Building loyalty: Engagement is key, but retaining top talent (and clients) can be more of a dance

  • April 01, 2014
  • Jason Scott Alexander

The Canadian legal industry has definitely seen better days. And while most senior partners have weathered their share of recessions and economic storms, the truly astute bean counter will recognize that not all gains or losses can be accounted for on a balance sheet. The legal profession is, after all, a people business: without intelligent, warm bodies in your offices, you have no business.

So as firms across the nation grapple with the bottom line, recruitment experts are warning them to not lose sight of their top talent. When cash is king, someone can always top your bid – and if a lawyer will come to your firm for the money, he or she is just as likely to jump ship for better money somewhere else. The trick is to find other things your firm can offer to attract and retain talented professionals.

Anatomy class

According to Stephen Danvers, senior HR consultant with Arlyn Recruiting in Vancouver, a firm that wants to keep its staff happy starts with a “true team environment.” Lawyers want to have a sense of belonging, be well informed, and know the direction and goals of the firm. “They’re willing to change firms for a strong coaching/mentoring culture, as well as the firm having a strong presence and reputation in the community,” says Danvers.

Law firms need to veer off the linear career path to attract and retain today’s lawyers, he says – putting everyone on the same career track does not satisfy lawyers need for individual recognition. “Lawyers want to have a real connection with the firm and feel it is the right fit for their needs and expectations,” says Danvers. Lawyers are looking for a balance between work and life – their life – and this need for customization will even override their salary demands. “Candidates are not looking for the old-school style of authoritative and directive leadership; they are shifting to firms where there is a more collaborative and inclusive style of management. Associates do want to have a voice and be heard.”

In order to attract the top talent and retain these high performers, he adds, firms must look at their internal structures and make the changes from top down to ensure future success and retention.

This approach also rings true for Ray Adlington, a managing partner with McInnes Cooper in Halifax, who tailors tailoring big-firm benefits to the individual needs of the firm’s lawyers.

“Competitive compensation remains important, but we’ve come to learn that young, talented lawyers value many aspects of the larger firm experience, including leading-edge professional development programs, client development support, and the development of expertise through interesting, compelling work teamed with leading practitioners, a wellness focus, diversity and inclusion programs, and community engagement,” says Adlington.

New face of leadership

Firm loyalty is all about a shared vision. Firms that keep top talent have succeeded in aligning the individual’s vision of his or her career with the firm’s vision of its offering to the marketplace and to its team. This is according to Carol A. Fitzwilliam, owner and founding president of Fitzwilliam Legal Recruitment in Montreal.

“Managing partners need to understand what motivates their talent,” she says, and it usually has nothing to do with money. “Getting to know each lawyer and developing a ‘plan’ for keeping that person fully engaged should be the prime occupation of managing partners,” says Fitzwilliam.

“Hiring is no longer purely a selection process. It is rather a process of two parties getting to know one another to ascertain if their respective expectations and motivations are aligned.” The best employers take the time to get to know a candidate and to ensure that the candidate clearly understands the employer’s offer.

“The best employers are able to articulate who they are, what they offer and why they think a lawyer would be well served in their environment,” says Fitzwilliam. “Sugar-coating a firm’s work environment is a recipe for disaster when recruiting talented professionals. A firm where lawyers rarely speak to one another will not be a good fit for a lawyer who believes that the firm’s social responsibility and commitment to the community is both its moral obligation and sound business development.”

To this end, Adlington maintains an open-door policy whereby he engages with lawyers at all levels regularly.

“The best advice I received was from my predecessor, Bernie Miller. He told me in our first transition meeting, ‘you have two ears and one mouth for a reason – use them in that proportion.’  I do a considerable amount of listening. I try to apply the same listening principles with our clients through face-to-face interviews and other feedback measures,” says Adlington.

Danvers adds that managing employee stress is a real hot-button issue, and that firms really need to show a commitment toward minimizing stress levels. “Remember that this is an individual, with different characteristics and needs – really get to know that person, even if it does take time away from billable hours. Act as a true leader, and it will inspire others to be true leaders,” says Danvers.

Predicting longevity

Aside from investigating previous employment history for hops, skips and jumps, there are several motivating factors that firms should look for to help determine “loyalty traits” of prospective lawyer hires.

“Initial interviews should be one-on-one between the group manager and the candidate to encourage an engaged conversation,” says Anita Lerek, president and general counsel of Advocate Placement in Toronto. The aim, she says, is for the central interaction to be between the prospective players, and for no other distractions. She also cautions that the manager must listen before making pretty speeches to hook the candidate. “First learn what is important to the candidate, in order to ascertain if he or she is suitable, and then … stack the bait.”

According to Lerek, longevity and loyalty are a function of job satisfaction on two key fronts: first, the work itself, and second, the interpersonal side. Managers should ask questions about what the candidate liked about a current or previous job. “Probe for illuminating details,” advises Lerek. “In this competitive age, talent is the organization’s crucible of survival.”

Managers must therefore head into to the interview with a clear vision of what kind of person would fit into, and would be needed by, the team – i.e. independent or team oriented, resilient, rule-bound or outgoing.

For Adlington, this comes back to the core values of lawyering. “We like to see traits that would indicate a service-oriented professional – someone with a true interest in the success of our clients’ businesses, a love of the law, a commitment to lifetime learning and respectful treatment of others.”

Lawyers in different phases of their careers are looking for different things from their firms. New calls want a place to learn and grow – and earn enough money to pay off their debts. “Intermediate lawyers are looking for balance, a team orientation, and understanding,” says Danvers. “Senior lawyers are more sophisticated in their approach, and will research a firm’s reputation, their management team, and any personalities to give evidence of how a firm might be run.” However all of these potential candidates still want a solid, reputable firm, fair compensation, a strong team, and mentorship – “if they do not connect or have a sense that they are being heard, they will be gone,” he warns.

In order to encourage loyalty and longevity, Danvers urges firms to invest in their talent with professional development and commit to ensuring strong, open communication in all layers of the practice. “In the long term this will pay off and the firm will benefit. For the most part, employees want to be recognized, paid fairly and asked, ‘in what ways the law firm could be its most successful.’ If a firm embraces open communication and honest feedback, retention and employee satisfaction will improve.”

Jason Scott Alexander is an Ottawa-based freelance writer specializing in frontier-media and technology law topics.