Recruiting Revamp: How Benefits Can Help You Hire — And Keep — Top Talent
Firms facing talent shortages should look to their benefits and policies as a recruitment tool.
It’s impossible to ignore the Great Resignation. You’re either living it real time at your legal organization or seeing the phrase with every scroll of your phone.
Freelance Writer and Editor
If you are one of the many firms experiencing a talent exit, it’s more important than ever to understand why. In fact, a report from McKinsey & Company raised a red flag about the need for organizations to examine the reasons behind what they refer to as the Great Attrition. Based on surveys across multiple industries and continents,
their research acknowledged how the pandemic has permanently changed employee expectations. What they discovered is elegant in its simplicity: Show your human side. Now is the moment to focus on the human aspects of work to gain a competitive edge
in recruiting and retaining talent.
An analysis of Bloomberg Law’s 2021 Law Firm Benchmarks Survey revealed how important it is for legal to show that human side, as law firms are confronting increased
HR challenges. Attorney well-being was the most frequently cited concern (55%). Meanwhile, concern about employee retention and overworked attorneys also rose from 13% to 39%, and from 11% to 37%, respectively. Surprisingly, the changes in these areas
outpaced business concerns such as lead generation, technology and training.
“Lawyers and staff have taken on even greater family responsibilities and employers must maintain flexibility in work arrangements in order to attract and retain valued employees,” says John DiBattista, Chief Human Resources Officer at Ballard
To respond, law firms are examining a range of ways they can progressively modify or modernize their HR policies to retain their best attorneys and staff. Here’s what some are doing.
FLEX-TIME AND WELLNESS
While requests for a more balanced work schedule often come from attorneys, Joy Stephens, Senior Consultant at Loeb Leadership, says she has seen more requests from staff wanting to have increased reasonable work-life balance. “[This] includes shorter workdays and fewer expectations of weekend work. I am also seeing more associates and junior partners ask for more routine performance feedback.”
The pandemic has also moved mental health to the forefront. Firms need to be proactive, honest and compassionate in addressing mental wellness.
“To learn how to address employees you might suspect are struggling, ALA began offering the Mental Health First Aid Certification Program in 2021. The initial offering sold out quickly, highlighting the need firms are experiencing when it comes to addressing
“Employers should openly recognize the importance of identifying and offering programs that support and address these concerns,” says DiBattista. “Frequent communications about the services offered through the firm will help to remove
the stigma of mental and behavioral health issues, which in turn can allow our colleagues to more easily ask for the help they need.”
Providing services and alerting employees to them is only one side — they also need the flexibility to attend to these needs.
Flexibility and wellness are both top of mind at Orrick, which received top honors in this year’s Yale Law Women Top Top Firms Report 2022 in the Agency & Flexibility category, which
measures caregiver support policies, part- and flex-time, and remote work policies. “I think attorneys appreciate firms that think innovatively about agile work and recognize the importance that wellness plays in sustaining a successful career,”
says Danielle Van Wert, Senior Manager of Talent Innovation at Orrick.
The firm also offers an “Unplug Time” program. Rolled out in 2021, the policy applies to all members of the firm regardless of role and is part of the firm’s vacation policy. Essentially, they expect lawyers and staff to take one week
fully unplugged each year. Others on staff will back up the employee so they aren’t “on vacation” but still tethered to their work email.
“Over 350 Orrick lawyers and staff took advantage of this policy in 2021, and over 150 so far this year,” says Van Wert. “There is a clear correlation between self-care and high performance, and we’re proud to support our teams
through these programs and continue to build a best place to work culture at Orrick.”
A RELATIONSHIP-BASED — NOT TRANSACTIONAL — CULTURE
Although employees often switch jobs for better pay, benefits and perks, they also want to be part of an organization that cares about them as people. They want meaningful interactions and relationships — not just transactions. And those connections don’t have to be in-person.
“Our focus is on listening to our teams to understand how we can help them be successful at Orrick, in their family lives and within their communities,” says Van Wert. “We know that’s ultimately the key to staying and thriving
in a highly demanding service profession like ours.”
“Sometimes a staff member may need to drop out of the workforce — temporarily — to care for children, elders or other family members. Having a flexible leave of absence policy is an option that can allow the individual to remain employed
with benefit coverage.”
Ballard Spahr’s culture has been a key ingredient in managing its policies. The firm, which also received an honorable mention in the Yale Law Women Top Firms Report 2022 for Agency & Flexibility, was fully remote from March 2020 until October 2021, when it transitioned to a “strongly encouraged” three-day, in-office schedule. The schedule, with the exception of a weekly anchor day —
a predetermined day when team members are in the office to coordinate work and ensure communication — for some practice groups, largely allows lawyers to select in-office days according to their own personal and professional schedules in any
With vaccinations readily available in 2021, many firms eyed Labor Day as the target return to office date. But Ballard Spahr took a different approach.
“Returning to the office in October — rather than after Labor Day like many firms — was intentional,” says Dee Spagnuolo, a member of the firm’s Executive Team and the Partner in Charge, Attorney Career Advancement. “The
firm recognized that parents with children reentering school — many for the first time in 18 months — would be best served by avoiding a return to the office and to school at the same time.”
Of note, top management sent “a firmwide message inviting lawyers and staff to come forward to discuss a schedule that would help individuals manage the demands of home and work, including split shifts, reduced schedules or other more creative arrangements,”
says Spagnuolo. “We felt it was important to intentionally name the challenge and ensure that our colleagues felt heard and seen. That communication opened the door to start a [dialogue].”
