Recruiting & Retaining Top Talent in Today’s Legal Marketplace

  • August 13, 2014
  • Sean Dunnigan

1. Introduction

As long ago as the early 1990s, leading trading associations in the United States began warning their members of impending shortages in the labour force. Employers were exhorted to focus on labour training, development and recruitment to address the ever-shrinking pools of skilled industry employees. Similar warnings were made to the legal community but, right up until the year 2000, most well established firms took for granted that they had access to any of the top people they wanted and that talent pools would continue to deepen. Just having a name, law firms reasoned, made them marketable—any " name" firm felt it was able to choose from well-stocked pools of qualified candidates.

2. The Shrinking Talent Pools

To the extent any of that was true, the legal recruitment landscape has changed dramatically over the pastthree years. The oceans of skilled lawyers firms used to fish for talent have now become small ponds. Those ponds are continuing to shrink. They are shrinking for reasons we intuitively know are sometimes helpless to control.

First, the baby boom is over. There are simply fewer bodies around. Second, globalization is chewing up the marketplace—many of our best candidates are being snapped up by London, New York, Hong Kong and until a couple of years ago, the Silicone Valley. Many of those places have slowed down of late, but we have no system in place to retrieve candidates once they are lost to the international marketplace.

Third, gender factors enter the process. 50% of graduates from law school today are female. As recruiters, we see it as an established fact that women are leaving the profession sooner, whether going in-house, to non-traditional organizations or taking a temporary or permanent leave to have children. This fact alone accounts for a 25-50% reduction in the size of candidate pools.

There are other reasons whywe are having to fish in small ponds today. One key observation is that law firms have not been good at either anticipating or responding to this very important talent market trend.

3. Shifting Recruitment Strategies to Attract the Best

As recruiters, we have been observing the effect of this shift every day for the pastthree years. Indeed, until about the year 2000, we used to provide service to law firms in much the same way we did for the placement of in-house counsel in corporations—we would be retained by a firm, go to market, develop a pool, participate in the interview process and identify candidates from the interview pool, help the firm narrow it down toone ortwo candidatesand, sure enough, the law firm would soon have a new lawyer on board.

While recruiters continue to do all of that, because the pool of skilled lawyers has dried up tremendously since the 1980s and 1990s, we also spend a very large amount of time as beauty consultants to the firms. When candidates approach us, especially those in the top 20% of the talent pool, they want to know which firm is the best for them, which will make the greatest difference in their career, and which offers them the greatest opportunity for success.

They measure those factors in ways that are both expected and sometimes surprising. For candidates, the problem lies notin finding opportunities but in narrowing down those opportunities to the one that can offer them the best career management path:

  • Does the firm have good work?
  • Does it have fair compensation?
  • Do they have an effective orientation/mentor program?
  • Are they sensitive to people issues?
  • Am I going to flourish as a lawyer there?

In short, the market has shifted from the selection model to the attraction model. This is a fundamental change that both law firms and the recruiting business must take on board.

Attracting the best lawyers—that’s the name of the game now.A law firm has to be attractive to assure its competitive edge, its financial leverage, its internal succession and its desirability to the kind of candidates who will ensure the firm’s future success.

Another fact of life that firms have been slow to accept is that loyalty of associates and partners to the mother ship is waning. Fundamental changes are occurring in the associate/partner/firm relationship dynamic. The onslaught of firms merging, downsizing and changing directions has caused many lawyers to view their firms with some skepticism. Particularly at the associate level, loyalty is short-lived. Many associates today do not expect to be with the same firm after a few years. In today’s modern legal talent market, loyalty to law firms is being redefined.

4. A Plan to Get the Best Lawyers Available

What can law firms do to ensure they have the best access to top pools of talent? The answer to this question is integrally tied to the second variable of the employment equation—lawyer retention (i.e.: keeping those stars who will guarantee a flourishing firm in the future). But first let me make two suggestions on what a firm might do to access the cream of the crop:

  1. Professionalize your recruiting processes;
  2. Become an employer of choice in your market.

Professionalizing your recruiting processes means being more strategic in handling your recruiting. In short, recruit smarter. Don’t identify theone ortwo people you need now—identify the needs of the firm over the nextfive years. That way you won’t simply be reacting to the marketplace, you will be planning to ensure a constant flow of good people. Planning is critical, because the cost of recruiting the wrong people, or failing to recruit people at all, is too high in today’s marketplace.

