand out from the crowd.
Partner Damien Clarke, head of McCullough Robertson’s business division, said strong growth and competition in the market has compelled his firm to work hard to keep its junior staff satisfied.
“We have recognised that for a little while now, and we’ve worked really hard to establish programs focusing on staff retention generally,” he said. “But in that pocket, two to three years post admission, we really have emphasised that of late.”
McCullough Robertson has introduced a loyalty program, rewarding those who stay with the firm for five years with financial incentives, additional leave, and a number of other perks.
But before that point is reached, the firm sets development plans for younger lawyers, to provide clearly defined goals to work towards.
“We really work hard, in those early days, to negotiate and organise an individual development plan for lawyers so that we understand what their expectations are, and we deliver on those expectations, dependant of course on performance,” Clarke said.
Allowing senior associates a leading role in major projects, with the support of partners, is another means of keeping them happy, along with a culture supported at all levels, Clarke said.
Firm culture is just as vital at rival McInnes Wilson. As staff partner, Patrick McGrath is responsible for monitoring the happiness of the firm’s lawyers, and he is aware of increasing disenchantment of junior lawyers who work for national firms.
McGrath said culture is so important at McInnes Wilson that those who don’t actively support it might be shown the door, regardless of their ability.
“To be blunt, if we’ve got people who don’t fit in with our culture, even if they’re fantastic performers, we would rather take a long-term view,” McGrath said.
“Even if it means some short-term pain, we know that long term, if that relationship is not going to work out, then we won’t foster that relationship.”
McGrath said McInnes Wilson has an advantage over the national firms in that its culture is not weighted down with too many layers of management. It also allows the partners to expose their younger staff to a greater level of client contact.
“We think it’s important that they develop relationships with clients, rather than the relationship being completely controlled by partners,” he said. “That way they feel some ownership with the client, and ownership with the process.”
To foster this approach to servicing clients, the firm places a heavy emphasis on relationship training.
“We do some training that is not just about being a lawyer,” he said. “There are people who are good black letter lawyers, [but] the real key, we think, is finding people who are able to build relationships.”
Minter Ellison’s human resources director, Rolf Moses, said the firm has designed a system that allows younger lawyers to transfer within its Australian offices, should they want to be involved in transactions in different states.
“Minter Ellison actively advertises vacant spots in its offices, and engages in an internal recruitment process to fill those positions,” Moses said.
This system even allows transfers to Minters’ international offices, such as Hong Kong and San Francisco, and a number from the Brisbane office have done just that in recent years.
But according to Moses, growth in the Brisbane market has seen the city become an attractive option for younger lawyers, not only due to career opportunities, but competitive salaries as well.
“The Brisbane market is seeing a closer alignment of salaries with Sydney and Melbourne, particularly at the senior associate level,” Moses said. “For more senior lawyers, the old situation where you had to drop back in salary when you moved from say, Sydney to Brisbane, is becoming a thing of the past.”