Report highlights perception gap between partners and fee-earners

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22 March 2016

jonathan whittle

Whittle: firms need “more proactive attitude” to growth

There is a big gap in the way partners and fee-earners at medium-sized law firms view where they work, including “an exaggerated sense of progressiveness among decision-makers”, a new report has found.

Only a third of fee-earners (34%) thought their practices prided themselves in the quality of staff training, compared to double that proportion (68%) of partners.

Fewer than half of decision-makers (47%) described their firms as “traditional”, compared to 57% of fee-earners.

The report by LexisNexis, Mind the Gap, was based on the views of 56 decision-making partners and 100 fee-earners in medium-sized firms across England. Firms had, on average, around 10 partners, 26 other fee-earners and two or three offices.

The firms were confident about the future, with 73% of decision-makers and 62% of fee-earners saying their businesses were growing.

However, while 84% of decision-makers believed the firm had a “clear strategy for the future direction of the business”, only 62% of fee-earners shared their confidence.

The report found that differences in perception were particularly sharp on employment issues, with 19% more partners believing their firms had “high staff retention” and a “democratic bonus system”.

Attracting the right staff headed the list of challenges cited by lawyers in medium-sized firms, with 79% regarding it as “very significant”. This was followed by retaining clients, understanding customers and markets, attracting new clients and staff retention.

“The top five challenges all revolve around clients and staff – not just attracting them, but holding onto them over the long-term,” researchers said.

“And even though mid-size firms are seen to offer a better career path and work/life balance, the lure of high salaries from City firms remains a real threat not just to outer London firms, but also regional players near major business hubs like Manchester and Leeds.

“Clients no longer walk through the door unsolicited, which places a heavy onus on marketing – which isn’t a strong point for many firms.”

Compared to the top five challenges, which were all rated as “very significant” by 50% or more of the lawyers, keeping up-to-date with changes in the law was regarded in that way by 48%, demand for fixed by fees by 30% and finding investment for growth by only 14%.

Researchers detected “a certain degree of complacency” in how decision-makers viewed changes in their businesses. A large majority, 79%, said they had already taken on more staff, while three-quarters had improved their websites.

Fewer than half, 41%, had increased investment in marketing, while only 27% had outsourced non-legal responsibilities. An even smaller group of 7% had bought or merged with another firm.

When it came to the changes they wanted to see implemented over the next year, the gap in the views of decision-makers and partners emerged again.

For decision-makers, the top change was “review of information sources”, followed by investment in training and then marketing. For fee-earners, the change they most wanted was more investment in technology, followed by marketing and training.

Jon Whittle, market development director at LexisNexis UK, suggested that decision-makers were adopting a ‘tick box’ approach to change.

“Firms need to keep pace with the continual changes taking place in the market, which means understanding and adapting to client and staff requirements, keeping processes and infrastructure up to date and embracing a much more proactive attitude to business growth and enhancement.”

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