5. Tools in the Professional Recruitment Process

There are any number of tools to professionalize your recruitment process—brochures, Web sites, a focused recruitment team or a formal employee referral program (an active, reward-based referral system whereby members of the firm get a significant sum, say $5 to $10,000, if they recruit a lawyer who proves to be a good fit).

Involving your employees in the recruitment process is one of the single best strategies to fill the firm with the top of the available talent pools. The people you have are already a good fit and believe in your firm. They can recommend excellent candidates to your firm and will stake their professional reputations on those candidates being a good “fit” in the organization. Firms that fail to use their existing lawyers to recruit new talent are overlooking one of their most successful recruiting tools.

In the United States, law firms use these referral programs aggressively, because they work. The lawyers in your office want to refer people they like, people they think will succeed and people they think will make them look good.

That is just one example of a tool to professionalize your recruiting system. There are many others, including:

  • encourage firm members to actively participate in practice-specific professional associations and conferences where they are likely to meet candidates you may successfully woo;
  • use firm and professional association Web sites to post positions available at your firm;
  • maintain a visible presence at conferences and association events frequented by top performers;
  • network and develop relationships with university placement offices and professional recruiters, ensuring they understand who would be a good fit in your firm and who would help you fulfil your firm's strategic plan;
  • develop a consistent message about your firm and spread that message through advertising and marketing programs targetted at potential firm members.

6. Getting a Leg Up on the Competition

Your firm should consider getting some advice from a management or recruitment consultant to design a specific plan that fits your firm, that delivers a consistent message to the marketplace and that will ensure a constant flow of good people.

One of the key reasons for seeking the advice of a professional in how to handle your firm’s recruiting process is embodied by the axiom “ask right to hire right”. Firms spend a great a deal of time trying to assess the qualities, talents and skills of potential candidates. They do so without any formal process or consistency and often find the task of identifying top talent akin to predicting the future through the reading of entrails. A professional can best advise on steps to define the qualities, characteristics and aptitudes and core competencies necessary for a lawyer to be successful in your firm.

It is important to remember that not every top candidate is a fit at every firm. Culture, style, demographics, work-flow systems, client bases, mentoring and training processes all make a difference in identifying which top star would likely come to and stay with your firm. For example, if your firm culture expects its lawyers to handle deals on their own, to develop work without senior supervision (in short, to "sink or swim"), only a candidate with significant independence, confidence, entrepreneurial instincts and higher-level skills will flourish in such an environment.

In a professional recruitment process, the firm is assisted with professional interview skills which seek to identify the characteristics suited to and sought by the firm. The ability to determine who will or who won't be a good fit for your shop is fundamental to getting and keeping the top performers in the legal market.

7. Most Stars are Already Aligned

Another key consideration for your firm is the fact that the top of all talent pools are already employed somewhere else. It is only in the rarest of instances that we are approached by a superstar who is not already working in a law firm or corporation.

If you want to test this assertion, try placing an ad in the Globe & Mail or National Post for the type of lawyer you seek and see what you get in response. Odds are the replying candidates will all be inappropriate to your firm. Many will be unemployed and simply looking for a place to land. Others will oversell themselves as marquis players with burgeoning practices. Still others will claim to be perfect cultural fits with top level skills and a pocketful of loyal, lucrative clients. Subsequent interviews often put the lie to such claims and can be deflating, expensive and frustrating experiences for your firm. In the worse scenario, a firm doesn't learn the truth until it has suffered through a year of candidate underperformance, overpay and intra-office angst. Hiring the wrong person is not only expensive, it saps the morale of your best people and misdirects the very important strategic energy of the firm.

To be sure, firms have had some very happy successes in catching superstars who have become leaders in their firms. Indeed, the most successful law firms have a host of talented people contributing at top levels year in, year out. But the chance of coming across a superstar at just the right time, persuading them to join your firm and being lucky to find they are a good fit professionally and personally is nothing if not serendipitous. Knowing who might be favourably inclined to move and when and how to approach those superstars is one of the best ways a professional recruiting process can deliver value to your firm. Abandoning serendipity in favour of a focused, strategic recruitment plan will immeasurably increase your firm’s chances of landing and keeping the best. It will also relieve the cost, frustration, inertia and disappoinment of fruitless efforts and, worse still, wrong hires.

