Posted by Jay Bhayani, managing director of Legal Futures Associate Bhayani HR & Employment Law
As the world starts to re-open, we hear of many businesses planning to expand and recruit. However, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit. An article in the Guardian explains that the UK is experiencing its worst labour shortage since 1997.
Brexit resulted in many highly skilled professionals, including lawyers and legal candidates, leaving the UK to return to their country of origin. On top of that, the legal industry experienced significant changes due to the pandemic.
According to the Financial Times, UK law firms advertised more than 2,300 jobs for London-based associates last year, with one magic circle firm advertising 103 jobs in London between January and November 2021.
However, firms struggle to fill the vacancies since they compete for the same people. Recruiting is highly competitive post-pandemic, and the legal industry faces unique recruitment challenges.
Whilst there is a boost in demand for legal services, especially in the private equity, global M&A, real estate, tax, and insolvency areas, the industry is seeing an exodus of talent.
Changes in the pandemic work environment will inevitably also lead to changes in employment law. A safe working environment, vaccine mandates, new definitions of flexible working, and new policies will also increase work for employment law practitioners.
At the same time, law firms must ask themselves how they should adapt to the post-pandemic work environment.
The pandemic saw many lawyers quitting the profession due to exhaustion and wanting a more balanced lifestyle. Surveys suggest that many legal professionals seek new jobs outside the legal industry.
So, where does this leave recruitment in the legal profession? Everything points to a highly competitive market. The migration of talent means candidates can demand better packages, and law firms are under pressure to attract and retain talent.
The legal profession post-pandemic is entirely different from the situation two years ago. The days of attracting talent with the “corner office and an excellent salary” are over.
Expectations have changed. The way legal firms work has changed. Recruitment must step up to address these changes. Old strategies won’t succeed in the post-pandemic market.
What are lawyers looking for post-pandemic?
The pandemic revealed the realities of law firm life. Without the corporate image, fancy offices, state-of-the-art coffee machines and free food, entertaining clients and socialising with like-minded people, lawyers had time to reflect on what they do and what they get in return. Workload and undefined hours made many question what they want in life.
At the same time, lockdowns and temporary measures created a more flexible environment with working from home structures. Employees could mould their working life around personal and family needs. Home lives and working lives were suddenly connected.
Lawyers could be productive and achieve results but have a life outside the office. The emphasis shifted from how many hours you worked to what you achieved. Late nights at the office do not necessarily mean better productivity or great work.
Suddenly, lawyers saw what life could be like away from strict office hours. Remote working meant going to the gym between meetings or fetching children from school whilst being productive later in the day. A work-life balance was far more achievable with a flexible approach.
Overall, there was a massive shift in mindset towards a balance, not just in the legal industry. Although the idea of work-life balance always sounded like a wonderful theory not meant for successful lawyers, the pandemic proved otherwise.
A focus on wellbeing
Remote working eased the pressure of long commutes, frantic office environments, and ‘all work, no play’ cultures. After experiencing a more balanced lifestyle, many lawyers are no longer prepared to return to the stressful and sometimes toxic 24/7 office life.
They value their mental health and overall wellbeing more than ever before. Money might not be enough to make lawyers want to return to the office.
After two years of remote working, legal professionals expect flexibility and a different mindset. They want flexibility around the hours they work and where they choose to work from. They want a focus on results rather than timesheets.
A healthy company culture
Lawyers are now looking for a work experience that improves their lives, not just the other way round. They don’t just want to be an asset to the firm.
The company culture must offer support, trust, fairness and be an asset to their lifestyle. It must be a culture to be proud of. They want to be part of something more, not just another law firm.
How can you be the employer of choice post-pandemic?
Whilst some law firms have responded with increased salaries and bonuses, it won’t be enough to attract and retain talent post-pandemic. Being competitive in the recruitment market means embracing new expectations and keeping up with recent market trends.
