Can better education solve the number one threat reported by law firms?
Jenny Hotchin presents how firms could better nurture their talent
I read PwC’s latest annual law firm survey with great interest. The findings got me thinking if a different approach to educating professionals who work in legal service delivery might provide the solution the sector needs.
The report highlights 88 per cent of the top 100 UK law firms have identified a shortage of talent as their number one threat to meeting or exceeding their ambitions over the next two years. This is an astounding figure.
It is widely known fee-earners have been on the move over the last couple of years. In response, firms have reviewed salaries, bonuses, benefits and working practices. Despite this, eye-wateringly high salaries are being rejected in favour of better work-life balance, hybrid or remote working and the desire to work for organisations with better ESG credentials.
Aside from sky high remuneration (which clearly is no longer alluring to everyone), what can organisations do to successfully attract and retain their top legal talent?
It’s well-recognised that job satisfaction increases with education, which in turn improves talent retention. Hence, these are again business critical reasons for providing education and learning opportunities to lawyers.
Lawyers have inquisitive minds and are involved in, and indeed driven by, solving tricky problems. From my experience working with legal teams in firms and in house, lawyers are often interested in improving the way legal services are delivered. Often, lawyers are frustrated and eager for change. They see how technology is leveraged in other sectors and in their own consumer lives and think: “Why am I still having to work in such an archaic way?”
The last couple of years has provided us all with an opportunity to rethink our professional ambitions and reflect on job satisfaction. Firms are losing their most entrepreneurial and pioneering talent to alternative career paths.
To guard against this and improve talent retention, firms will do well to provide opportunities to lawyers who are interested in exploring other career paths within the legal sector. Providing education to springboard lawyers into newer areas can not only deliver value to the employing firms, but also to the wider legal services sector.
If this is true, why don’t lawyers take matters into their own hands and invest time to learn new skills to better position themselves and their teams? Firstly, there is the age-old problem – lawyers sell time, which generally means they have none! Their top priority is nearly always the client in front of them. In firms, their performance is also measured on that basis. Secondly, there is a lack of good education made available to lawyers (especially beyond the first few years of qualification).
So, outside of reviewing salaries and bonuses, firms should prioritise quality and relevant and accessible education for lawyers (at all stages in their careers) to help solve the shortage of talent threat.
Beyond the lawyers
Is it possible when organisations are grappling with the ‘shortage of talent problem’ they are too often limiting this to lawyers?
The other top threats firms identified in the PwC survey were cyber-risk, macroeconomic uncertainty and inability to recover costs through pricing. A lawyer is not typically the best expert to understand and manage these threats. Arguably, the legal services sector should invest in attracting talent beyond lawyers.
Technological expertise is one such area. To quote the report: “Improving the use of technology remains the number one priority as firms continue to embrace and implement a range of new technologies, to improve internal support functions and in delivering legal services.”
For this, we need technologists, change management professionals, business analysts, accountants, engineers and data scientists, to name a few. This constitutes a huge pool of talent.
Firstly, we need to attract that talent to the legal sector and secondly, we need to help that talent understand the business of legal service delivery.
The Solicitors Regulatory Authority recognises this too and has overhauled the solicitor qualification process. The requirement to have a qualifying law degree no longer applies. Any degree or equivalent qualification or apprenticeship or equivalent experience is sufficient. A step in the right direction – but this will only really help us achieve a more diverse range of lawyers. We need to embrace and leverage talent, beyond lawyers.
Education is again the answer. I speak to a diverse range of professionals in my role and it often surprises me how much of an anomaly the legal sector is perceived to be. The reality is quite the opposite – the challenges we tackle are rarely unique to legal service delivery. However, we do have a terrible tendency to make it difficult to break into our sector. From business models to everyday vernacular, it can be unnerving to try and understand our sometimes peculiar ways of working.
To tackle this, the legal sector should ensure we provide quality, relevant and accessible education to all those interested in working in our sector. We need this vibrant and broad talent pool to defeat the shortage of talent problem. So, let’s leverage education to make it easy for talent, beyond lawyers, to join our sector.
Beyond the legal sector
Rather than recruiting professionals with ‘legal sector experience’, should organisations be deliberately targeting those without?
Recently, I have had the pleasure of working with a technologist, Peter Duffy, who has worked across sectors such as pharma, sports, gambling, banking and telecoms and, in the last few years, has worked in legal. Peter’s background of implementing transformative technology in such a wide variety of sectors, is one of the reasons he is able to deliver success in the legal sector – where implementing change is perhaps more challenging than most!
Rather than recruiting a technologist, business analyst or people operations professional ‘with experience of the legal sector’, how about we recruit from retail, publishing, energy, manufacturing – or any of the other sectors that have seen (and sometimes prospered!) from huge disruption and change over the last 20 years?
Similar to attracting talent beyond lawyers, we need to open our arms and show the legal sector welcomes and embraces professionals from beyond the legal sector. Education can show experienced professionals we have tricky problems to solve and their talents are needed! Education will also enable professionals joining the sector to quickly get to grips with who we are, what we do, the problems we have to solve, how we operate and the peculiar vernacular and business models we apply.
A collaborative workforce
If education is successfully leveraged to solve the talent shortage by retaining legal talent, utilising talent in other professions and leveraging experienced talent from other sectors, there is still one last problem for education to solve.
We need to create a community of professionals across the legal services sector that understands, appreciates and leverages the special talents each category of professional brings to the table. Education is again the key to achieving this by teaching this larger, more diverse, pool of talent how to work together.
Where to find such education?
The more I explore these issues, the more I’m convinced the problem isn’t a ‘shortage of talent’, it is a shortcoming in who we perceive the ‘talent’ to be and how we educate and enable talent to succeed in the legal services sector.
However, solving this is no easy undertaking, which is why the collaboration between Law School 2.0, BARBRI Global and iManage to launch an online, on-demand and free course is a worthy mention. The Legal Service Innovation Course is a significant step in the right direction and one hopes the legal sector, as a collective, will embrace and pursue further initiatives to meet its educational goals and overcome the shortage of talent threat.
Jenny Hotchin is legal practice lead at iManage imanage.com