8. Becoming an Employer of Choice

Many law firmsthat believe they are “employers of choice” and believe they lead their local market in attractiveness to legal talent pools would be surprised to learn that they are deluded as to their actual reputation on the street. Becoming an employer of choice entails gaining a clear understanding of exactly what the top lawyers in the talent pools are seeking and then providing the platform through which they can maximize their professional fulfilment. Assessing those needs and determining how your firm is best positioned to respond to them is a critical part of the recruitment and retention challenge. Law firms should be looking at their employee practices for retention, reward, recognition, motivation, accountability, flexibility in work/life balance, promotion and involvement.

A law firm is an employer of choice when its lawyers believe they are working at a great firm and tell people as much. The top members of today’s talent pools do their due diligence on firms—they ask the lawyers employed at the firm what it’s like to work there (indeed, like clients, superstars will believe a given firm’s lawyers much more readily than they will buy into the hype offered by the firm brochures and Web sites). They alsoask trusted friends and advisors (including professional recruiters) what the reputation of the firm is and the chances it will deliver exceptional career opportunities. They ask the hard questions about what kind of work platform the firm offers and how will they be treated in the professional environment.

How do you know if you are an employer of choice? Well, if your firm appears in the “best” lists of legal publications such as Martindale & Hubble or Lexpert, if it has positive name recognition in the legal community, if talent competitors don’t choose other firms, if professional recruiters speak positively of your firm and list you among the top employers, if former employees would and do return, if firm members send the “same” message on why the firm is a great place to work, if there is a low turn-over rate of top performers, then your firm is an employer of choice.

In our experience, employers of choice have the most effective lawyer recruiting and retention programs. Those programs all havethree key components contributing to their success:

  • the firms appreciate employees financially;
  • each strives to create a better than usual working environment; and
  • each of these firms identifies what their lawyers want and, if it doesn’t work out, why they leave.

9. What Do These Lawyers Want?

People can work for a variety of reasons—personal challenge, professional fulfilment, contributing to society with others, pursuing personal passions related to meaningful work, a love of clients, desire to serve the community, a chance for interaction with like-minded professionals, or team-work and esprit de corps. But most, including all of these people, work for one reason—money. Whatever form this money takes, whether salary, draw, bonus, profit share, dividend, or benefits, it lets them live their lives and eventually retire. Fair compensation and benefits are first and critical components of a successful recruiting and retention program. Only once this first level of Mazlo's hierarchy of needs is met cana firm focus on issues of motivation and development of its lawyers.

10. Money Changes Everything

It is important to point out that fair compensation and benefits does not necessarily mean top dollar. If your office expects its lawyers to bill over 2,000 hours per year, it can and should pay top-of-market compensation.

But many of today's top lawyers focus on more than just money. They want the opportunity for growth and development, the chance to observe and work with more senior, more skilled practitioners so they get better through learning, they want responsibility and recognition for their work, they want to be able to control their personal and professional lives as much as possible, they want to understand and participate in the firm's progress, they want training, feedback and to be kept in the information loop.

Sadly, many law firms actually adopt as their communications strategy with their lawyers the astonishingly damaging and resented maxim “no news is good news” . These are the same firmsthat spent countless hours and dollars hiring and training lawyers only to watch them walk out the door "out of the blue".

The American dean of reward and recognition, Bob Nelson, writes in The Ten Ironies of Motivation:

More than anything else, employees want to be valued for a job well done by those they hold in high esteem. People want to be treated as if they're adult human beings.

Many firms offer their lawyers bonus plans that take into account personal performance, team or project performance or firm profitability. These plans can reinforce the behaviours valued by the firm. It is important to note, however, that care should be taken to ensure which behaviours are valued and ought to be encouraged—pay for what you want more of, don’t pay for what isn’t good for your firm. If your firm only cares about financial performance, then bonuses for hours or billings alone are fine. If, however, your firm culture expects its lawyers to contribute in other ways, then it should reward those people who make those contributions if it wants the behaviours reinforced.

