This article was originally published in Surrey Lawyer (July 2021 edition).
A snapshot of the legal landscape in June 2021 as against June 2020 reveals seismic changes brought about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these changes are positive and, for key decision makers in law firms, it is worth recognising and reacting to these developments, particularly where firms are busy but finding it difficult to recruit into business-critical areas.
New ways of working
One positive of the pandemic has certainly been to demonstrate to many law firms, whatever their size, that remote working and flexibility can bring obvious benefits to staff, with little effect on the bottom line. We have seen many law firms post very impressive results in a year when the economy shrank by 10%.
Across the country we have seen job vacancy levels return to almost pre-pandemic levels, creating a healthy demand for strong associates, partners, teams, and in-house lawyers. However, there is an even shorter supply of quality candidates, than was the case pre-pandemic. While 2020 saw an exodus from the City, which could have benefited our regional firms, the historic shortage of candidates in the South East and Surrey has now been exacerbated by the greater geographical reach of the larger regional, national and international firms, who are happy to recruit candidates from literally anywhere, as they seek to fill 100% remote working roles. In addition, for those who want to work in London but live outside the City, they are now able to “have their cake and eat it”, as there is much talk of the “The New Normal” being at least a hybrid of office and home working. Amid this change, a relatively new model of law firm has also developed from being a mere alternative to traditional law firms, to being a serious competitor. Fee-sharing law firms now rival the long-established LLP model. Founded in 2006 in Guildford, Setfords was one of the first, and since then others including Gunnercooke, Keystone, and Bexley Beaumont have emerged, securing impressive clients, and making eye-catching partner hires from some of the UK’s top LLPs.
Gunnercooke welcomed 44 new partners in 2020, many from Top 50 “City” law firms. This trend is projected to continue, with the investment bank Arden predicting that by 2026 a third of all lawyers will be operating under this model.
Professional support, knowledge management and contract vacancies have also increased steadily since the second half of 2020, offering alternatives to those fed up with the traditional billing/hourly target private practice model.
Therefore, with more choice and a smaller pool of candidates the key must be to ensure that you do everything you can to keep the good staff you do have and to offer yourself as an attractive alternative to your competitors.
In 2020 many firms did implement cost saving measures, reduce salaries temporarily, utilise the JRS scheme where possible and made redundancies. However most firms tried to hold on to as much of their legal fee earning talent as possible and many have been quick to pay back salaries and any furlough funding received, given how profitable they ultimately were despite the pandemic.
When considering a role, we are finding lawyers asking us specifically how firms treated their staff during the early days of the pandemic and there are certainly some very good examples of firms who really stepped up to the mark during these unprecedented times and continue to do so.
Examples of wellbeing initiatives include:
- The appointment of a specific Health & Wellbeing Representative – a fully trained individual with 100% focus on this role in a firm (not a partner with this role!) who disseminates regular health and wellbeing advice to all staff.
- Staff trained as Mental Health First Aiders and active publicity that mental health of staff is of paramount importance; that asking for help is OK along with confidential counselling services made available.
- Regular firm wide updates from the partners/managers to ensure home workers feel included and well informed, combined with regular internal video catch up meetings.
- Promotions and salary reviews continued.
- Bonus payments specifically for spending on improving home working environment. Covid bonus payments to thank staff for their hard work in difficult times.
- Online activities for children of those home schooling; magicians, cookery classes etc.
- Regular online exercise or yoga classes.
- Photo collages or regular profile raising of team members (bearing in mind new starters will not know or meet anyone very often).
- Sending staff “thoughtful” gifts – a hot water bottle in November, mugs, tea, coffee and biscuits for online team coffee breaks, chocolate brownie deliveries, hampers at Christmas – again showing appreciation through ongoing tough times.
- On-boarding and training moved online.
- Employee ownership models on the rise. Holding a stake in the place you work can change the mindset among staff creating a common purpose.
Those with “good news” stories to tell will certainly benefit in terms of staff retention and attraction. Candidates at every level, even newly qualified solicitors, are more than ever undertaking detailed due diligence on firms, and that no longer only includes enquiring about a firm’s financial stability, but checking “RollOnFriday”, “Glassdoor”, LinkedIn and social media for any information from current or former staff – good or bad.
This time last year 90% of our candidates in the South East, if offered a position, only had one offer to consider. The same time this year 75% of our candidates now have multiple offers to choose from. Salary of course is one factor in the mix when reaching a decision, but we are also finding the opportunities for agile working and flexibility are now as important for many.
Speed is key
If looking to recruit go early and move quickly. In 2019 the average time it took from sending a CV to a firm, going through the interview process, offer and acceptance was 2.5 months. Aided by online interviewing this is currently 4 weeks, often less.
Whilst appreciating that firms have to be financially prudent in these uncertain times, so there may be very good reasons for not moving on salary, there may however be an opportunity to look at other aspects which may appeal to a candidate.
Be open about your policies
Particularly those around flexible working, paternity/maternity leave and pay, diversity and inclusion. These are now forefront of many of our candidates’ minds when considering their next move.
Be as flexible as possible for the right candidates
If you have bought into the idea of working from home, then look at offering what the candidate wants rather than sticking rigidly to your firm’s policy of say a maximum of 2 days a week WFH. If you can’t move on salary, then consider a signing on/moving bonus.
Be creative in your benefits
Comprehensive sick and holiday benefits are very important as well as benefits which increase employee engagement, including regular team activities. Many previous benefit schemes have been rendered obsolete or unsuitable e.g. subsidised gyms near the office and free lunches on-site.
Communication is key, ask your employees what they want and where possible personalise offerings. The importance of this (and “work life” balance) has recently been reported with some City firms now offering payments for fertility treatment by way of “personalised fertility care and family-forming support”.
Consider your Corporate Social Responsibility offering
Despite the individual separation and isolation we have experienced, communities appear to have grown more tightly knit and there is a renewed willingness to help others less fortunate. This trend is partially attributable to people working from home because they are spending more time in their immediate area. Many lawyers are also attracted to the profession by altruistic motives and therefore CSR can enhance job satisfaction, in addition to strengthening relationships with clients, support recruitment and retention.
Finally, consider your traditional working practices/demands
It is all very well talking about well-being but if you are still expecting your staff to embrace an increasing chargeable hour target, is that realistic? A downside of working from home is that staff can be called upon to work at all hours and weekends and this needs to be carefully monitored.
Lawyers have certainly played and are playing a key role in the response to the pandemic. In a rapidly changing landscape, the best responses have come from those who have been able to adapt quickly and creatively. It is hoped that arising from this terrible period there will at least be long term, beneficial changes for our profession.