HR Feature

Trending Resources: 8 Progressive HR Practices for the Modern Law Firm

Firms are increasingly focusing on modernizing their HR practices to attract and retain top talent.

“Innovative” is not typically the first word used to describe law firms. But with an evolving workforce and explosion of technological advances, many firms are embracing more cutting-edge ideas to attract the best talent and provide top-notch service to their clients.

Indeed, 50 percent of respondents to Altman Weil’s 2017 Law Firms in Transition Survey indicated that their firm is actively engaged in creating special projects and experiments to test innovative ideas or methods.

As attorneys and staff increasingly become a priority, firms are modernizing their human resources practices to attract and retain top talent.

“It is absolutely integral that law firms take their human resources as seriously as possible,” says Jordan Furlong, Principal of Law21. “I’m not sure that law firms have traditionally appreciated that as much as they do now.”

Below are eight progressive human resources practices being adopted within law firms.

1. HOLISTIC DEVELOPMENT

One-size-fits-all training is no longer meeting the demands of diverse associate classes, who come to firms with wide ranges of life experiences. “Law firms are taking their human development or their human management more seriously than they have in the past, which is unquestionably a good thing,” says Furlong.

Some firms have found that a more holistic approach to training is more effective at reaching and developing attorneys and staff at the firm.

“We recognize that everyone comes to us with a unique learning need — there are people who come to us experienced, people who come right from school, people changing practice groups, and people coming on the staff side with different responsibilities,” says Susan Manch, Chief Talent Officer at Winston & Strawn LLP. “We want to provide training that is specialized to that person and his or her needs. We want to have the right environment for people to learn with a 360 approach.”

At Winston, this holistic approach includes a development framework based on four core competencies: 1) client focus, 2) management skills, 3) professionalism and leadership, and 4) legal excellence (for attorneys) and professional excellence (for staff).

“We make sure everything that we do to train people, as well as the way we recruit and make hiring decisions, are focused on these core competencies,” says Manch.


One-size-fits-all training is no longer meeting the demands of diverse associate classes, who come to firms with wide ranges of life experiences.




2. IN-HOUSE COACHING

Firms are also bolstering their development programs with personalized coaching for attorneys and staff.

For example, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP has an in-house career coaching program. The coaches offer a confidential, safe place to discuss one’s career trajectory, says Kathleen Pearson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Pillsbury. They work with attorneys on everything from time management to business development. To encourage attorneys to use the coaching services, Pearson and her team select a different class each year to participate in one mandatory coaching session.

Similarly, to support its holistic development strategy, Winston hired an internal coach to work with all attorneys and staff on career planning, refining development and achieving peak performance. The in-house coach will also supervise the firm’s external coaching programs, such as business development, parental leave and secondment advising.

“We are making sure that we’re giving everyone the individual attention they need,” says Manch. “You can go to a training program and hear lots of information, but you may struggle with how to apply it in your practice. That’s where coaching comes in.”

3. INFORMAL REVIEWS

With a more holistic view of development and an appreciation for the faster pace of today’s legal environment, firms are shifting their outlooks on how to handle performance evaluations.

“The emphasis in performance management is moving very significantly away from review-based feedback to data-driven coaching and mentoring,” says Terri Mottershead, Principal of Mottershead Consulting. “Firms are increasingly making feedback part of an informal, development-focused, ongoing two-way dialogue, which is based on data. The dialogue happens when needed, so midcourse corrections can be made or support provided.”

This informal approach better complements fast-paced modern legal practice and still allows for organic opportunities for performance discussions.

For example, Mottershead advises firms to discuss performance during key junctures in a long matter and end-of-matter debriefs. “This provides a great opportunity to bring the whole team together, look at data that identifies gaps, be very candid about how everyone performed, celebrate and entrench what worked well, determine what could have been done better, focus on whether client needs and expectations were met, and explore how each person’s strengths can be best used going forward,” says Mottershead.

Another way that firms are innovating their review systems is by changing the communication relating to the performance. Baker McKenzie, for example, eliminated ratings associated with performance.

“It took that stress away of rating people and allowed supervisors to provide more meaningful feedback to them on actual performance and, more importantly, the expectations,” says Kristina Camaj, the firm’s North America Director of Human Resources.


Legal human resources departments are achieving greater efficiency and organization through software management, allowing firms to automate and manage areas like recruiting, training, benefits and more in one place.




4. EMPHASIS ON STAFF DEVELOPMENT AND ASSESSMENT

Staff development has become an important focus as law firms recognize the value of training and retaining top non-attorney talent.

Baker McKenzie, for instance, offers a self-service training tool for non-attorney employees, with a wide variety of learning opportunities including leadership and writing skills. This tool is complemented by a newsletter that highlights available training opportunities.

“This training system is a great tool for managers to use when developing the performance priorities and objectives,” says Camaj.

