Talent development in law firms

Talent development in law firms Tony King Clifford Chance LLP 1. Introduction Law firms are knowledge businesses: the product they sell is the knowl...
Author: Rafe Johnston
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Talent development in law firms Tony King Clifford Chance LLP


Introduction Law firms are knowledge businesses: the product they sell is the knowledge and expertise of their lawyers. While law firms make significant investments in the infrastructure that enables them to deliver services to their clients (eg, premises, technology), the most important investment they can make is in their people. To achieve success, a law firm must ensure that it has the right people working together to help achieve its strategic goals. The link between a law firm’s overarching vision (and the strategy it has adopted to achieve that vision) and the recruitment, development and management of its people is covered elsewhere in this book. The lawyers working in a law firm are vital to the success of the organisation as the revenue generators, but they are not the only employees. The vast majority of law firms around the world will employ staff to perform other roles that are important to the success of the business. These can range from business managers, IT specialists and accountants to secretaries and messengers. Some firms call these groups ‘support staff’; others call them ’business services staff’. Many of these people directly facilitate the delivery of legal services and so play an important role in supporting the quality of the services that the lawyers provide to their clients. Many are highly qualified professionals from other disciplines whose skills – for example, in business management, financial management or technology management – complement those of the lawyers working in the firm. It is therefore just as important to consider this group when looking at talent management in law firms; this chapter examines the development of both lawyers and support staff. The chapter describes the steps in a typical talent management structure, starting with determining the skills that the organisation needs from its staff and then looking at ways of developing and managing people in line with those identified skills. The chapter looks at talent management generally, without focusing on a particular kind of firm.


Managing whose talent? It is understandable that many law firms will put the bulk of their talent management investment into the careers of the lawyers who work for the firm (at all levels). These are the revenue generators and so investment in their development is likely to produce the biggest returns. However, in many firms, talented and capable as the lawyers are, they do rely on


Talent development in law firms

other professionals to support them. These may be highly qualified professionals such as accountants or expert support staff such as secretaries. The firms could not function efficiently without these support staff and so they have to be included in each firm’s people strategy. Not so long ago, many firms provided limited training to their support staff. However, as partners increasingly see the benefits of having highly professional staff to help them run their businesses, the trend is towards investing in the development of this group within the workforce. The detailed development offered to support staff may justifiably be different from that offered to the lawyers. For example, a secretary may need to be taught about an IT package or an internal administrative procedure to perform some task which is not cost effective for a lawyer to perform. However, many support staff working in law firms are just as much a part of the fee-earning teams as the lawyers; they just perform different tasks. For example, the administrative support that a secretary provides to a lawyer working on a significant case can be a key element in the delivery of quality service. Therefore, there will be circumstances when the practical training of lawyers and support staff can usefully overlap. This may be particularly evident for secretaries working directly with lawyers, but may be less obvious where support staff provide ‘back room’ services (eg, the accounts function). However, training can be used to encourage all employees to see themselves as part of one team, with a common goal of delivering on the firm’s vision. Even in the best-run firms that recognise this ‘one team’ concept, it is sometimes said that lawyers have careers, while support staff have jobs. Is this true and how can it be managed? The nature of law firms is such that there is a clear career path for the lawyers who work in them – graduate recruit, associate and partner (whatever titles and intervening stages may exist in particular firms). At the risk of over-simplification, there is a broadly similar career path for most support staff roles in law firms, in that the individual may start as a junior team member and progress to a more senior, usually managerial level. The issue of whether support staff have ‘jobs’ rather than ‘careers’ is not, therefore, whether the path for their particular role (or indeed their personal aspirations) is progressive. Rather, it is whether there are opportunities for progression within the law firm in which they currently work. The reality for many support staff is that while there may be opportunities for progression, these can be limited. Therefore, their career path may mean that they progress by taking more senior roles in a number of different organisations, rather than progressing to a senior level in the same organisation. The extent to which support staff will move in this way will vary from firm to firm and from role to role. However, the issue for the firm where movement is the route to progression is how to treat the support staff in that category. One argument may be to provide them with sufficient training to enable them to perform their current role effectively, without any regard to whether this will enable them to seek a more senior role elsewhere. That might make business sense, in that the firm will get no return on its investment in helping the individual progress to a higher-level


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role with another organisation. However, it overlooks the fact that the development may enable the individual to perform his current role more efficiently and perhaps to take on a wider range of tasks, to the benefit of the firm’s business. Furthermore, a firm that is known to provide good developmental opportunities will be attractive in the market, so the quality of applicants for open positions should be higher. Firms can make a virtue out of the necessity of dealing with the departure of support staff seeking career progression by benefiting from the different past experience of new recruits in fluid recruitment markets. A recruit who has worked in several organisations (perhaps in different sectors) may be able to bring valuable new ideas and approaches to the firm. 3.

