By Justin Whealing, Partner, Eaton Capital Partners
The law is a people’s profession, yet we often treat our own shabbily. Justin Whealing looks at how there is a strong business case for putting your people first.
The law firm environment contains many inherent contradictions.
Externally, there is political uncertainty home and abroad, nationalist sentiment is on the rise globally, Donald Trump is tweeting merrily and markets are fluctuating.
Internally, law firm competition is white hot, global law firms continue to arrive into what is a crowded market, law firm mergers are commonplace and clients continue to put pressure on rates and resources via secondment opportunities.
You would think that with such a perfect storm, law firms would batten down the hatches and look to make do with what they have got.
But the contrary is true.
Law firms are hiring, and many of them are doing so in large numbers.
What did a recent “Law Firm Partnership Survey” reveal?
At Eaton Capital Partners, in conjunction with The Australian newspaper, we have just put the finishing touches on the Law Firm Partnership Survey for January to June 2018.
Survey participants included many of the biggest global and national firms in the marketplace, as well as a number of mid-tier and boutique firms.
For the first six months of this year, 27 of the 34 law firms featured in this survey saw an increase in the number of lawyers hired below partner level compared to the last six months of 2017.
Law firms are tough. They survive through cyclical downturns, changes of government, technology and scandal.
Private practice lawyers are both in demand when the party is raging and also needed when the bottom falls out of the market. They are stoic beasts, and their structures are resilient.
From this position of structural strength, the greatest weakness within law firms is how it treats its people.
Law firms often demand a level of personal resilience that is unreasonable, and quite often make demands that stray into the unconscionable.
The high rate of depression amongst lawyers is a continuing blight on the legal profession.
In terms of looking for a good place to start to arrest this, I think the following guidelines from the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation should provide the bedrock of what a harmonious and respectful law firm should look like.
People receive feedback at work that helps them grow and develop
Supervisors are open to employee ideas for taking on new opportunities and challenges
People have opportunities to advance within their organisation
The organisation values employees’ ongoing growth and development
People have the opportunity to develop their “people skills” at work
Law firm leaders recognise that law firm culture needs to change; they are just unsure of the best way to go about it.
Putting people first is a start.
If you ask law firm leaders what the most important part of their brief is, you will be surprised by their answers.
In 2016 I surveyed 20 law firm leaders
Participants included Danny Gilbert from Gilbert + Tobin, Peter Slattery from Johnson Winter & Slattery, John Nerurker from Mills Oakley, Dunstan de Souza from Colin Biggers & Paisley and Tony O’Malley from PwC.
When I asked these law firm leaders what the most important part of their job was, 60% of respondents nominated the ‘strategic’ focus, with the next best response being the ‘people’ focus.
“Our people deliver our service to clients, so they must be at their best”, commented one managing partner.
For people to be at their best, they need to feel valued.
That starts with law firm leaders establishing clear and transparent policies with regards to promotion and remuneration.
Law firms should be a meritocracy.
It is not acceptable to deny promotions to your cohort after lawyers reach or exceed previously agreed benchmarks.
Law firms do this too regularly, trying to shift the goalposts when a successful lawyer is ahead of the game.
At a partner level, it is imperative that a partner’s remuneration is not just based on tenure, practice size, and billable hours.
Money changes everything, especially behaviours.
By linking a percentage of partner remuneration to cultural goals, such as mentorship and collaborative behaviour, you will have a happier, more productive and empowered workforce.
“Large firms depend on culture. Without it they are just a web of mutual self-interest,” said another managing partner in the 2016 Survey.
In discussions about what the law firm of the future might look like, the emphasis is too often on the use of technology.
It is people that make a law firm, and the best law firms frame policies that reward good behaviour and good performance. The definitions of ‘good performance’ also need to be clear, as do the timelines that frame policies around career progression.
Successful law firms of the future will attract the best and brightest if they feel they are being valued. They will then stick around if that law firm lives by the policies it puts down on paper.
About our Guest Blogger
Justin was formerly the editor of Lawyers Weekly for many years, where he helped position it as Australia’s premier online legal publication.
Since joining Eaton Capital Partners in 2015, Justin has played an instrumental role in the growth of the business and that of its clients.
He is one of Australia’s foremost partner search experts, having sourced partners, including managing partners, for international, national and boutique firms in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane.
He has also assisted international firms in establishing Australian practises.
Justin continues to produce numerous thought leadership pieces and compile extensive surveys, and his research is regularly featured in national publications such as the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.
Outside of work, Justin enjoys spending as much time as possible with his wife and three daughters, listening to Bob Dylan and PJ Harvey and stretching the legs where you can hear the kookaburras and not mobile phones.