As lawyers we are pretty good at having difficult discussions with clients, but are there conversations we need to be having with colleagues and staff?

As part of my remit with HM Connect I often chat to legal business owners about their thoughts and aspirations for the future, perhaps more accurately put as exit and succession planning. Similarly, I’ve presented a few seminars on the topic to local faculties. With my other hat on, I teach on the Diploma and present TCPD to trainees and NQs, so I have a little insight to the thoughts of that demographic about their career paths. What has struck me recently is the ever widening gap between the two in their wants and expectations.

For many high street and rural firms, exit and succession planning remains a challenge. It can be difficult to attract and retain staff, which most practitioners find both frustrating and baffling when considering what the high street has to offer. They have built solid businesses in good locations that provide a quality of life and a good income (even if, for some recently, that quality may have reduced due to high demand for services). The situation is the same throughout the country, and I know of several unhappy practitioners whose exit strategies have changed as their hoped-for successors have left to quit the profession, to go in-house or to join rival firms.

Looking different ways

On the other hand, when I speak with law graduates or those more recently qualified, they seem to have little interest in running their own firm or aspiring to partnership. That I realise is a sweeping generalisation, and there are of course exceptions, but I have come across relatively few of these to date. Their desires lie more towards work-life balance, career satisfaction, flexible working and maternity leave. Nothing wrong with any of these, but some, I suspect, are almost diametrically opposite to those of the business owners. There are many other factors at play here, ranging from generational issues, gender balance change, a much greater appreciation of risk, and the barriers by way of panel appointment to new entrants. A very different world indeed to the 70s, 80s and 90s, when so many of us started our own firms or were assumed as partners.

Turning to the makeup of the current intake to the profession, it now lies around 70% female to 30% male – almost the reverse of the current partner split of 33% female and 67% male. In many, many ways this is a very positive thing, but I wonder if in itself it is accelerating the disconnect between the predominantly male business owners and their hoped-for successors.

While writing this piece I quickly scanned the Journal’s own jobs website, currently overflowing with vacancies, as are many others, but the adverts remain remarkably similar in their omissions. Very few mentioned flexible working, and none that I saw covered maternity leave. Most however did mention that there were “prospects for progression”, even though this is perhaps not something that many NQs seek and might be seen as a negative. With talent in such high demand and so difficult to find, shouldn’t firms be looking to make themselves as attractive as possible to the needs of this target audience? Are we perhaps making assumptions about what the next generation of lawyers are looking for, rather than engaging in a dialogue with them about it?

Is there anything that can be done?

For those seeking to employ, perhaps look to address adverts and job descriptions to the needs of your target audience to cover the points above. Likewise, look to consider other solutions to skills gaps or vacancies within a practice. For example, often two part-time positions are easier to fill, giving you more flexibility and potentially more than 100% of the role being covered, as most will exceed their hours/duties. For those with young families or returning after a career break, this may well be a more attractive option. Perhaps a wider target age group should also be considered: succession may no longer be just for the “young”. There is a trend for those in their 40s and beyond to look to move away from the cities and/or the time recording-driven city practices. Indeed those in their 50s will still have long careers ahead of them, and may be ideal candidates for succession planning and a much closer fit to the mindset of existing practice owners.

If retention is the issue, I suspect that the title of this piece refers best. It’s probably time to have a good and in-depth conversation to really gauge what the issues are. You might believe that these were all agreed at the interview X years ago, but experience tells me that often people at that time are more interested in securing a role than being totally transparent, and in any event, people’s expectations change as they develop within a role. Now might just be the perfect time to revisit and refine each other’s understandings of the road ahead, to ensure it is a long and happy one. 

The Author

Stephen Vallance works with HM Connect, the referral and support network operated by Harper Macleod

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