Steps in a talent management structure


Competency framework Competency frameworks have been in place in large corporates for many years. They give clarity regarding the expectations of the employing organisation. Increasingly, law firms have created competency frameworks that underpin all of their talent management processes. Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider the definition of a ‘competency framework’. It is a description of the knowledge, skills, behaviours and attributes which an organisation needs its workforce to possess in order to meet its business needs. Once identified, it supports all the stages in the talent management process, from recruitment through development and progression to departure. Many consultants around the world can advise on identifying a competency framework suitable for an individual firm. The purpose of this section is to give some guidance on how partners can develop either their own competency framework, or a clear idea of what is required should they seek external advice. It also highlights the challenges involved and the barriers to introducing these frameworks. What does a competency framework look like? In many larger organisations, the framework will be a matrix made up of the headline knowledge, skills, behaviours and attributes (or ‘competencies’) that their workforces need to possess, broken down into ‘seniority levels’. From that generic framework, the organisation can identify the relative importance of particular competencies for a specific role. For smaller organisations, it need not be so complicated and the framework can be identified by reference to the particular role being considered. For example, if a firm is looking to recruit a secretary, the core tasks may be to type at a certain speed and to have knowledge of a particular word processing package. However, are these all of the tasks which the secretary will have to perform? Will the secretary work for one person or many? If the latter, the ability to prioritise may be important. Will a secretary simply type, or does the role involve some liaison activities inside or outside the firm (in which case, communication and interpersonal skills may be needed)? Will a secretary work alone or, if the intention is to work in a team, what is the secretary’s role within that team (team-working skills may be needed)? Is the role fixed or is the expectation that the holder will take on additional tasks as his experience grows?


Talent development in law firms

The same thinking can apply to a lawyer’s role. The core activities of the role may be obvious, but further analysis may reveal more nuances in what is required to function effectively. For example, if a two-partner firm wants to recruit its first associate, the partners may decide that they want someone with a certain level of academic achievement and the ability to do research to support the work of the partners. Is research the only task (in which case, perhaps a research assistant may be appropriate)? Will the associate work for one partner exclusively or for both (in which case, again prioritisation skills may be needed)? Will the associate work exclusively on the partners’ files or will he be given his own caseload? Are there different expectations of the associate after working for the firm for one, two, five or more years? The answers to these kinds of questions for differing roles can produce a variety of outcomes as to what is required. If the analysis is done effectively, it can maximise the chances of success for the recruitment process. It will also give the partners clear sight of any skills gaps that emerge during the recruitment process which need to be filled if the jobholder is to perform effectively. Looking at individual roles can achieve a highly targeted framework (with all its associated benefits of transparency), but can be time consuming to develop. This can be a significant barrier. However, opting for generic descriptions rather than very detailed ones can mitigate such difficulties. Therefore, this section now describes possible competency frameworks for lawyers and support staff. Starting with lawyers, the first step in determining a competency framework is to recognise that to be an effective lawyer, the individual needs both excellent legal knowledge and skills and a wide range of personal, interpersonal and managerial business skills. What can be covered in these two categories? Looking first at the legal-technical skills of lawyers, firms have a choice: they can opt either for a comprehensive listing of all skills and knowledge that the lawyer needs to perform his role effectively or for a more generic list of knowledge and skills. The former has the attraction of clarity, but the disadvantage of being time consuming to develop and keep up to date as circumstances change. The latter has the disadvantage of lack of precision, but if the analysis is effective, it will be recognisable to the lawyers of the firm and so be helpful. The trend is towards a more generic approach. It is not possible to illustrate the former approach in any detail here, but it would cover all of the law relevant to the lawyer’s role, as well as all of the relevant practice. The latter approach is easier to illustrate. One possible list of headline descriptions could be: • identification of legal issues; • knowledge of the law; • application of the law to the issues; and • drafting. How is ‘knowledge of the law’ in this generic approach different from the comprehensive listing? It is a matter of either keeping the description at a headline


