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Thinking outside the recruiting box

Firms' risk-averse approach hinders equality and diversity efforts, says Ruth Fenton

17 February 2015

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Are law firms really giving candidates the best possible chance of returning to work after maternity leave, redundancy, illness or a career break? There is certainly more that firms and recruiters could be doing to make sure talented individuals don't leave the profession.

When returning to work, legal professionals face a number of challenges.

First, many firms are risk averse. They are looking to poach lawyers doing exactly the same thing at another firm. This indirectly discriminates against women and men returning from parental leave, ill health or a career break. Worryingly, this is blatantly obvious when firms post job adverts saying: "Must currently be doing x at top x firm."

Second, recruiters do not help by saying, "your experience is not current." They do not take the time to get to know you before putting your name forward or refusing to put you forward, and won't tell you which firm is recruiting. Often, recruiters keep you dangling and do not provide updates unless you chase them.

Third, HR professionals do not make themselves available to answer questions about the role before candidates apply. In many cases, they also refuse to give feedback because of firm policy.

Fourth, many parents would like to return to work part time. In law this can be very challenging unless you are returning to your old firm. Looking at one recruitment website today, of the 6,000 legal jobs advertised, only 64 were part time.

Fifth, childcare costs and arrangements are also a key issue. Legal professionals need to earn enough money to pay for childcare and have the time to devote to their children's wellbeing. This can be a tremendous source of stress and feelings of guilt for both mothers and fathers.

Last, unemployed lawyers looking for work often apply for more junior roles in the hope they can get back on the career ladder. This has the effect of junior lawyers being told that other candidates have more experience, even though the experience they have is more than adequate.

It is human nature to judge others. Unfortunately, at interview, some interviewers are blatantly biased - for example, coming out with the phase, "our ideal candidate would be male". Yes, it does happen.

There are some outstanding firms and recruiters out there. These firms and agents put the candidates first, help them rewrite CVs, tell them where improvements can be made to their application for next time, let them know about suitable forthcoming opportunities, provide feedback and appreciate the effort which has gone in to making the application.

The following strategies create a level playing field when selecting new employees:

  • advertise directly on job boards and the firm's website rather than solely using recruiters;
  • flexibility in the recruitment criteria;
  • split job roles so people can job share or work part time;
  • invite a selection of candidates and also a couple of 'wild cards' (often job specs change in the recruitment process; having some candidates who are slightly different from what the firm thought it needed might well produce the right candidate for the role);
  • ensure all hiring managers have equality and diversity and unconscious bias training;
  • offer work shadowing days to people looking to return to work (this allows candidates to see where they need to brush up their skills and boosts their confidence);
  • encourage candidates to be proactive and give them credit for direct approaches, firm research and networking their way to hiring managers;
  • standby commitments to diversity;
  • run open days for candidates who struggle with getting into employment (the firm can learn the challenges candidates face when looking for work and how the firm can improve its recruitment process);
  • reply to all candidates, give feedback if asked for and keep people informed; and,
  • ask candidates what their impression of the recruitment process is.

The benefits of implementing these strategies are that they will attract a more diverse work force, client expectation will be met as firms move closer to matching diversity targets in their own work force, the firm will improve their public diversity and equality image, and candidates applying directly will save the firm time and money as it will not have
to use recruiters.

Firms with the right HR strategies will make all the difference to legal professionals who want to return to the job market and fulfil their career aspirations. SJ

Ruth Fenton is a legal business strategist and coach with Inspired Star