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What can law firms do to manage, motivate and reward their staff in order to retain top fee earners?

Guest article by Dee Caporali, director at Access*

With new legislation – namely the Legal Services Act (LSA) – changing the way in which firms operate, it is now more important than ever that law firms direct their attention towards their human capital. In particular, it will be imperative that firms do all they can to manage, motivate and reward their best talent in order to retain top fee earners.

As in most industries, the success of a business is largely dependent on its people. In January 2012 alone, in response to the LSA, there were almost 100 applications from companies to become alternative business structures. It is an important statistic to consider, especially when entrants to the market are set to increase dramatically again this year. As large commercial companies move into the legal sector, it is highly likely that these brands will begin to attract the top lawyers from existing legal firms and, as a result, there will be growing competition for the strongest candidates. Subsequently, the bid to remain competitive will remain high on the agenda for all firms.

HR and payroll technology has a key part to play in this, particularly as more firms are placing greater emphasis on HR strategy and retaining their rising stars. Equally, as more attention is focussed on issues such as career development, incentive schemes, and succession plans, these HR programmes must also be aligned to the broader business strategy. Software systems can help firms by freeing up time to spend on these matters and also providing ready access to all people information from a central resource.

For instance, HR professionals can carry out a skills gap analysis to determine the capabilities of the current talent base. They can then assess what competencies need to be recruited in and any training that may be required. One example of a skills gap might be the need to attract more customer-focused lawyers who are open to working in an agile post-LSA environment. Recruitment is, however, only half the battle. Once lawyers of the highest calibre are secured, it is vital for firms to do all they can to retain them.

The role of technology

Technology can efficiently address personal development requirements throughout an employee’s lifecycle.  Integrated HR software will become increasingly important to legal firms as it allows HR functions to manage their most important asset – their people. HR systems can provide firms with full visibility of training programmes available and identify who is participating in the courses. There is no doubt that training is an integral factor when it comes to nurturing the individuals that will become the leaders of tomorrow. To ensure long-term success, law firms have the opportunity to speed up management development programmes that can often be delayed in the legal profession. This, combined with calculated reward and recognition, will drive engagement and boost performance.

But the challenges don’t end there. Change is always difficult at the best of times, especially for law firms that only have a small workforce. As the full effect of the LSA is felt, many firms are implementing new business structures and, in order to retain talent, they need to acknowledge the impact of the changes on their HR requirements as well as their people. With this comes the need for HR departments to understand their talent base. This involves a detailed comprehension of the key factors that drive them, how they are currently being rewarded and how this compares across the industry. This includes looking at incentive packages, such as bonus schemes and healthcare plans, as well as identifying those with, for example, future leadership potential. It’s a big change that will require a very different HR strategy and again, technology helps to track this.

One example is online appraisal processes. Here the ability to have all the information on top fee earners in one place will enable firms to review and analyse the success of their top performers more easily. In addition to this, a more joined up approach will allow firms to track fee earners, measure how much business they have secured and how they have been rewarded during their career history. It is this continuity that will make for a more effective and efficient appraisal process and this is of particular importance to younger ambitious professionals who often demand the opportunity to discuss their career path. This is essential because, after all, they are a firm’s future intellectual capital and need to be nurtured to ensure their true potential is attained, married to the needs of the firm as a whole.

Success therefore largely relies on balancing the different elements that will drive the firm forward. For instance, technology will help firms to streamline their processes, and ultimately to remain – and gain – competitive advantage in the marketplace. By cutting down on general administration, greater focus can be given to the overarching HR strategy. In turn, more attention can be paid to recruitment and retention plans that support new business models and ways of working. Self-service technology, for example, means that staff can access their own details, apply for holiday and update their information on the system without additional help from the HR team. As a result, there is a reduced paper trail and less physical documentation.

Self-service technology will also enable lawyers to fill in their continuing professional development (CPD) online, allowing them to review and record their progress and see how many hours are still outstanding. Though this is not something law firms are responsible for, it is in their best interests to make it as easy as possible for their lawyers to comply with these mandatory requirements.

In this sense, technology can support both the HR function and their people in maintaining professional development skills. It helps to empower them to be more responsible for their own training and personal advancement, and ultimately a strong talent base is great for business and client retention. For this reason, engagement with staff is imperative to ensure partners and lawyers deliver outstanding results and boost revenue generation. If successful, technology can help track progress and again identify skills gaps, uncover issues and highlight opportunities.

And so the circle continues. With the right HR solution, firms can address employee engagement, monitor activities and maximise the effectiveness of their talent base with greater ease. If firms get this right, they stand to experience the ultimate benefit of these efforts – a positive impact on the bottom line.


* Dee Caporali  is a director of The Access Group’s human capital management side of the business, where she is responsible for delivering the best people solutions to organisations across the UK and Ireland. Drawing on over 14 years’ experience in the industry, Dee works with a number of the UK’s top law firms, including Hill Dickinson, Cripps Harries Hall, Boodle Hatfield and Dundas & Wilson, helping them to improve their HR operations through the use of technology and providing strategic insight into the challenges the sector is facing as a result of the changing landscape.