Law firms lose people too easily. Trainees come and go like fallible components in a greedy machine and qualified lawyers move on so readily that they seem not so much to have career paths as crazy paving. What a ridiculous cost, what a waste of time and energy.
I think this is a huge issue for the profession in such a competitive age but I want to explore this issue not from the perspective of the management of the law firm but from the perspective of the client. It is my assertion that it is in the context of the lawyers? relationships with their clients that the issue of lawyer retention is best managed. If we can get the client relationship right, I think retention is less of an issue.
In business, senior executives are often heard to say ?Our people are our biggest asset?. What hard pressed Chief Executive, I wonder, has not resorted to this potentially tired old clich? at a sales launch, results announcement or social gathering?
For the cynics, in our less well run companies, it is mere management mouthwash but for others who have seen what it can mean in practice, it is shorthand for saying that without the talent, dedication and thoughtfulness of the workforce our company would not be able to do what it does as well as it does it.
For the less well run companies, it is no more than a platitude; it is the right thing to say but not necessarily believed? either by those who say it or those to whom it is said. But for other companies it is a golden thread that runs through the culture of the organisation; not so much a process or policy but something that is lived and breathed by everyone in a way that cannot be captured by the latest management school fad.
In the legal profession, how close are law firms to saying and believing that ?our people are our biggest asset?? The answer, I passionately believe, is to seek out the client and ask them ?What do you value??
Does the client value the law firm?s swanky new office in the plusher end of town? Does the client value the immaculate leather sofa in the reception area? Does the client value the glossy newsletter and electronic alerts that clog up their mail boxes? Does the client even value the legal expertise of the lawyers they instruct?
I am sure they do not.
In relation to legal expertise this is a bit scary but stay with me. Has any client ever phoned their lawyer to congratulate them on their interpretation of the latest regulatory trap to impact on their business? To marvel at the quality of the warranty clause just drafted? (?Oh, so many subjunctive clauses I could hardly contain my excitement!?) Or to swoon at the cleverness of the proposed pre-action protocol? ?You know what, I suspect not!
No, clients assume lawyers can do law. They also assume all lawyers can do law because otherwise why would they be called lawyers?
But this assumption immediately renders the expertise of the lawyer less valuable because there is no point of differentiation. This is potentially horrible but it is true.
Let me make the point a different way by using a patently silly illustration. If everyone could paint like Rembrandt why would anyone pay $50 million dollars for a painting? If we all could sing like Streisand why pay $200 for a concert ticket?
But we cannot paint or sing as well and so we value what they do. The value is obvious – we can see and hear the difference and as a result we know how much better they are.
There is no similar point of reference for lawyers. We know they know legal stuff that we don’t know but as we cannot buy their CDs or frame their work to hang it on our walls, the question remains what the hell is it worth?
The answer is that it is worth nothing without the service that delivers their expertise. And it is service that clients can value. They value empathy, thoughtfulness, helpfulness, lawyers who listen, who present coherently, who are accessible, available and likeable. Clients want ease of use, no surprises, budgets kept and time commitments met. None of this is rocket science but none of it is about the law either.
It takes years to qualify as a lawyer and the certificates on the wall are testimony to hard work and intellect but they are not a testimony for value.
Those law firms, whether by accident or design, who can invest in training lawyers to deliver value, to understanding their clients best interests, actually create an environment where value is transparent and contributions are appreciated.
If you were a lawyer in such a firm, the work would be stimulating, interesting, more fun? the work would flow to you because of the quality of the relationship. Loyalty would become embedded and profitability would be easier to sustain based on long term relationships of mutual respect and appreciation.
Why would you leave such a firm? Why would anyone risk giving up this environment?
For too long now law firms have got it wrong. Whatever the protestations about people as assets, trainees leave too readily and if qualified lawyers with years of investment in their careers can move to a competitor with little more to keep them than the grumpy handshake of the managing partner there is something fundamentally wrong.
At this point I hope some of you reading this have nodded your headed in agreement and perhaps you are thinking you might even discuss the thoughts with a colleague over a coffee? but now the tricky bit and the challenge to you.
What are you going to do about it?
You see, I don’t think this is about HR policies or salaries or offices with windows. Dare I say it; it is not about leather sofas in reception either. The issue is more serious, more fundamental. I know cultures don’t change as a result of one article but actually the position is so important that maybe this is the start of a change you should be making.
The experience of working for a law firm has to be more satisfying. It has to work at a level which fundamentally goes beyond mere salary or the perks of an office life. It has to make us feel appreciated.
My assertion is that it is in the quality of the relationship with the client that we can get most of what we want from a career in the legal profession. The quality of the relationship is entirely dependent on the value the client perceives from the relationship and the value they perceive has little or nothing to do with the legal expertise deployed on their behalf but on the service they receive.
Law firms that understand this will build businesses that have the necessary trust and confidence to sustain both clients and lawyers because a culture that works for the client will work for the lawyers too.