Too many firms claim they want their lawyers to contribute in ways beyond dollars but then turn around and reward only those with exceptional financial performance. Every day, lawyers leave firms because of such inconsistent recognition programs. Saying one thing and doing another is a virtually guaranteed way for a firm to see a high turnover rate in its lawyers.

11. Creating the Better than Usual Working Environment

In my view, the single most valuable aid in lawyer retention is effective communication. Too often, lawyers in senior or management positions run their firms as if they had a glass head. They become wrapped up in the day-to-day practice of law or firm management and simply assume that the lawyers with whom they work can see what is on their mind. If goals are not being met, firm managers often assume that the lawyers understand that they are performing below par. Worse still, many firms do not communicate to lawyers that they are doing a good job, meeting or exceeding expectations, and are valued as contributors to the success of the business. As a result, the law firm misses a tremendous opportunity to motivate and reinforce the behaviour of its starts through formal recognition.

The benefits of communication run along a two-way path. As important as imparting information to retain lawyers is the need to listen. Law firms tend to be populated more with good talkers than listeners. To retain people, especially your stars, you must be a good listener. One of the most valuable tools a law firm has is the ability to receive and provide regular feedback. This can be achieved in any number of ways, including:

  • Formal orientation programs supplemented by procedures manuals or information on the firm are valuable aids for new lawyers, irrespective of their year of call.

  • An internal mentoring program is an excellent tool in retaining lawyers as it provides a formal, periodic vehicle for two-way communication.

  • Regular reward and recognition programs are almost unheard of in law firms (beyond the mysterious and confidential awarding or denying of year-end bonuses). Virtually all other industries use such programs to motivate and retain staff. Even public acknowledgement of length of service can go a long way.

  • Many firms today have someone employed in the office whose sole function is to manage the careers of associates and junior partners. This person is much more than a mentor. Many mentors carry busy practices, interact with associates on a spotty basis and may be ill suited to address junior partner goals, frustrations and career growth desires. Indeed, what intelligent associate with sound judgment would reveal to a partner deep concerns about their career prospects, their feelings about the firm, and the changes they feel need to be made to fulfill their career aspirations? Having a buffer who ensures two-way communication and proactive career management for lawyers in your firm is an excellent retention tool that will pay for itself many times over. Lest a firm think that a position of a non-partner career manager is too costly, consider the cost of replacing people who drift away through lack of career fulfilment.

12. If It Didn’t Work, What Went Wrong?

How many law firms conduct formal exit interviews with their departing lawyers? The answer is very few. It is human nature to feel wounded by rejection and for many firms this translates into the ostrich approach when a lawyer announces their impending departure. Unfortunately, sticking your head in the sand by not asking why the lawyer is leaving, and what could the firm do or have done to better meet the lawyer's needs, precludes us from learning what changes might be made to keep the rest of our team in the future.

As recruiters, we hear from unhappy people every day. We know why they come to us. And if one lawyer is unhappy, chances are there are a number who are unhappy. It is very important that there be no misperceptions about what your lawyers are seeking and whether they are finding it at your firm. The best time to find that out is before they are bending the ear of a recruiter. But, at the very least, asking them before they depart will allow the firm to adjust its practices to avoid such departures wherever possible.

Building the firm is a job to be undertaken by the partners, associates and management together. It is not something that should be cobbled together by chance. I hope this paper has imparted some helpful tips on how to approach lawyer recruitment and retention in a professional and effective manner.

About the author

Sean Dunnigan Q.C., Managing Director Prairie Region for The Counsel Network, is a known leader with the profession. Sean has a reputation for active involvement and longstanding contribution on behalf of the Canadian Bar Association, The Law Society of Alberta and the Calgary Bar Association. He is the Past President of both the Canadian Bar Association (Alberta Branch 1999-2000) and the Calgary Bar Association (1994-1995). In addition to being recognized in the profession as an entertaining public speaker, Sean has taught extensively, including professional development seminars, the Bar Admission Course, and for two years, as a visiting lecturer at the Faculty of Law with the University of Calgary.

Copyright 2003, Sean Dunnigan, Q.C.
Originally presented at the CBA Canadian Legal Conference, August 2003