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Managing law firm talent in a remote work environment

As talent officers and directors from around the world sat across the virtual table during a recent gathering, they examined data from Sharplegal [1], Stellar Performance [2], and Peer Monitor [3] as the foundation for a discussion about what the future holds for talent management and firm management in the remote environment post-pandemic.

The event was hosted by Thomson Reuters Acritas, a market analysis, research, and advisory services business, that delivers market insights and thought leadership that benefits law firm clients.

By taking a look at how some of the top talent officers at successful firms around the world are identifying skills gaps, managing the firm's talent pool, and adapting to the current and future remote working environment, these industry experts gave a glimpse into what gives the most dynamic firms a competitive edge.

Identifying skills gaps

The participants spent a good portion of their conversation discussing some of the key challenges in identifying skills gaps at the firm.

In the Sharplegal research, respondents are asked about the most exceptional lawyers they work with and what makes them stand out. Clients want lawyers who can provide practical advice, which helps them proactively mitigate risk, while remaining responsive. When those same stand-out lawyers were surveyed, they repeated a similar message. In all, there are over 20 qualities recognized by lawyers as helping them to stand out to clients. These qualities group into five broad themes: Business Acumen, Expertise, Service, Client Relationship, and Innovation and Cost Effectiveness.

The expectations clients have of their lawyers aren't new, but as the data shows, business acumen, efficiency, and cost are coming into even greater focus.

Data from Sharplegal, Stellar Performance, and Peer Monitor (U.S. site) show that clients focused on cost and efficiency as areas of improvement for firms. Yes, they want more responsive service, but consistency and understanding the business of their clients are becoming more and more important. In fact, when it comes to delivering value, business understanding becomes the most important, followed by efficiency and cost-consciousness.

“It's an issue across law firms," said one talent officer about increasing business acumen. “Firms are upping their business training and there's demand even among partners."

Whether it's matter management training, creating clear expectations for what development and acumen looks like from junior associates to partners, or sending out industry insights across the firm, the most dynamic firms are using data to zero in on skills gaps throughout the business.

Managing the talent pool

Another topic of discussion centered on how successful firms managed their talent pools during the last year and the best ways to manage them going forward.

Several talent managers noted that the remote working environment has helped many firms confirm what they already knew in concept. Because everyone can now literally see into the homes of their colleagues, it's nearly impossible to ignore the need to do things differently. Most firms are being forced to recreate the organic conversation that happened naturally at work.

“The overwhelming consensus is that change is real and happening," said one attendee. “It will be harder to recruit and retain talent without change, and this flexibility is now expected."

Attendees talked about intentionally pairing younger lawyers with more senior lawyers—putting scheduled check-ins on their calendars rather than leaving it up to the lawyers to schedule—especially during the pandemic. Collaboration could no longer be assumed, but it's also something that firms have increasingly decided to embrace and employ to keep lawyers happy.

The data shows that remote working has created more barriers for some, but less for others. Within teams, there's been a perceived increase in collaboration, according to Stellar Performance and Sharplegal data, with 80% saying it's stayed the same or improved via remote working. However, between teams, 31% note that collaboration has deteriorated in the last year.

When reading between the lines, those who were more proactive, organized, and deliberate about collaboration thrived. However, those who were more reactive, or in the moment, relying on being in the same office, struggled.

There were also demographic differences that came up in both the data and discussion. Female and younger lawyers were more likely to see improvement. Some even shared that they think remote working has helped to remove some of the cultural bias that exists within the office.

So, from where do these contrary views stem? It's both different mindsets and different approaches. Thriving partners see the efficiency gains, utilize the tools available to them, and embrace the flexibility. Struggling partners have had difficulty interacting, managing, training, and collaborating, which leads to less efficiency and less productivity.

Most of the attendees noted that much of this boils down to culture.

“How do you build a culture remotely?" asked one attendee. “There's a divergence of cultures, with micro or subcultures in regions wanting different things. Some locations want to be back in the offices, some want to stay at home. How do we find balance?"

Adapt to changes in work environment

The digital environment has stretched many firms, and attendees of the Chief Talent Officer Round Table noted both the gains and losses associated with remote work.

Technology and access to information have brought some teams and people closer together, but they have also necessitated investment in remote working training to prevent the loss of connection, work/life balance, and business development.

But with the right strategies and access to industry insights and client data, dynamic firms are overcoming the negatives of a fully remote workforce and accentuating the positives.

  1. Sharplegal captures the views of clients at legal departments in large corporations via phone interviews with more than 2,000 senior in-house counsel every year all over the world.
  2. Stellar Performance involves surveys with stand-out lawyers, as nominated by their clients, at law firms across the world.
  3. Peer Monitor is an automated benchmarking system capturing the details of more than 200 law firms on a monthly basis.
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