The jury’s out: have UK law firms kept pace with the evolution of 21st century workplaces?
By Neil McLeod
Neil McLeod discusses the opportunity for legal sectors to create the workplace of the future
Despite generally wide respect for the knowledge and skills of legal professionals, the legal profession overall is no stranger to battling negative public perception around its practices. Occasionally criticised as a ‘closed shop,’ the profession has a reputation for regarding modernisation with overly cautious skepticism. However, with widespread staff shortages sparking an all-out war for talent in the legal sector, UK law firms must now innovate to meet the expectations of a changing, modern workforce, or risk losing their standing as global leaders.
It is undeniable that the pandemic has radically transformed ways of working across all industries around the globe, most obvious in the staying power of remote working. Beyond that, however, the pandemic has also reshaped wider attitudes towards work – increasingly, employees are looking to secure a role with a company whose wider culture and story align with their own values and aspirations. Additionally, in the aftermath of a global health crisis, far greater emphasis is being placed by workers on the health and wellbeing offering of prospective or current employers.
The legal sector has not been immune to these trends. A 2021 survey by Thomson Reuters found that 86 per cent of UK lawyers indicated a desire to change the way they work in the future – nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) endorsed remote working and 34 per cent expressed a willingness to reduce their compensation in exchange for a shorter working week. At the same time, however, there was a clear reluctance among some law firms to adopt remote working. Much of the war for talent has been fought on the remote working battle ground. Experiences will have been mixed, some have embraced it fully, others – perhaps those more in the traditional mindset – will have found it quite alien.
Across the broader business landscape, there are growing voices (restaurant founder Richard Caring being one) saying working from home has hurt UK proactivity. Has this crept into legal services? There is evidence it has. The recent Law Society financial benchmarking survey showed that while profitability had sustained, billable hours had dropped. The report concluded: ‘[the findings] support the growing evidence that working from home is not always as beneficial to the firm as it is to the individual.’ The report notes that: ‘more and more firms are calling their staff back to the office for at least some of the week.’
It shows in this highly competitive labour market that it is important for all businesses to be bold and creative in their offerings to prospective employees. The same theme was a key talking point at a panel event in Manchester recently, in which my firm, The PHA Group was joined by a strong group of solicitors and other legal services professionals from across the North West to debate various themes, including how a law firm’s own reputation – not just that of the clients it looks after – is more important than ever when it comes to building for the future.
It is clear financial incentives alone are only a short-term solution to grab the attention of today’s more mindful talent pool. With reports of UK law firms already struggling to match the salary offerings of US firms, limiting your offering as an employer to a competitive salary is a fight the UK legal sector cannot win.
Given recent reports of London’s top law firms attempting to lure staff back into the office with yoga and beekeeping, it does appear that the dial is shifting on the need to keep pace with employee benefits and health and wellbeing support seen in our sectors. However, it does feel like legal services are playing catch-up with other sectors.
The dust is still settling on what the workplace of the future will look like — rather than dragging one’s heels, innovative leaders in the legal sectors should embrace the opportunity to lead the way forward. With the outlook for the sector generally robust, now is the time to embrace those initiatives which will sing to the talent pool.
Neil McLeod is the director of corporate at The PHA Group