How people leave a law firm reflects significantly on its values, so firms should never negate the benefits of effective career transition services, writes Hugh Davies.
A leader in a respected law firm recently told us: "We don't generally purchase outplacement or support services when the situation arises that someone has to leave. They usually end up with a competitor and the process of leaving is not always an amicable one". Others indicate that it is not common practice in rival law firms, so why invest in this service for partners or staff who are leaving anyway?
Some firms have told us that partnership agreements dictate separation arrangements. Others talk about low levels of goodwill when a partner leaves and takes clients (so financially investing in their departure is unlikely).
We would like to offer another perspective.
We recognise that law firms are distinct from other entities in several important ways. Law firm partnership structures and conventions based on how income is billed and attributed to key players in the firm are different to other organisations.
These differences exist, but they don't negate the benefits of effective career transition processes.
Pay and professional development are big contributors to the attraction and retention of talented people in law firms. But best practice law firms also recognise that attraction and retention also rest as much if not more upon the culture of the firm: values around how people are treated, real as opposed to espoused practices, and how relationships are developed and sustained.
Contemporary research into employee engagement demonstrates that it is the actions and practices of people - especially senior people - in an organisation which create engagement. Firms that are loyal to their staff, and engaged with their people are more likely to attract top talent and receive loyalty in return - as opposed to firms with partners who are self-absorbed, demanding and inclined to "burn" associates, senior associates and, indeed, other partners.
How people leave a firm can also turn the spotlight firmly on what values the firm lives. Those who remain in the firm, and the friends, peers and clients in contact with the individuals who leave - all of these "audiences" - observe the behaviours, practices and real values of a firm at the time people exit. The firm's reputation, its "employment brand", can be made or broken in the informal viral markets working in these audiences.
If care is taken in the purchase of career transition services - so that they actually provide valuable and lasting support to the individual and are measured against clear performance outcomes - the firm's reputation is enhanced across all audiences.
Some lawyers do find career transition challenging. Lawyers hoping to capture in-house roles, or hoping to start a boutique, or perhaps to reinvent themselves and move into corporate strategy or commercial roles, usually need extensive support and guidance. Mentoring during career transitions is of significant value in building the soft skills necessary in networking and interviewing.
Career transition services for lawyers, especially senior lawyers and partners, call for particular expertise and experience in the supplier. The costs of these services, in the totality of all other costs surrounding downsizing and restructuring, are generally minor - but their impact is significant, as illustrated by the following case study. "I tried to handle the news quickly and with compassion, John. I have given Bill two months' salary and he understands that he needs to be out of here by the end of this week. I said I would give him a good reference." This was the gist of the advice from the senior partner to the managing partner in his part of their downsizing program. "Bill should be fine..."
Well, that may be what the firm's leaders want to believe, but what actually might have happened?
Bill may well be thinking of the two-month 24-hour-a-day project for a major client he undertook recently - and wondering why he made the effort. He may be counting the cost this pressure had put on his partner and young family. Bill may also be facing up to low skills in networking and exploring alternative fields of work - another consequence of his dedication to the firm for the past five years.
Although well disguised, Bill may well be trying to reconcile deep anger and growing feelings of general uncertainty about himself and how he might create an alternative career.
Moving further afield, Bill's colleagues in the firm may be appalled at his treatment - and quietly resolving to start their own search for an alternative. And as they, in turn, are tapped for intelligence about the firm by graduates, messages about the organisation in the viral network are changed: messages are now quite damning about the firm's culture.
The big client for whom Bill had worked so hard may have begun to question the transactional nature of relationships in the firm, as evidenced by this decision and its impact on Bill.
An alternative scenario:
"Bill we've made a tough choice but we want to support you. The firm has an arrangement with a career transition service. Their people are expert in this sort of thing and can help you at every stage of the process."
Bill learns in his first meeting with his consultant that there are important issues for him to think about before he vents his anger in his first telephone call to a recruiter. The consultant probes to learn about Bill's interests and goals. Every time Bill meets with his consultant he receives expert advice on potential employers, his CV and interviewing techniques.
Bill begins to contemplate a new venture whose interests intersect with his old firm. He is able to talk over the contacts he is making with professional acquaintances and to consider the best approach. He has the opportunity to spend time discussing the kind of work he enjoys, the kind of environment that will give him energy and the things he values most in his professional life.
The self-respect that this gives him helps him to overcome any feelings of anger towards the firm and to speak well of his former employers. Professional career guidance helps people avoid bitterness and fear ... and provides evidence that the firm respects its people and truly wants them to land successfully.
Hugh Davies is the managing director of career transition and development services provider, Macfarlan Lane