Talent Retention and Succession Planning

Law firms invest a significant amount of time and money in recruiting and training people and it makes sense therefore that they should seek to protect that investment by retaining those people. On the other hand, they should not shirk from ceasing to employ people who are not able to perform at the required level (or choose not to do so) or who do not fit in with the Firm’s ethos and culture. Hence retention needs to be balanced alongside the strength that comes from having a collaborative, like-minded group of people willing and able to perform at an appropriate level.

There are many issues that complicate the retention of people. One is the changing expectations of the group known as “the millennials” – broadly a group now between 20 and 30 years old. This group has different expectations than the generations before them. For example:

  • They see a job as an opportunity for growth, development and advancement rather than as a life time commitment – and they are quicker to change jobs when they feel their expectations are not being met.
  • They value having a manager who will invest in their development and provide a clear career path and direction.
  • They want interesting work that meets their development needs and are disinclined to spend time on routine work.
  • They want a level of openness about the direction of their group and involvement in terms of contributing ideas.
  • They want to be listened to even if their ideas are not adopted – with feedback as to why not.

While most professional people of any generation might be seeking growth, development and advancement, past generations were inclined to see the need to “move up the ladder” and accept that their early years might be more learning at the routine level. Millennials want to see progress from the start and will move on quickly if it is perceived to not be happening.

Put another way, retaining millennials will not work if they are put in a room doing boring tasks and having little or no participation and involvement in their work group. They don’t want to run the business from day one, but they do want to feel involved in it and be given the opportunity to contribute, learn and grow.

A second issue that is important generally, but particularly relevant in law firms, is the gender issue. This centres around the fact that the proportion of women entering all professions is high, now higher than men in many countries but the drop out rate is also very high. The Hong Kong Law Society has reported that in 2016, 60 percent of entrants to the Hong Kong legal profession were women but they constitute only 27 percent of law firm partners. This has changed little over a generation. Throughout the world organisations of all types (including governments) are seeking ways to increase the retention of women into their senior ranks but it is proving to be a struggle.

Rightly or wrongly women generally still have the main child-caring role at home as well as other household duties. The role of a partner in a law firm carries with it many duties outside normal working hours such as client meetings, client engagement deadlines, business development activities and internal meetings. Many of these events have unpredictable finishing times which is an added complication. Many women feel that they cannot play the same role, and add the same value to the firm, as men and choose, therefore, to leave the legal profession well before they are on partner track. Some firms have tried work sharing schemes and this has been effective in some practice areas, but it is difficult to implement in many of the larger transaction and dispute resolution practices where a partner is required to manage the project from beginning to end. Other firms have given women more of a part time role as a partner (often four days a week) but many women say they are still working seven days a week, but are being compensated at less than a full-time position.

There is no easy answer to the retention issue but we set out some thoughts below. A part of the solution lies in succession planning and we include this in our suggestions. Very carefully crafted succession plans can help address the retention issues raised by millennials and the issues that arise from the gender imbalance at senior levels. We set our suggestions out as a series of techniques that can be used either in total (for the best effect) or individually.

Technique 1: Develop Clear Career Paths

As we noted above, the old days of bringing in junior people and giving them the boring routine work and then promoting them automatically are gone. For one thing, technology can do much of this more cheaply but, more importantly, people will not stay. Firms need to look at their business and identify the role that lawyers can pursue from their first year up to partnership level. (This is sometimes done in two year steps.) They need to ensure the tasks people will do at each stage are helping the person learn and grow and that there are clear targets they have to meet to move to the next stage. (Automatic promotion is out.) The detail in the career paths will likely change over time as the firm develops but at any point, a manager can show a junior lawyer what their career will look like as they progress through the firm to partnership.

An important aspect to the career paths is that there might be several options, particularly but not only in relation to gender diversity. Women (but also men) who want to keep working but not take on the partnership role can be given a senior role that requires significantly less “out of hours” commitment but still provides a satisfying work stream, status and compensation. Attached to this role could be help given for fee earners (particularly women) to work more from home by way of technology facilities that keep them connected, and larger firms can help by providing support in times of household crises.

Hence clear career paths coupled with good feedback (see below) also start to address the succession planning issue. Management will see the development of each fee earner in accordance with their career path goals and start, at a relatively early age, to identify those with the aptitude and ability to progress into key roles in the firm in the future.

Technique 2: Feedback is Crucial

The legal profession is notoriously bad at giving feedback to people. This is in terms of regularity and content. We have literally hundreds of quotes from associates from around the world on this. Even when firms have formal feedback programmes partners continually postpone meetings, come very ill prepared and provide feedback that is not helpful. Yet most professionals want to know “how they are doing” and this applies especially to millennials. Firms that get this right will have a huge advantage over those who do not.

