Like finding the toilet roll  empty, or getting a puncture, some things never come at a good time. But, of course, these things do happen so most of us have learned to respond with equanimity and of course maybe even do a little forward planning!

The same applies to losing a really top calibre lawyer or support staff member (especially to the dreaded opposition); just when you thought he or she was well settled and was going to be part of your landscape forever (‘even though I hadn’t told her, I thought she had ‘future partner’ written all over her’). It is always unwelcome, sometimes seems a bit unfair (‘we always treated her so well and she seemed so happy’) and the timing is always bad (‘I have just introduced him to the the new oil and gas matter and client loved him‘).

When something unwelcome happens, like losing high calibre staff, the challenge is always to retain some equanimity and try to understand it for what it truly is, and not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean not acting, or simply doing a few operational things as a knee-jerk reaction on the surface of things. It requires in-depth strategic analysis, careful review and thoughtful implementation with a view to re-building trust in your employment brand. (Sean Larkan 2012)

Especially for firms that put a lot of time and effort into their people, events like this can cut to the bone.  It can be very demoralising and quickly impact confidence. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible as you feel you are doing things right.

Real concerns should arise when it starts happening with some regularity and becomes a pattern. It is not just an isolated incident based on exceptional circumstances. Word about things like this – key staff losses – can spread like wild-fire, and this can have a severe impact on a firm’s employment brand and on engagement levels. Social media, Linked In facilities for recruiters, plus recruitment agency networks ensure the market knows about these patterns long before most firms even realise its happening. This is when leaders and managers need to take remedial action and get to the bottom of it.

As much as these events require a decisive response from leadership, the danger is that it can often cause knee-jerk reactions and the implementation of solutions which may seem okay on the surface, and may even appease (including one’s conscience), but in reality don’t do much to change anything substantive for the long term.

In the work I have done with firms around people strategy and we consider these strategic issues, two things come up as common threads:

  • when times are good – staff recruitment is going well, staff calibre is good and turnover is down – firms assume it is because they are doing a heckuva lot of things right (and have earned this status because of all the good things they are doing around people). Interestingly, dig deeper and you may find this is not in fact the case.  They may have hit a lucky streak (it happens) or be regarded as the ‘flavour of the quarter‘ in the recruitment channels (it happens). Further investigation can reveal that  many of the people fundamentals have not in fact been properly addressed;
  • when times turn bad (sometimes, unaccountably, not long after they were good), firms are invariably surprised and anxiously cast around for causes. They tend to hone in on what appear to be the obvious reasons (e.g. a few partners with poor records of managing staff, benefits needing tweaking etc), try to address these and too quickly conclude ‘job done‘. Unfortunately, superficial, knee-jerk responses usually achieve very little, even though they may keep a board and some partners happy for awhile. Chances are that down the line the same problems will still exist, the reason being that they are founded in culture and well established cultural norms which and run deep to the heart and soul of what the firm is or isn’t about. They therefore need much more thorough, thoughtful treatment.

When this sort of pattern arises around losing key staff it is a sure signal that firms need to take very careful and serious stock of what they are or are not doing in relation to their people. It’s a big job, it is complex and touches on so much of what a firm is or is not; it  should quickly becomes priority numero uno.

I would start by asking some or all of the following questions:

  • are our partners and managers more focused on meeting their own targets and performance criteria than they are on delegating good quality work and providing good access to clients, good feedback and other support staff crave and need to grow;
  • what is the state of our employment brand? Do we have a brand strategy? Do we understand brand and what constitutes our employment brand? Do we achieve Brand Fusion™ i.e. ensuring what we promise and say we do in regard to people, we actually do and deliver?
  • what are engagement levels like?
  • do we truly understand the key things which positively and negatively impact engagement (when staff say, stay & strive)?
  • what is the state of our culture? Truly? Do we understand culture and what impact it can have on our people, our firm and our future?
  • is there alignment between our firm strategy and our people strategy? Do we have a people strategy? Do we regularly stress-test our strategies – do we know how to?
  • do we have a vision as to what we want to achieve in relation to people?
  • are our human resources people more focused on HR systems and processes than on people (strange as it may seem, a very common phenomenon)?
  • do our partners really take a genuine interest in the personal and professional well-being and progress of lawyers for whom they are responsible? What of managers?
  • in regard to our values and people are we clear about what we will not tolerate and do we do something about this?
  • in regard to partner behaviours in relation to people which are contrary to our values and cultural attributes do we avoid dealing with them or do we tackle them?
  • do we have a support and performance management system in place? Is it the right one and is it working as it should? Does it encourage the right thinking, behaviours and support our values?
  • what do your staff really think? The only way to find out is to have an independent, external expert do a statistically valid and reliable, confidential, unattributed (staff not linked to any responses) survey of staff and include in the survey many open-ended questions.
  • are our fundamental HR systems and processes (yes, they do matter (especially for instance, how remuneration is set and communicated), and nowadays, are a sine qua non) up to scratch? Don’t be fooled by the fact of having something in place – it is whether it is the right system created and used in the right way, that matters.

Then, as soon as possible, start the challenging job of putting something in place to address all the issues and gaps that will be highlighted. Tell your staff you are doing it. Thank them for their honest input. Tell them what you feel you were doing badly. Keep your partners in the loop – get them involved and make them part of the solution. Don’t let them become critical, distanced, bystanders. Give it time and trust will start to develop again and stronger foundations will be laid, making the firm less reliant on ‘lucky streaks’.


all the best, Sean Larkan, Partner, Edge International