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Strategies to Win the Escalating War for Law Firm Talent

By Steve Nelson

In my last article for Attorney at Work, I wrote about the root causes of the escalating war for law firm talent. In short, those causes are:

  • General demographic factors, such as the graying of baby boomers, shifting attitudes concerning career development and the influence of millennials.
  • Fewer law school graduates entering the workforce.
  • The general reputation of law firms not being good places to work.
  • The imperative, driven largely by clients, for more diverse legal teams.
  • The difficulty firms have successfully navigating succession planning.

How Can You Win the Talent Wars?

This time, let’s focus on some things law firms can do to improve their chances of winning the talent war.

Focusing not just on lawyers but on the entire professional staff. Too often, lawyers tend to make a distinction between lawyers and “nonlawyers,” and treat the latter as some sort of second-class citizens. Law firms have often been slow to realize that key client representatives may not have JDs, but have deep background and expertise in such disciplines as finance, human resources, technology and marketing. Increasingly, in-house counsel and company business professionals are forging relationships with a variety of law firm professionals in a variety of contexts, including fee arrangements, project management, billing practices and overall client value.

Realigning the way lawyers are hired from law school. The way the system works now, firms use their summer programs (after both the first and second years of law school) as their primary determinant as to who gets hired on the partnership track. This, of course, means that firms usually make their judgments based on performance in one year of law school, or perhaps even less. As a result, students who show dramatic improvement in their second and third years are often left out. Not only does this leave some high performers out of the mix in the hiring process, but it ignores the importance of specialization. Remember, only after the first year can law students take courses in such disciplines as intellectual property, antitrust or immigration.

Adding different types of lawyers to the staffing mix with an eye toward allowing anyone to get on the partnership track. With clients increasingly pushing back on rates for junior lawyers, firms are having trouble finding premium work for lawyers in their first two years. Then, firms find that they don’t have the capacity to keep up with the demands of legal work during years three through five, when associates do add value, and where their work is most profitable.

Instead, the firms inevitably enter the lateral market to fill the gaps, which is expensive and largely hit-or-miss. If firms were to hire more junior lawyers at a lower cost and bill them at lower fees, they might find some hidden gems who can be slotted into the partnership track during these critical years.

Focusing lateral partner decision-making on talent, not portable business. As a legal recruiter who often works with lateral partner candidates, the first question from law firm recruiters is invariably, “How large is their book?” A strategy that overly depends on a reliable portable book of business is doomed to fail. Often the partners with the most reliable portable book are “lone wolves” who rarely cross-sell their clients and are often unavailable or unwilling to work on institutional firm business. Instead, firms should adopt a more nuanced approach that takes into account a variety of factors that can be linked to the lawyer’s eventual success. These factors include:

  • Quality of the lateral’s legal work
  • Historic business development success
  • Strength of the lateral’s business plan
  • Alignment with the firm’s strategic plan
  • Cultural fit

Using sophisticated data analytics to determine what attributes are shared by the firm’s high performers, and making hiring decisions based much more on those attributes. The use of profile assessments, largely de rigueur at many large corporations, is done relatively sparingly at law firms and even less for practicing lawyers. But as firms realize the costs of hiring and maintaining talent, that is likely to change quickly.

Making law firms desirable places to work. While there are many factors that can make a law firm more  — or less — appealing, workspaces do play a role. I am struck by the recent Capital One ad campaign touting their banking centers as banking cafes. While law firms need not go to that extent, many larger firms are putting in different types of workspaces that appeal to the millennial generation. The emphasis is on a more open environment, more collaboration space, and more opportunities to unwind so that the lawyers and other professionals remain sharp, not worn out. Interestingly, such design innovation has also been embraced by more senior lawyers, notes Steve Martin, Practice Area Leader for Professional Services Firms at Gensler.

Increasing management skills training for law firm partners. Associates will tell you that their biggest complaint is not with long hours per se, but with the inevitable “Friday afternoon assignment due Monday morning.” These types of demands, of course, can wreak havoc on their family and personal lives.

Training on how unconscious bias hinders the advancement of diverse lawyers. White males often don’t realize that they treat other white males differently than both women and minorities in assignments, mentoring, evaluations and even social activities. Most lawyers understand the importance of diversity in law practice today but often haven’t come to terms with how their behaviors may be perpetuating discrimination.

You Might Also Like:

“Why the War for Law Firm Talent Is Escalating” by Steve Nelson

“Silicon Valley In-House Counsel Are Deadly Serious About Diversity and Inclusion” by Susan Kostal

“What to Look for When Hiring Your Firm’s First Business Development Director” by Kate Shipham

“The Future of Diversity in Law Firms” by Michelle Silverthorn

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Stephen Nelson Steve Nelson

Steve Nelson is an executive principal at The McCormick Group, an executive search firm based in Arlington, Va. Steve conducts partner-level searches, searches for in-house counsel, and searches for administrative professionals for law firms. In addition, he serves as a consultant for law firm merger planning, practice area expansion, and in recruiting strategy. Steve is a former attorney with 17 years in legal journalism and publishing and is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow him @SKNLegal.

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