REMOTE WORK AS A RECRUITMENT TOOL
A recent NALP Survey on 2021 lateral hiring reported a record year of lawyers jumping to other firms. Overall, lateral hiring increased by a stunning 111% — the highest change in the 23 years that NALP has gathered such data. Lateral hiring was up in firms of all sizes, in all regions and in major cities.
Interestingly, the pandemic created a new cadre of attorneys at Ballard Spahr — “remote natives” — hired before or after March 2020, who had very little in-person contact with colleagues or staff. Ballard Spahr’s formal lateral
integration program, launched shortly after the start of the lockdown, provides a welcome framework of support for attorneys new to the firm.
Over a 12-month period, the program works across departments, providing resources from recruitment; HR; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); business development; and other groups to ensure that new laterals have access and ample opportunities to ask
questions about life at the firm and how to succeed. The program, which is customized to the individual needs of the attorney, ensures that someone checks in with the new hire regularly.
“Building strong relationships with laterals is critical so they feel connected to the firm,” says Spagnuolo. “We want to keep the lines of communication open, level the playing field and make sure all new attorneys benefit from the
full scope of the firm’s relationships and resources.”
In other words, the pandemic proved operating in a remote world is possible for firms. It’s hard to give that up entirely.
It stands to reason that allowing remote work can help recruit and retain lawyers and also can be part of a critical business strategy. Orrick already had a robust agile work program prior to the pandemic, which allowed teams to quickly adapt to remote/hybrid
work, says Van Wert. “The pandemic reinforced our belief that we can deliver excellent client service without being in the office five days a week.”
To measure the impact of remote work, the NALP survey, for the first time, asked offices if lateral hires could work remotely without relocating:
• 15% of offices responded that they hired lateral partners who did not need to relocate
• More than 22% reported hiring lateral associates who did not need to relocate
• 23% reported hiring other lateral attorneys who did not need to relocate
“The ‘Great Reshuffling’ and the intense movement of attorneys in today’s dynamic legal environment is a major reason why we are more open to remote and more flexible arrangements,” says Spagnuolo. “We want the best
people, and we are casting a wider net for talent. This means, in the right situation, we will consider candidates outside of our geographic footprint.”
With the need to retain and incentivize attorneys and staff, firms also may want to reexamine their actual staffing levels.
“(S)taffing up will allow for some capacity to be shouldered by other associates, partners [and] staff,” says Stephens. “So when someone needs to take two or three months off, it does not cripple the firm, and it does not force the firm
to replace them — [other staff] can hold their position until the person returns.”
“Lawyers and staff have taken on even greater family responsibilities and employers must maintain flexibility in work arrangements in order to attract and retain valued employees.”
How does that work? “It’s basic math,” says Stephens. “If 10 people are working at 100% capacity (read that as about to burn out), then adding just one more person takes everyone down to 91% capacity. Everyone will have less stress
and be less likely to quit or take a medical leave of absence.”
Sometimes a staff member may need to drop out of the workforce — temporarily — to care for children, elders or other family members. Having a flexible leave of absence policy is an option that can allow the individual to remain employed with
benefit coverage. “If the employee opts against a leave of absence and decides to leave the firm, we would let them know that we would welcome them back when they are ready to return to the workforce,” says DiBattista. “We also would
ask if they’d like us to maintain contact with them to provide information about new openings at the firm. We might not be able to offer the same position, but we frequently have openings that they might wish to be considered for.”
PROGRESSIVE POLICIES AND BENEFITS
Reassessing HR policies and programs will require management to be open-minded, willing to listen — and to experiment.
For example, like many firms, Ballard Spahr has a generous parental leave policy of 24 weeks (16 weeks paid; 8 weeks unpaid) for lawyers. But one notable policy difference is the ability to defer, or bank, up to eight weeks to use at a later time. It
also subsidizes backup childcare, and at-home childcare or eldercare.
Paralegals and staff are entitled to 12 weeks of fully-paid parental leave for the birth of a newborn (birth and non-birth parents) or placement of an adopted child. In 2022, the firm added fertility coverage for staff and lawyers.
To expand the talent pool of diverse candidates and individuals with disabilities, firms also are changing baseline policies and forming hiring partnerships with additional recruitment sources.
“We have a standing policy dictating that at least one diverse applicant must be interviewed for all open paralegal and staff positions,” says DiBattista. “This policy is at the direction of the Diversity Committee of the Board.
HR presents quarterly reports to measure our success in meeting this commitment and in hiring diverse candidates. In addition, the firm has a partnership with Circa, which sources candidates with a disability as well as veteran and diverse candidates.”
GOING FORWARD AND MAKING AN IMPACT
Above all, communicate, and be consistent in your communications, says Spagnuolo.
“Make time for individual conversations and observe what’s going on. Often, the policies or changes present themselves. Listen to the pressure points and schedule regular interviews. ... Exit interviews can be helpful, but often are too
late to keep talent at the firm.”
You need all the tools you can get to attract the right talent. Fortunately, the 2022 Compensation and Benefits Survey and its companion, the 2022 Large Firm Key Staff Compensation Survey, can help. Both are now open for participation, and the results will provide the comprehensive information you need on law firm salaries, benefits, staffing ratios and turnover — all the important factors you need
for recruiting lawyers and legal staff.
Your participation is crucial to making the report a success. When you complete the survey, you’re contributing to a more comprehensive and detailed data set that can provide your office the edge it needs to stay competitive, especially in the
realms of recruitment and retention. Additionally, participating firms receive a discount on the final survey report, plus access to digital dashboards and customizable reports that compare data locally or nationally.