Aside form the obvious challenges facing firms in a global pandemic, the next biggest concern for my clients is their inability to find and keep good staff. Here are my suggestions for addressing this concern.
- Hire better:
The first step toward repairing a high attrition rate is to improve your hiring process. Can’t find qualified applicants? Perhaps you need a different attraction method. A wider net. Professional talent search assistance. Before you start interviews, take the time to write out a full job description, and an action plan for the first six months – then judge applicants on their ability to meet those needs and goals. This also clarifies, for the applicants, what the expectations are for the role, so they can self-select in or out.
- Nurture better:
Notice I didn’t say “better training”. Nurturing is so much more than that. It includes making them feel welcomed by be ready for their first day (equipment in place and working, training ready to go). Getting them engaged in the business and social workings of the firm from day one. Seeing to their training needs. Checking in with them from time to time to see how things are going. Recognizing their efforts regularly. (God forbid) thanking staff from time to time.
- Given them autonomy and accountability:
Once you’ve given staff a clear mandate, let them do their job. Once you’re sure they know what they are doing, stand back. Don’t micro-manage, second guess, or take over their role for a period of time. The flip side of allowing them this autonomy is accountability. Create a culture of periodic, formal check-in periods so they can demonstrate they are on top of process and deadlines. These should be in place for everyone, to show this is a culture-wide process and not a sign of lack of trust over a handful of employees. Check-ins should become an opportunity for people to be proud of what they’ve accomplished, and be recognized for it. It can also be a time to share questions or suggestions, on the pathway of continuous improvement.
- Pay them decently:
High pay rarely holds someone to a job they hate, but decent workers will leave if they feel there is an injustice in their compensation. That injustice can happen from within the firm (the employee feels they are being grossly underpaid in comparison to another worker) of from outside of the firm (the employee hears what a colleague is getting paid in another firm for doing the same type of work). Ensure that whomever is managing your HR function is keeping tabs on the market. Your employees don’t have to be paid at the top of the scale, but they should be at the bottom either. Also, it’s not all about salary. Bonuses (or whatever size) really mean something, as does hearing “thank you” from time to time.
- Respect them:
Firms can put all of these suggestions dutifully into place, and it can all fall apart in an afternoon by the disrespect to an employee of a single Partner. And that stuff spreads like wildfire in a firm, believe me. There should be a zero-tolerance policy for abuse: physical, verbal, and emotional. I’m a huge supporter of training to all lawyers and staff in the firm on bullying and harassment (required in this Province, I believe); implicit bias training; etc. When issues do arise, employees should have a safe and accessible person they can go to. When such claims arise, the firm should have an immediate and impartial investigation process in place. When claims are found to be valid, the firm should have a logical address and recovery process developed and followed.
- Promote (and live) the values they share:
Employees apply for positions because they need a job. But what do you do in an environment where everyone needs those employees and it’s impossible to find talent? Stand out from the crowd by promoting the firm’s values. We want to work with people who are like us: who look like us, who operate like we do, who value the same things we do. Show your diversity. State your firm’s values. Give potential employees a reason to pick you over another firm. Outpricing your competition might be a short-term fix, but it won’t necessarily get you the best candidate and it certainly won’t ensure you select long-term employees. Promote your values and then select candidates that share those values and can hit the other requirements you need.
- Do with less of them:
I’ve written, for SLAW and others, articles promoting a change of employee strategy for law firms whereby they use fewer staff. I’m suggesting this because even if you do the things listed above, law firms will still face a critical shortage of good staff for the next few years. And schools aren’t turning out enough replacements to make this problem go away with time. The logical solution is for firms to get use to working with less staff. How? Maximize your use of technology. Analyse and re-design your work processes. Determine what can be done by efficiently by the lawyer and what truly needs to be done by staff. I appreciate this is the opposite of what we’ve all aimed for in the past, which was to ensure lawyers do what only lawyers can do and everything else is done by staff. But those days are disappearing. And that structure made us lazy: we used the concept of “leverage” to resist improved efficiency through process innovation. Instead, we dumped activities to the next level down.
The most successful businesses recognize and get in front of a curve. Law firms, on the other hand, have a habit of waiting until the last possible moment to shift, and then sprinting behind the bus, hoping to catch up. The marketplace for staff talent is not suddenly going to correct itself. This will be a continuing issue. Use points 1-6 to position your firm to get access to the talent that’s out there; but also examine your processes and seek to reduce the talent you need.
Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org