Staff performance reviews are another area that firms are overhauling to address the unique needs of today’s workforce. Pillsbury is launching a new review system for its staff that focuses on performance behaviors and best practices. Through this review process, staff will create goals to move their careers forward.

“We live in a very dynamic world and all of our skills need to keep up,” says Pearson.

Additionally, some firms are changing their approach to staff skill assessments. Firms are taking a gentler approach with “knowledge checks” to understand employees’ skills, says Cindy Mitchell, Director of Product Development at Traveling Coaches. “They’re focusing a lot more on the development of specific competencies,” she says.

5. FLEXIBILITY AS POLICY

According to Cushman & Wakefield’s Bright Insight: The 2017 National Legal Sector Benchmark Survey, associates’ No. 1 priority is work-life balance.

“Nearly every time I meet with law students, they are concerned with work-life balance and work-life fit,” says Kate Bischoff, Employment Attorney and HR Consultant at tHRive Law & Consulting LLC.

While many firms permit flexible work schedules, some are now offering formal flex-time policies. One such policy is behind Baker McKenzie’s new program: bAgile. This program formalizes four types of flexible working for both attorneys and staff: remote work, part-time hours, alternative hours and time off. The firm previously offered various formal and informal flexible working opportunities, but Camaj notes that only pockets of people were taking advantage of the opportunities.

“We wanted to have an avenue where people felt comfortable making these requests, and HR, the employee and the supervisor could work together,” she says.


Staff development has become an important focus as law firms recognize the value of training and retaining top non-attorney talent.




6. GENDER- AND ROLE-NEUTRAL LEAVE

Another progressive work-life leap is the offering of gender-neutral and/or role-neutral parental leave programs.

Pillsbury offers all employees — regardless of gender or position at the firm — 12 weeks of paid leave to be taken during the first year of the child’s life. This policy extends to adoption, as well.

“We’re really proud of our gender- and role-neutral new-baby-care policy,” says Pearson.

Winston couples its gender-neutral parental leave policy with personalized coaching before and after the leave period, and it provides a transition period upon the parent’s return to build back up to billing at full pace.

“We felt we owed our attorneys this leave benefit,” says Manch. “They have to work so hard. This gives them the opportunity to have a real downtime with their child.” According to Manch, law students and lateral attorneys have been drawn to this broader parental leave offering. “This is a program that really recognizes that life has changed,” she says.

7. TECHNOLOGY AND AUTOMATION

Legal human resources departments are achieving greater efficiency and organization through software management, allowing firms to automate and manage areas like recruiting, training, benefits and more in one place. Firms may select from a range of options, including human capital management (HCM), human resource management software (HRMS) or human resource information system (HRIS), depending on their needs. Or they may customize a system. HCM systems like Workday are appealing because they include talent management, providing a broader reach.

According to Camaj, a more comprehensive approach is ideal because it provides firms with data on the entire life cycle of an employee.

No matter how firms proceed, they should be aware of the options as well as automation’s impact on the legal sphere.

“To me, it’s a differentiator,” says Manch, whose firm is developing its future human resources data- and program-management system, which will include learning paths, a performance assessment and management component, an HRIS system, and a learning platform for their e-learning library. “The legal market is very crowded. For us to attract the very best people, we have to offer an engaging workplace — a place where, if you come here, you will be better because we’re going to support you in achieving peak performance.”

Along with automation, some firms are exploring how artificial intelligence can bolster human resources. In fact, more than one-third of respondents to Altman Weil’s 2017 Law Firms in Transition Survey indicated that they are already using artificial intelligence tools or have begun to explore such tools.

Firms should familiarize themselves with the technology and how it may improve their human resources functions. But firms shouldn’t adopt artificial intelligence blindly. “The concern is that artificial intelligence tools can have bias just like a human, so there are risks,” says Bischoff. Firms must fully inform themselves of all their options, as well as the benefits and downsides associated with the technology.


Winston couples its gender-neutral parental leave policy with personalized coaching before and after the leave period, and it provides a transition period upon the parent’s return to build back up to billing at full pace.




8. BROADENED RECRUITING FOCUS

Attracting top talent has never been more important for law firms, and this is true not just for attorneys but also for staff positions.

Modern technology’s influence on legal practice has made efficiency (as it relates to operations, processes and systems) and effectiveness integral to how law firms work, says Mottershead. It has also resulted in non-attorney specialist positions evolving into specialist professions, she says. Thus, recruiting non-attorney specialists who will bolster the firm’s work and income-earning activities is critical. Human resources professionals must understand the business of the firm and where it’s going as they develop these hiring strategies, says Mottershead.

With changing approaches to performance management, talent management, work-life policies and efficiency, firms are placing a greater emphasis on their biggest assets — their people. To remain competitive, firms should stay abreast of progressive trends and continue to strengthen their human resources strategies to attract and retain talent.

About the Author

Mary Kate Sheridan is a writer and attorney with a JD from Columbia Law School and a BA in writing from Mary Washington College. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School.

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