October 23, 2012

A 21st Century Approach to Law Firm Talent Management

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December 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 8| Page 60


A 21st Century Approach to Law Firm Talent Management

Under the traditional career model, the route to success is a straight and narrow climb up the ladder. Or, in the context of the law firm world, the path is up or out. But for many, that path just doesn't work anymore-which leads to a critical question: Do we need a new model for how careers are constructed and talent is developed?

When we consider all the changes in the work environment today, are we trying to apply 20th century solutions to 21st century issues? The answer is “yes,” according to the authors of Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace with Today’s Nontraditional Workforce (Harvard Business School Press, 2007). The book, written by Cathleen Benko, a vice chair and chief talent officer for Deloitte Consulting, and Anne C. Weisberg, a talent director for Deloitte, explains how and why their organization has instituted a cutting-edge approach to the work environment called Mass Career Customization.

I spoke with Weisberg to learn why law firms should pay attention to how this model works.

The Changing Workforce: How Trends Are Converging
What has led Deloitte to take a drastic look at the way we approach the workforce? Essentially, the traditional model is based on out-of-date assumptions and is out of alignment with the nature of today’s work environment.

“Professional services businesses,such as law firms, have traditionally taken the approach of seeing changes in the workforce as separate and distinct,” says Weisberg. “But what we are seeing is that several trends are converging at the same time. These trends are working together to create a situation in which a systematic solution to talent management is required.” So what are the trends that are having such an immense impact?

  • Changing family structure. Department of Labor statistics reveal that in 83 percent of households both the husband and wife are now in the workforce.
  • Increased numbers of women workers. Looking at the legal profession alone, women make up at least half of law students—yet personal versus professional demands and the lack of career satisfaction lead many of them to leave law firms instead of entering the partnership ranks.
  • Decreasing supply of knowledge workers. In the next five years, according to the Employment Policy Foundation, the shortage of skilled knowledge employees in the United States will increase to 6 million people. Taking a look at law firms, 70 percent of firm partners are baby boomers and nearing retirement. In addition, the number of attorney jobs increased 24 percent from 1995 to 2005, while the number of lawyers increased only 11 percent. There is also a decline in the number of junior lawyers attracted to partnership.
  • Changing expectations for men. Increasingly, more and more men are unwilling to sacrifice personal time for professional goals.
  • Evolving expectations of Gen X and Gen Y. These generations appear to be more family-centric than the baby boomers and tend to be less loyal to their employers than previous generations.
  • Always-on technologies. Technology has both a positive and a negative impact on the work environment. It allows us to do our work in multiple locations and frees us geographically, but time-wise we are now expected to be on call 24-7.

To date, organizations have tried to address these issues through arrangements such as telecommuting and flex-time, reduced-hours or part-time schedules. But these arrangements are typically provided as temporary solutions to what is considered a once-in-awhile problem among the employee pool. What this approach doesn’t recognize is that this is not an occasional problem anymore. In today’s workplace, these issues are the norm, not the exception.

As Weisberg puts it, “The issue of career-life fit is so much on everyone’s minds at every stage of careers these days. Before, conversations about one’s career and this career-life fit were ad hoc and fragmented.” Now, however, to manage talent within a successful business structure, a much more formal framework needs to be in place. And law firms that fail to address the storm of converging trends are going to find themselves behind the eight ball when it comes to competing for top talent and, in turn, serving the needs of their clients.

The Lattice vs. The Ladder Model: How It Works
The Mass Career Customization model uses a “lattice” metaphor, rather than the straight-and-narrow metaphor of climbing a career “ladder.” The lattice suggests multiple paths upwards, rather than just one preset route. It suggests movement in line with workers’ changing needs, a flexibility that’s more intune with work-life integration, rather than a work-versus-life balance struggle.

In their book, Benko and Weisberg describe this model as the ability to tailor one’s career to the benefit of both the individual and the organization. While still limited in its options, the framework allows an individual to “customize” or create his or her career (in conjunction with the organization) in four areas: pace, workload, location/schedule and role. Those areas are described as follows:

  • Pace. Options relating to the rate of career progression, or how quickly the individual wants to move up in responsibility.
  • Workload. Choices in relation to the quantity of work output; in law firms, for example, this might be number of billable hours required.
  • Location/Schedule. Options for when and where work is performed; this might include the individual’s schedule of hours in the office or whether he or she telecommutes.
  • Role. Choices in position and responsibilities; for lawyers, this might indicate whether they are in a lead role or a role in which they support others.
  • Through a thorough, ongoing conversation with one’s manager, the individual chooses how he or she will contribute in each of these areas, often depending on his or her personal situation at the time. Note that these are the four areas identified at Deloitte that work within its structure. Other organizations, such as law firms, might pick other dimensions.

The essence of the model, however, is that it recognizes how a career can shift with an individual’s personal life—as in, there are times when people choose to go full speed in their career and times, such as when they have small children at home, that they might back off somewhat. The framework allows for fluidity while it also brings a structure for the whole organization, makes trade-offs explicit, and allows for more acceptable options.

Why Law Firms Should Care
The trends converging in today’s workforce affect law firms just as they do corporations and every other business. Consequently, if you want to compete for talent and, thereby, maintain the long-term viability of the firm, your workplace will have to change with the workforce. Talent is, after all, the only asset of a law firm. Audrey Bracey Deegan, who’s director of Deloitte Consulting’s Organization and Change Practice, puts it this way: “The up-or-out system in law firms does not require the kind of attrition that most firms experience. The value of a lawyer is not just in billable hours. It is in the relationships he establishes, knowledge of particular clients he develops, and the specialization he practices. These things are very difficult to replace when intellectual capital walks out the door. In addition, we have found that clients value stability in their teams of lawyers.”

“Mass Career Customization,” Weisberg adds, “provides a framework for career conversations that is embedded into talent management and business processes associated with running a firm. Talent management is a business issue. How do you manage through change if you don’t have a talent management infrastructure? This strategy is about investing in developing people and creating a very positive experience for them, no matter how long they are with [the organization].”

For those interested in trying this type of structure, Weisberg recommends this: “Start small. Begin by creating a pilot program, as we did over the last two years.” As with any talent management strategy, this one should also include processes such as performance evaluations, yearly goal setting, and career development tools.

Firms that decide to take this kind of cutting-edge approach will very likely find more satisfied lawyers, lower attrition rates, and resulting impacts on attracting top talent and better serving clients.

About the Author

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