Gary Jones is a Director at Totum Partners, a recruitment firm that specialises in finding and securing individuals from traditional management sectors for the important new roles emerging in the specialised area of law firm management. With a personal background in firms such as Marks and Spencer and Linklaters, Gary understands the issues associated with hires from backgrounds other than law. He spoke to Howden about the opportunities and risks he perceives to exist in recruiting out of one sector and into another one, as unique as law.
“Without a doubt the recruitment market has turned a corner. For the three years to mid 2014, there was a feeling that the volumes of jobs was flat-lining and that possibly this was the ‘new normal.’ However, since mid-2014, law firms, in conjunction with the broader economy, have moved on from survival mode and have adopted a more ambitious approach. Instead of cutting, firms have begun the process of upgrading the quality and type of staff. Whether firms are looking to move into new geographies or new sectors or modify their business model, there is a demand for good quality people from outside the world of law to fulfil roles across operations, business development and marketing; HR, general management, finance and IT. While it is not the natural evolution for all firms, hiring the right person is a huge investment. You want to secure the best and keep them.”
Of course, this growing demand means that good quality people are a rare commodity. The prolonged economic downturn, the subsequent lack of investment across the economy in training and the uncompromising demand for the best people means there is strong competition for good staff – magnified by the focus on quality. “Firms are not hiring ‘because they are busy’, they are seeking good people with very specific skills and are unwilling to compromise on what they want,” says Jones.
A key risk for law firms seeking business support staff is to understand that outsiders to the legal profession do not have exposure to or experience of, the legal industry. Working in a Partnership has very specific dynamics and very often law firms assume that their cultural dynamics are the norm. They fail to appreciate that new staff may need time and support to adjust. “In much the same way football clubs sign foreign strikers and, having not helped them settle, then wonder why these players cannot replicate their old form in new surroundings, law firms sometimes forget their distinctly intellectual environment and unique partnership model can leave new staff feeling lost and alienated.”
Law firms can do a lot to help themselves mitigate the risks of hiring and retaining new recruits. Even from the outset, when a post is first advertised, firms can often become victims of their own poor internal communication. Misunderstandings at interview are not as uncommon as you might think. Interviewers are not always clear what they are trying to achieve which can store up issues for the future. It is not unusual for interviews to be conducted by Senior Partners who have not read the candidate’s CV before they enter the room meaning there is a real possibility that the wrong person is picked for the wrong reasons or the right person is rejected for the wrong reasons. “Consistency and leadership within a firm will determine if the right decisions are made,” observes Jones. “Strength of purpose, consistency of process and clarity of vision and communication mean a much more positive result is likely… It is not unusual in poor firms for new starters to arrive to find many colleagues did not know they were being hired and consequently they run into resistance, from the outset, when they try to implement the change they have been hired to bring.”
If you can manage all this, then it is crucial to know you are hiring the right person. In recent years it has become more difficult to secure in-depth references with many companies releasing working history data only. However, pre-employment due diligence should include gathering feedback on factors such as industry reputation and pre-work history. Agencies often provide more informal arms-length checks, which law firms might find difficult to conduct – especially if they are hiring business staff from outside the legal world.
In summary there are a few things that can mitigate a calamitous recruitment process. Be absolutely clear in advance what the role is that you are hiring for, including the reporting lines, and expectations. Prepare the company for the arrival of the new hire. The stress that ambiguity of purpose and a lack of company support can bring has terminated many otherwise possibly great careers in the legal profession. It’s important that to get the right person, the law firm sells itself. The person interviewing must support the vision for and the purpose of the role. Don’t neglect the candidate post offer. If they are good, companies may try to hold on to them or offer them further opportunity in their own company. By staying in touch the candidate feels valued and is not set adrift for others to snap up.
In a business often reliant on intellectual property and intellect, good staff are the business. Done well, hiring can add a huge amount of value to the business and, on that basis alone it is worth investing time and effort in the process.
Gary Jones, Totum Partners
Gary Jones is a Director at Totum Partners, a business that focuses exclusively on the legal sector and recruits across all law firm management functions, including Marketing/Business Development, HR, IT, Finance, Project Management, Risk, Knowledge Management and General Management. Gary joined Totum (formerly known as First Counsel) on day one of its existence in 2003. He was formerly in the HR leadership team at Linklaters.
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The Howden view…
Those firms that consistently attract and retain good quality staff, at all levels and across all disciplines, typically demonstrate better risk management and better claims profiles. The reasons for this are numerous but would typically include:
- Firms that fail to retain staff often do so because systems, training and culture don’t support staff in the delivery of their objectives. This can lead to employees, particularly newer team members cutting corners and reducing fees to deliver growth. This approach is rarely sustainable and will typically have an adverse impact on risk.
- Businesses often rely on some of their most junior team members to carry out functions that are critical to risk management, for example data processing where accuracy is essential to accurate outcome. If these staff aren’t as motivated, for whatever reason as their senior counterparts, problems can very quickly emerge as can PII claims.
- The need to continuously induct and monitor the performance of new team members is often detrimental to both risk management and the performance of those team members who have a supervisory role.
- Strong staff retention should enable firms to provide a consistent level of service and should help to develop long-term relationships. Both factors can be crucial to ensuring that grumbles about service don’t escalate into notifiable matters.
- Whilst bringing in talent from outside of the legal services industry may appear to represent an enhanced risk it can also allow firms to benefit from expertise gained in other sectors. This can be vital in operational roles where the technology and processes adopted outsides of the professional services sector may be more efficient than those used within sectors that have been slower to adopt emergent technologies.