A formal feedback programme based on the career path framework can be hugely beneficial especially when it includes some regular feedback throughout the year rather than just once a year. For one thing, the career path framework provides people with a set of goals to achieve so they will have some sense as to how they are doing without feedback. The feedback session can be very positive though in helping people understand how they are perceived in the firm, where there is a need for improvement and can point them in the right direction to receive help and support. The feedback must be based on fact and not random observations coupled with broad opinions. It must be linked to the work the person has done and the targets that have been set for them, and it must provide them with a clear view as to whether they are on target or off target and, if the latter, how to get back on track.

It also gives women a chance to discuss the possible direction their career might take, the options for continuing up to partnership and then make plans to shape their career in an appropriate way.

Technique 3: Compassionate Honesty Goes a Long Way

Another fault in many law firms is that partners are often unwilling to tackle poor performance issues in a feedback discussion and tend to resort to vague platitudes. This is particularly so where the overall performance of a person is okay but where there are a few issues that will become a major hindrance in the future unless corrected. Many find it difficult to address problem areas in a feedback session thinking it will be overly destructive so they tend to avoid it, hoping the problems correct themselves. Of course, they rarely do.

It is vital that problem areas be addressed but done so honestly (with factual evidence to support it) but also compassionately. If the feeling is that these issues will impede progression, the fee earner needs to be made aware of this, but also shown how they can be corrected. There is little point telling someone they have a problem without helping them understand what has to be done to fix it and supporting them in fixing it. An effective mentoring system is a very practical way of achieving this.

It is in the firm’s and fee earner’s interest that problem areas be raised and discussed in a very helpful, empathetic and supportive way, otherwise the problems will continue and both sides will suffer. The fee earner will continue on as normal, thinking they are doing well and then be told after some years that they can’t stay with the firm. They will feel aggrieved that they were not told earlier and given help. The firm will have a fee earner who is not performing in all areas to the level required and who then carries a grudge against the firm when they leave.

Technique 4: Training and Development Support

While law firms generally offer considerable amounts of training and development for their people they tend to be standard programmes that everyone needs to attend. In many cases, the quality is not always of good quality, as it is delivered by partners who have underprepared and have little by way of teaching skills. While there will be some standard training programmes that all fee earners will need to attend, there needs to be more tailored training to individual needs, as revealed by the career path goals and feedback sessions. In addition, there needs to be more professionalism in the development of the programmes and their delivery.

For example, in many cases people are taken in as partners with very little work done to develop the new skills required before the event. The career path of a fee earner should start to introduce the need for some of these skills at a relatively early stage and be geared to the skill requirements and capabilities of each person. There also needs to be mentoring and coaching following the development sessions as the person learns how to apply these new skills.

Technique 5: Flexibility in Everything

What comes through strongly with many younger fee earners today is the need for individual attention. One example is in the training and development mentioned above where people want development programmes tailored to their specific needs. They also see no reason to have lockstep remuneration rather than individual packages based on their performance and incorporating a range of benefits from which they can make a selection. They also see no reason why promotions occur with everyone who qualified in the same year. Tracking promotion with performance such that some people will fast track up the scale and others will take somewhat longer. In other words, rather than treating everyone as a part of the same group, be flexible and treat them as individuals with differing needs, skills expectations and progression.

Technique 6: Handling Departures Positively

Finally, if the previous techniques are followed there will be a need to address the fact that some people, no matter how carefully selected and supported, will not make it all the way to partnership and will need to continue their career elsewhere. This can, in part, take care of itself. If people are clear about their career path goals and are given good feedback, they will realise often before their manager, that they are not going to make it and will choose to resign before being told. Provided they have been given all the help and support required they usually leave feeling disappointed that they did not make it but do not blame the firm: they often continue to be great ambassadors for the firm after they leave.

Where someone needs to be told to leave it is important that the golden rule of “make the decision decisively but implement it compassionately” comes in to play. Other people in the firm will note how departing people are handled and if the treatment seems to be brutal it will trigger a culture of fear and resentment, and possibly lead to some good people leaving.

Hence be clear why a person has to leave and do not fudge the decision but give them time to absorb the issue, help them think through what they might do next, (eg, a different career or the same career with a different type of firm), and help them find the resources necessary to move on. Compassionate handling of departing people will be seen by others as a very strong signal that this is a firm that cares about individuals. The same point applies with female fee earners who might be struggling to balance their professional life with the demand outside the office. By spending time with them to try and resolve their position, rather than just letting them resign, the firm will earn the respect of others even if in the end the person does resign. 

Hodgart Associates Ltd, Managing Director

Mr. Hodgart is recognised as a leading strategic change consultant to professional service firms globally. His client base includes leading firms in all major professions and a wide range of smaller to mid-market firms in many countries. The legal market is a particular area of focus. He works with clients throughout the world, including in the Asia Pacific.

Mr. Hodgart has written extensively on management issues facing professional firms. His two most recent books are Organizational Culture in Law Firms (Ark, 2012) and Strategies and Practice in Law firm Mergers (Legalease, 2005).

Prior to his career as a consultant, he had a successful career as a professional cyclist.