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Managing

Strategic Talent Management: Top Issues and To-Dos for Firms

It’s no secret that the new reality of law firm economics has put a spotlight on effective talent management. But how do you tackle the challenges involved? In the following conversation, an expert in the field offers insights.

Today’s law firms face multiple questions about how to identify, recruit, train, develop, evaluate, compensate, promote and succession plan for their top-performing talent. This installment of Managing continues to focus on best practices for lawyer professional and career development through a conversation with Terri Mottershead, former director of professional development for DLA Piper and now principal of her own talent management consultancy. She is also the general editor of The Art and Science of Strategic Talent Management in Law Firms (West, 2010). This is part one of a two-part conversation.

What do you see as the top talent management issues for law firms over the next year or two?

Terri Mottershead:

For a long time law firms have not connected the dots between they manage their talent and their ability to achieve their business performance goals. Firms have properly focused on their pipeline of client work but not as much on building the pipeline of talent to deliver that work. Today, though, there is a drive to greater efficiency, a thinning out of the midlevel-associate tier, fewer new associates and partners, and the need for what will be a number of different business models emerging for law firms. Given that, these are the top three talent management issues I see for the next year:
  • Leadership skills. Does your firm know what skills it needs in its leaders? Do you have the skills? Will your leadership team include the diversity of input needed to lead the firm in the 21st century?
  • Project management know-how. Does your firm know how to manage a project cost-effectively? Do you have access to skilled staff working in cost-effective premises that will allow you to accomplish this? What are you doing about capturing and improving processes, protocols, policies, systems and databases? Are the advances you’re making in this area sustainable and customized or a short-term reaction to the current economy?
  • Career development. Firms need to audit who they have and who they need, and to employ and deploy people based on different business models and different career paths. The up-or-out path to partnership as the only career model for attorneys may continue to work for some firms, but for many more it is an outdated and inefficient lawyer-staffing model.

In particular, the firm’s development focus needs to be directed to top performers because identifying and retaining them is the key. The current market surplus of lawyers doesn’t impact this group and the “war for talent” will continue on in an ever-more competitive and segmented legal marketplace.

How should firms address the issues you’ve just described?

TM:

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to all of this—and there shouldn’t be. I think there is as much, if not more, value in working through these important questions as there is in finding the solutions. The way firms need to go about addressing these things is, however, consistent, and here are my top five things to focus on:
  • Change the discussion about talent management. Take it from an administrative task to a strategic imperative critical to the firm’s success.
  • Understand that talent management draws on many of the same skills you use in client relationship management, and in both instances, strong relationships lead to retention. Clients and associates come to your firm to work with the best. They look to you, as partners, for honest, candid advice, expecting that it is given with their best interests at heart. Their success is your success.
  • Be prepared to think out of the box, innovate, be entrepreneurial, and seek out the opinions of those you normally do not consult. Worry less about what other firms have done and more about what you need to do to differentiate your firm.
  • Identify and employ the right talent management specialists to work with your firm’s management team to audit, implement, review and measure the success of talent initiatives and changes in the firm.
  • Understand that you and your firm are undergoing change. Change is not comfortable. However, if well managed, change can be transformative. Poorly managed, it can destroy a firm. Not managed at all, it will eat away at loyalty, retention, morale and top performance like a deadly virus.

Why should strategic talent management be of such high interest to firms? Or put differently, why now?

TM:

As I mentioned, the legal industry is in the midst of what I believe will be a permanent change. Change in the work firms do. Change in how they do it. Change in where the work comes from. Change in how firms are led and managed, and in what will or will not be appropriate measures of success. It is the sort of change that requires new ways of looking at things and a new set of skills developed around things like innovation, flexibility, adaptability, communication, relationship building, diversity and efficiency. Remember, too, the technology revolution has spawned an unprecedented thirst for and access to legal knowledge, and this has produced more sophisticated purchasers of legal services. Knowledge, change and people are therefore inextricably bound together.

Many law firms have realized this and are putting talent management—their people—at the top of their strategic agendas. But it is still not as widespread as the industry needs it to be. Firms need to learn best practices and get more practical support as they work through these changes and connect the dots between managing their client work and ensuring they have the pipeline of talent to deliver on it. Top-performing talent will allow you to create, entrench and sustain a top-performing law firm, no matter what the firm’s size.

On the flip side of that, due to ongoing fiscal constraints, many law firms have cut professional development budgets. What advice do you have for firms dealing with that choice?

TM:

The need for consistency and reliability in the quality of lawyering skills as well as the need for first-rate firm leadership and management skills does not go away in a challenging economy. It has been argued by others, and I agree, that in tough times firms should possibly even increase their investment in their top performers (knowledge and service providers); in technology (increased efficiencies); and in business development (relationship building).

Having noted that, I am in favor of cutting PD budgets that support duplication of effort, random acts of training, talking-head presentations, training programs with no follow-up or follow-through, and ones that shy away from using technology and social media in learning, as well as PD departments that work independently of any other aspect of talent management. I don’t favor these because they are inefficient, ineffective and outdated.

It follows from there that I believe it is a mistake to cut the budget of a well-run PD unit because the work of these departments directly supports, contributes to and measures the contribution it makes in the achievement of the firm’s business goals. This does not mean, by the way, that changes in the marketplace should not be reflected in the PD budget—every business leader and owner knows that you manage with the market in mind. What it means is that there has to be an agreed-on core investment, items that are protected in the budget for as long as possible because they are recognized as key in being able to effectively and efficiently run the business. Talent management requires consistency and reliability in the firm’s commitment to the development of core skills so quality can be sustained. The key for firms in all of this is understanding what professional development investments should and can contribute to a 21st century law firm. It is all about aligning PD’s work to the firm’s and practice groups’ strategic plans and working closely with senior management, and other business owners, to achieve business performance goals.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon

is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA, 2000).

For more on professional development and how to boost your firm’s talent game plan, see the features in

Law Practice magazine’s September/October 2010 issue at www.lawpractice.org/magazine.

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