Guest post by Paul Bennett, chair of the Law Society’s leadership and management section, and a partner at Bennett Briegal, advising on partnership and legal services issues
What will your law firm look like in terms of working practices and its culture in five years’ time?
How firms develop and maintain their culture to attract and retain talent has evolved. While law firm leaders have experienced seismic changes to working practices over the last three and a half years, the challenges of future working practices will look different. Is your firm ready?
The old Darwinian cliché applies – that it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives, nor the strongest, but the species that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.
Practically, this means that law firms need to implement a plan of change.
The Law Society is running ‘The future of work’ conference on 19 October 2023, which I am chairing, to try and pull together expert speakers in relation to the challenges ahead.
SRA rule changes
Leadership and management have never been more important in terms of supervision of and support for our teams. In May 2023, the Solicitors Regulation Authority updated its workplace culture guidance, shortly after introducing new rules on the work environment.
One of the revised rules reads: “You treat colleagues fairly and with respect. You do not bully or harass them or discriminate unfairly against them. If you are a manager you challenge behaviour that does not meet this standard.” (Code of Conduct for Firms, standard 1.5)
Good supervision is now an expectation, including for partners (‘managers’ in SRA speak). Firms need to supervise effectively to ensure there is no bullying or harassment and to have systems and processes in place to prevent problems and address issues fairly.
In my experience, firms have failed to adapt to this new expectation, with limited understanding of the rules and little, if any, training. I fully expect to see a flurry of disciplinary decisions in 18 to 24 months’ time reflecting supervision failures, with reputations of firms and individuals tarnished by this poor understanding.
Training regarding supervision should now be viewed, like anti-money laundering training, as necessary on a regular basis.
Culture and societal change
After Covid forced firms to adapt dramatically to an unprecedented event, the expectations of clients, staff and potential recruits are now evolving – in my view, now is the time to be planning your law firm’s future.
It has been widely reported that HSBC and Lloyds banks have ordered staff back to the office in recent weeks, following the lead of some of the investment banks which did so earlier this year.
For large law firms, client expectations will form part of their culture: what do their banking and big business clients expect of their advisers? Smaller law firms will have different pressures, probably more driven by recruitment and retention.
It can be difficult for solicitors and law firms to know exactly what their culture is and how this impacts on the day-to-day lives of their team.
I vividly recall speaking with a chief executive of a well-known law firm about a decade ago who told me how culture and positive results being shared internally were critical to his firm’s success. Unknown to him, I had advised more of that firm’s staff and partners – including whistleblowers and those planning to leave to compete because they loathed the culture – more than any other over the previous three years.
Culture matters. It matters to each and every employee, but knowing the real culture can be a challenge unless you are alert to the supervision risks.
I will argue at the conference that law firms need to upskill their supervisors and managers. You may be a brilliant solicitor but does that make you a brilliant supervisor? Imagine if former Barcelona midfield legend Pep Guardiola decided to stop coaching his Manchester City players for a season and just leave them to it. Would they still be as successful?
LawCare’s Life in the Law survey in 2021 highlighted how the majority of law firm partners have had no training on management. I’ve been doing it for more than 15 years and am still regularly the first training many supervisors have had on managing their team.
We all know law firms are people businesses, so why would any leader not take stock of where their firm is right now, where they would like it to be and how they might get there?
We also know from the Covid period that burnout (both physical and digital) is a heightened risk that we need to manage, and we need to think about how we make our firms attractive to clients, suppliers and talent.
Finding your own way
I expect different speakers at the conference to have distinct options for law firms to ensure they are ready for the future.
There is no one perfect solution, so a range of views, experiences and options is essential. It is why firms cannot just listen internally to the needs of their clients and teams but must look at what works best for others too and how they are evolving.
Returning to a footballing analogy (and in a bid to curry favour with Legal Futures’ editor), would Luton Town have got promoted to the Premier League this year if manager Rob Edwards had not maintained the existing culture of trust and togetherness across his squad after joining midseason?
The solutions in football look different with different budgets, financial resources and talent for Manchester City and Luton. What constitutes success will look different as well. Similarly, we will see different approaches and successes in law as well.
Creating lasting cultural change
One of the sessions I am involved with at the conference is called ‘Creating lasting cultural change’. Sheffield University’s Emma Jones will share insights from her research into wellbeing and emotions in legal practice during this session as I focus on supervision practically.
As someone who came to law slightly later, having first had a commercial career, I have always understood the importance of good management, not least because to progress in business I had to take a course to develop people management skills.
We will be looking at the practical lessons for law firms of wellbeing, emotions, managing the supervision of others and ensuring your culture is embedded and durable, whether that is fully remote, hybrid or predominately office based now and in five or 10 years’ time.
The conference is an opportunity for law firm leaders to expand their knowledge and build on their own work by listening to me and experts across a range of disciplines is a timely one, so I urge you to take it and be ready for the evolution of the legal workplace which is ahead.