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Running down our capital assets? Part two – Cultural capital

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In part one of this article, Kevin looked at how risks to the health and wellbeing were increasing as we continued to suffer with various degrees of pandemic lockdown. In this part he turns his attention to Cultural Capital – the glue that keeps you in your firm.

Why should I stay with one firm, rather than move to another? Well because I like the people, I like the atmosphere and the values. It gives me access to the right clients and I enjoy the work. However, for many lawyers, mobile working has let the genie out of the bottle. There are downsides to working in partnership. We don’t like all of the Partners that we work with; some even hold views different from our own! There will be budgets, admin, boring meetings, mentoring and training responsibilities, business development events and reporting to more Senior Partners. What if I could do much the same work as now, but without all that baggage? And, what if I could do that from my comfortable home with no regular commute?

It isn’t just the younger lawyers saying, “See I told you mobile working would be fine.” For many experienced Partners they have realised that they can provide a pretty good legal service to their clients while working from home. If you are going to work from home, all law firms are the same, there’s no cultural glue to hold you to any one firm. I have already seen Partners jumping into platform firms, or to very different ones from their existing one. That happens all the time, but this is for quite different reasons.

The same viewpoint came from our surveys of Millennial Associates. They are starting to feel like a factory worker sitting at a conveyor belt on a production line. Wake up, walk to work on the kitchen table, eat, sleep, repeat – with no real line between home and work life “I’m not working at home; I’m sleeping at the office.” One group of Millennials told us that they were more likely to interview at other firms, because all the interviews were on Zoom, so they didn’t have the worry of being seen going into a competitor’s office, or being spotted in their reception area by a Partner!

What does this mean for firms?

So, for both groups, if you are working remotely, pay and benefits are going to rise up the agenda, although for the Millennials their relationship with their immediate boss still ranked number one. What am I seeing as best practice here? First, I have heard several Managing Partners say that they really are going to reward the Associates for their loyalty and commitment. We already saw that in bonuses in the USA and I expect Europe to follow suit after their equally good results. Next, I have started to see real thought given to understanding and reinforcing some of the cultural glue that can keep people together. I thought one of the best examples here was a firm that organised a series of project teams, jointly with key clients, to explore discrete elements of the legal firm of the future. The teams were funded (in both cash and time off); attached to University experts to provide an external viewpoint; and given the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs and innovators to develop actionable solutions. It was made competitive, there were presentations and great ideas explored. Moreover, by joining in key clients they had tackled the risk, explored in part two of this article, that these relationships are fading during the pandemic.

I was also struck by a conversation with a corporate Partner recently who told me that her work was stressful, tight deadlines, demanding clients – but at least you had a big celebration when the deal completes. Except that now you don’t – we really need to find ways of bringing the fun back or we are going to start losing people. And that is another comment I hear from Managing Partners – that after a lull during lockdown, turnover is picking up again. I don’t think you can fix this without real attention to the fun side of working at your firm.

And what about succession planning?

Finally, outside of the USA, I remain astonished at why so many law firms completely neglect giving any retirement support for Partners, almost all of whom want to carry on working after a scheduled retirement date. I benefited immensely because my previous law firm had such a scheme, and at the Møller Institute I work with a colleague who ran the equivalent scheme for a Big Four Accounting Firm. As a result, we have worked with a number of law firms to support Partners in the lead up to retirement – to their benefit and to the benefit of the firm. For the firm these schemes enable a smooth transition of clients and create ambassadors for the firm in these retired Partners. However, firms with well structured schemes such as this are in a small minority. Most law firms shy away from the topic. This means that the best alternative for many retiring Partners, is for them to “retire” and try to take some of their clients with them to a competitor, or to a platform law firm. What strange behaviour by law firms when better solutions are readily available that would benefit them by £/€ millions a year? Perhaps readers can enlighten me on this lemming like behaviour – I’m genuinely puzzled by it.

In part three of this article, Kevin will look at what may be the most corrosive loss – that client relationships are fading as lawyers lose all their traditional touch points with clients – lunches, coffee in the office, seminars and social events. So how are the best Partners maintaining strong relationships and even winning new clients in lockdown?