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level (so giving the partners freedom to decide on the knowledge required) or spelling it out in detail. The end result should be the same (in that it is clear what knowledge the lawyer needs to perform his role), but the competency is easier to describe and requires less maintenance to reflect changing circumstances. While the trend may be towards ‘less is more’, the challenge lies in giving enough detail for the competencies described to be clear to both sides. The second element of a competency framework is the business skills. These will be the non-legal skills and behaviours that the lawyer needs to perform his role. An illustrative list could be: • commercial insight; • client awareness; • business management; • ethical behaviour, • team leadership and people management; • relationship building and networking; and • communication skills. Again, individual firms will identify the business skills that their own lawyers need to deliver on business objectives, but the key is to identify objective skills and attributes, rather than subjective characteristics. The former ensures that the firm’s workforce has the right mix of skills to support its vision and should avoid unnecessary prescription in the ‘type’ of employee. The risk with a more subjective list of requirements is that the firm may have a workforce that has significant strengths in some areas, but is relatively weak in others, so that the firm lacks the breadth of skill needed to support its business. For example, requiring all recruits to have gained masters degrees in a particular area of law may make perfect sense when that area of law is producing a lot of work. However, this requirement may be less helpful if that work dries up or cannot be done profitability. This is not removing a requirement for a high level of legal knowledge or skills. Rather, it is suggesting it can be phrased by reference to, for example, the ability to analyse problems, research issues, produce effective solutions to the client’s problems, negotiate and communicate effectively. While much of the competency framework will address the personal and interpersonal skills that the firm wants its people to develop, it can also cover the development of business management skills. An organisation depends on its people working together to deliver its strategy. One aspect of this is understanding the organisation’s business drivers (perhaps particularly the financial drivers). Therefore, ‘business management’ (as included in the list above) can cover law firm economics, methods to improve efficiency in delivering service, contributions to know-how and so on. By emphasising these business management issues, the firm can ensure that the entire workforce contributes to its success. Building these messages into the developmental steps followed by the firm’s staff can be more effective than merely explaining the business drivers, as it ensures that employees behave in a way which supports the firm’s strategy. The next stage in determining a competency framework is to decide how much


Talent development in law firms

detail the framework should contain underneath the broad headings, however many of those there may be. A legal competency framework should recognise the fact that all lawyers develop their knowledge and skills over time. Lawyers will (and should) devote considerable time and energy in the early years of their careers to gaining the core legal knowledge of their chosen area of specialisation. Thereafter, they will spend the rest of their careers refining and developing this knowledge, adjusting to changed circumstances, as appropriate. In contrast, lawyers will develop their pre-existing business skills (eg, the ability to communicate) in the context of a legal practice. As they become more senior, they may need to master a wider range of business skills, such as financial management, client development or people management. Bearing this progression in mind, many competency frameworks will reflect such transitions through defining particular skills by reference to what may realistically be expected of the lawyer at a particular stage in his career. By way of illustration, a newly qualified lawyer may use his communication skills to write straightforward letters of advice or to brief the partner for whom he works on the outcomes of a research task. In contrast, a more senior lawyer may need to make a pitch to win work or to dissuade a client from a particular course of action because of some legal requirement. How many gradations the competency framework needs will depend on the circumstances within the firm, but at least four levels are required – junior associate, middle-level associate, senior associate and partner. Further to the last point, a competency framework can be used to support the talent management processes of all lawyers of the firm, both associates and partners. Clearly, for a firm-wide competency framework to have any real impact, it needs to be communicated to and understood by everyone in the firm. The firm needs to be transparent about the content of the framework and the support available to help its people develop in line with the framework. Including partners in the framework has the advantage of making it plain to associates what is expected of them if they are to progress to partner level and obviously can support the talent management processes which a firm uses for its partners. Looking at a competency framework for partners, a single level for all partners may work in many firms, but the role of a partner can and perhaps should develop over time: • A newly appointed partner will need to establish or further develop his practice and build his reputation in his particular market. • An established partner may have developed a strong practice with a good flow of work and it may be in the firm’s best business interests for him to continue in this mode for the next one or two decades. However, it may also be beneficial to the firm if that partner develops broader and/or deeper relationships with key clients, brings on associates into the partnership, helps newly appointed partners to develop their practices and so on. • A management partner will be involved in the management of some part of the firm and so perform important tasks that are distinct from his legal


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