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?
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The report by Ben Lewis a few weeks ago in Asia Law that Singapore law firms are being forced to offer unique employment benefits to retain lawyers as demand outstrips supply in this booming region got me thinking and pondering whether there is possibly a better way . . . .

Do lawyers really dress and party like this? Sean Larkan Photo

At top Singapore law firm Rajah & Tann, lawyers can let off some steam in lounges equipped with Nintendo Wii game consoles, pool and foosball tables, and electric massage chairs. Around the corner at rival Drew & Napier, a “Ministry of Fun” coordinates a social calendar that, according to the firm’s Web site, includes trips to Thailand as well as “glamorous dinners and crazy parties where everyone from directors to trainees, boogie. . . . . “

Factors at play seem to be:

  • Scarcity of jobs & high attrition to other countries and outside law
  • Fewer law graduate recruits
  • A drop of nearly 50%  in 7-12 year experienced lawyers in the region

Blamed (by lawyers) are:

  • Unpredictable, long hours, especially compared to in-house counsel
  • Remuneration lower than near-neighbours Hong Kong (despite 20% increases in recent years)

Blamed (by firms) are:

  • Unrealistic expectations (regarding work hours for instance) on the part of young lawyers

My thoughts for law firm leaders on these developments:

  • The legal profession around the world has a habit of getting itself into such tangles – as firms we tend to follow one another like sheep – if one firm (especially a brand name firm), does something, like offer particular employment benefits, we feel we have to follow in an identical or similar way.
  • And of course young lawyers don’t miss a trick – they use these developments to negotiate their version of the ‘ministry of fun’. And so the spiral continues.
  • It is sometimes wiser to quietly take stock, bite the bullet and work out an effective people strategy for the long term, which will counter whatever the future market throws at it.
  • The problem of course is that this is challenging, it takes time, and it also invariably requires changed behaviours by partners.
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