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Law Office Management: Talent wars

|Written By Kevin Marron

Not only are associates coveted here at home but also law firms operating in international waters are eying Canada''s legal talent pool. To protect the future of your firm, you need a strategy that addresses the concerns of today''s associates and makes them feel like part of your family.

With an international war for talent threatening to thin out the ranks of associates in Canadian law firms, William Tuer understands the importance of remaining calm under fire.

The managing partner of Calgary-based Macleod Dixon LLP sees no point in expressing frustration or displeasure when a high-flying associate leaves the firm to take up an opportunity overseas. It is better, he says, to be understanding and supportive to make the young lawyer feel that he or she will be welcome to return to the firm at any time.

Tuer says his firm has been successful in persuading several good associates to come back to the firm after taking a few years off for overseas work, education, or other purposes. And he regards this as a significant achievement in a "challenging market" where there is "more demand for good associates than there is supply."

Finding and retaining good associates is a huge challenge for almost any aw firm today and it is more difficult in the booming Calgary market than almost anywhere else, according to Toronto-based recruiter Stephen Nash, chief executive officer of The Counsel Network.

With an expanding global economy creating a worldwide demand for legal talent, many of Canada's best and brightest are being lured away from Canadian firms by the promise of lucrative and attractive overseas positions, according to Nash.

This leaves Canadian firms scrambling to fill vacant positions and bulk up their own staff to handle the heavy workload generated by a strong Canadian economy. It also results in firms poaching associates from one another, he says, "because the only place they can look is across the street."

Nash says the demand for legal talent tends to follow cyclical patterns that correspond with periods of economic boom and bust. He says the current cycle is still on the rise. "Firms are really struggling now, but I don't think we are at the peak yet. I think it's going to get a little bit tougher."

In this war for talent — as in any war — fortune tends to favour the big and wealthy. Huge, multinational firms are likely to be able to offer more money and more interesting work than most Canadian firms. Large Canadian firms have the same advantage over their smaller rivals. Toronto firms may be able to outgun their counterparts in smaller cities.

So how can you redress this imbalance of power? What does it take to keep your associates onside?

Nash says smaller firms must "play to their strengths." They can't compete in terms of money or in offering the opportunity to work on big corporate deals, but they can come up with other benefits, such as working more closely with partners, more contact with clients, and the opportunity to become partners earlier in their career.

This challenge is made somewhat easier, though in other respects more complicated, by the fact that financial compensation is not necessarily the prime motivating factor for today's generation of younger lawyers. As J. Gregory Richards, managing partner at WeirFoulds LLP in Toronto points out, people want to have a sense that they are paid fairly, and you certainly don't win anyone over by paying them less than the going rate, "but you can't think that your work is over if you throw a bunch of money at them."

If financial compensation is all you have to offer new recruits, it will be difficult to retain them for long, he says. "They may decide to take the high pay for a little while, then move on to something that gives them more personal satisfaction."

Fair compensation is a given, says Tuer. "It's table stakes. You've got to be in that game and stay in that game. And, if you fall behind, you're going to cause a problem for yourself. But, once you've played that table stake, you've got to do something more."

In defining what that something more is, it is hard not to sound "soft and fuzzy," says Nash, noting that work-life flexibility is certainly a key concern for many young lawyers, as is the desire for strong mentoring and guidance.
It is largely about treating people as individuals, understanding that "everybody has a life," and making efforts to accommodate each person's needs, says Jim Christie, chairman of Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto, where an associates committee, comprised of mentors, supervisors, and other lawyers, work closely with individual associates to tailor their work situation to their needs and desires.

"We want to make sure that they are getting the feedback and experiences they are looking for," he says.
William Helgason, managing partner at Clark Wilson LLP in Vancouver says, "Our associates tell us they appreciate our focus on training, as well as the amount of responsibility we assign and our positive work environment. We also try to offer a sense of firm direction, feedback, and support for developing individual lawyers' practices. Competitive salary and benefits are of course important, but we believe other factors are more critical to associate retention long term."

While accommodating young lawyers' desire for work-life balance may be part of the solution, many law firm leaders put their emphasis on providing the right kind of working environment and opportunities for professional growth, rather than making sure that associates get enough time off.

"Practicing law is a great consumer of your time. You can't avoid that," says Richards. "It's not a job, it's a career. You have to devote so much of your energy to it that, if you're not enthusiastic about the work you're doing and the people you're working with, it just isn't going to last in the long run. So you need lawyers who are professionally fulfilled. A happy lawyer is going to be loyal and stay with the firm.

"It is very important to give associates a place where they feel that they can grow professionally and contribute in an important way," he says.

Richards says WeirFoulds tries to give associates a feeling that they belong with the firm from the moment they are hired. To begin with, he says, the firm does not follow the practice of some big firms of hiring in bulk — taking a lot of new recruits on spec and then weeding them out at a later date. In fact, his firm does not hire a new associate unless one or more partners make a commitment to taking responsibility for that individual by giving him or her work and supporting his or her professional development. He says this means "the associate immediately has a professional home within the firm."

Kelly Callon-McLean, director of student and associate affairs at Aird & Berlis LLP in Toronto, says, "Young lawyers are looking to know that the firm cares about them and their career." She says firms can show that they are taking an interest in their associates by providing them with strong mentorship programs and giving them frequent feedback.

Smaller or mid-sized firms can have an advantage in terms of the personal attention that is paid to individual associates, says Callon-McLean, who notes that her firm is able to review associates' performance every six months, whereas big firms with a huge number of associates may find it hard to provide that much personal attention.

It is important to recognize people for their achievements and thank them for a job well done. Busy partners may forget to do this and it is therefore a good idea to remind them, for example with an email soliciting nominations for achievement awards, Callon-McLean adds.

Nash says associates are also looking for feedback on how they are doing in their careers. Firms should have clear career paths and make an effort, not only to offer associates training and support, but also to ensure that each associate knows what he or she needs to do to stay on the partnership track.

Partners must also understand the importance of delegating meaningful work to associates to ensure that their working environment is challenging and satisfying, adds Christie. This practice should be reinforced informally, as well as through formal training programs for partners and associates alike, so that they become ingrained in the culture of the firm, he says. "Partners can only provide service to clients if they have strong teams working with them, so it's in everyone's self-interest to make sure that associates are happy in their workplace."

Tuer at MacLeod Dixon believes in getting associates actively involved in various aspects of the firm "with a view to giving them a sense of responsibility, ownership, and pride." For example, associates organize their own annual retreat and are given responsibility for running a student-exchange program whereby individuals can be posted to various international or regional offices to get a broader view of the firm's activities.

Associates were also asked to participate last year in a revision of MacLeod Dixon's bonus structure by providing their views on what criteria should be used for awarding bonuses. In this way, Tuer says, associates are participating in the process of structuring the firm, playing a key role in building something that will work for them now and in the future.

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