The post-pandemic legal market could be an exciting prospect for new, young candidates. Graduates entering the market look forward to a new culture away from old traditional ways of working, whilst current lawyers want to benefit from a new dynamic in the workplace. Many lawyers are unlikely to return to traditional forms of working.
How should firms respond to new expectations?
Offer flexibility – it is expected and necessary.
Although flexible working hours was always an attractive incentive, the pandemic firmly settled it into an expectation.
Flexibility doesn’t mean always working from home. It means embracing a different mindset to traditional desk-based working. Seriously rethink when and where employees can work. Consider hybrid or remote working models.
Post pandemic, flexibility is a huge selling point. Professionals now know that work can be effectively done outside the office. If another firm embraces flexibility, they won’t return to 50-hour in-office working weeks and long commutes.
Embracing flexibility will boost your chances of attracting the best talent.
Shift the focus to wellbeing
It might be time to re-evaluate the system of billable hours. Relieving the pressure created by target hours could go a long way in reducing mental stress. Of course, services must be delivered on time, but juniors are no longer prepared to be worked to the ground.
Firms will have to look at alternative ways to achieve the same results.
Mental health support is no longer a bonus. It must be part and parcel of the overall package. Firms that embrace overall wellbeing will soon be the employer of choice for young talent.
Packages should include health insurance, family leave, contributions to wellbeing programmes, gym memberships, etc. Shift the focus from timesheets to the overall wellbeing of the firm and your employees.
Recent research shows that firms that offer a positive company culture are the most likely to attract new talent. This could be a challenge in a remote working environment. Employers will have to develop innovative ideas to build an inclusive and supporting office culture in a remote working environment.
It might also be time for reflecting on the past few months. Candidates may evaluate your firm based on how you handled the job and salary cuts.
Plus, how did you look after your employees during the pandemic? Were you fair? Did the partners also take cuts? Did you assist employees? The answers to these questions give a candidate good insight into the values and culture of your firm.
Embracing/investing in technology
The pandemic has brought about a reliance on technology. Firms and candidates that can use software and hardware, plus demonstrating digital expertise will excel.
Embracing technology comes with challenges. Firms will have to invest in technology to equip their workforce to work remotely. A generation that grew up with technology expects their future employer to be up-to-date with the latest trends.
Have an open mind
The future generation thinks differently. Millennials and Gen Z have already had an impact on traditional working cultures. Even before the pandemic, it was not all about salaries and status.
Post pandemic, this is even more apparent with a massive shift towards flexibility, digital working, benefits, and company culture playing a significant role in candidates accepting new positions.
To attract the best legal talent and ensure your firm’s success, you must keep an open mind. This could mean that you have to take a leap of faith, but this generation demonstrated resilience during all the uncertainties and unexpected pandemic changes.
Where do you start?
The answer is simple – at the job advertisement.
Explain your approach to new expectations regarding flexible, hybrid or remote working. Discuss career development and progression. Set out working conditions and benefits in a way that demonstrates your office culture.
At the interview, ‘sell’ your firm. What do you offer the candidate? Do you have support systems in place? Explain your office culture. Other than work, do you support any charities or wellness programmes. Is there a social element? Candidates now make decisions based on much more than the salary.
Are there any benefits for employers in this new post-pandemic market?
Yes, besides being able to pick from a pool of talent that is resilient, innovative, and highly skilled in technology, remote working has expanded your recruiting options. You are no longer bound by location. You can now recruit the best candidate, not just the best local candidate.
This generation proved that they could successfully work from home in difficult times. They’ve adjusted and delivered in unprecedented circumstances. They’ve stepped up to meet the challenges in a crisis. You cannot ignore the changed expectations of associates, junior lawyers and even partners.
By embracing their expectations, you can successfully navigate the current recruitment challenge.
Firms that are reluctant to step up to new expectations and new working models might face an even bigger recruitment crisis than the existing one.