Feature: Keeping staff happy

In a tight legal market, where talent is hard to find, turnover costs can soar when a lawyer leaves your complement. What are the strategies for retaining people in an environment where advancement in the legal food chain is limited? What steps are general counsel taking to retain staff and advance their careers?

After three years at a top law firm, talented young Toronto business lawyer Roxana Tavana began searching for an in-house position. She wanted to tackle challenging work and take on more responsibility in a business setting that allowed for a better work-life balance.

When she made the move to in-house, however, her new position turned out to be the wrong fit. Yes, she had work-life balance, but the two-person legal department lacked legal resources and support staff. She missed the team environment that existed in her previous job, so she moved on just 10 months later.

In a tight legal market, where law firms and in-house departments are constantly fighting for talented lawyers, staff turnover can become an expensive reality. Beyond offering more work-life balance and work-flow predictability than is generally possible in private practice, how can companies and corporations inspire talented lawyers to get on board — and stay on board?

Many lawyers go in-house, often taking a pay cut to do so, because they dream of working closely with the senior management team and playing a key role in a company’s strategy and business decision-making process, says Warren Bongard, vice president and co-founder of ZSA Legal Recruitment.

And when general counsel operate in this capacity, the entire legal team is closer to the decision-making process at the top.

But experts say the legal department sometimes feels isolated from the rest of the company. It may be viewed as the department that makes everything more difficult, or lawyers may be called upon to respond or react to questions the same way they would at a law firm.

If this is the case, in-house lawyers won’t feel that their contribution is recognized or valued, which are key components of retention. And like an unappreciated spouse, they will start to look for satisfaction elsewhere.

“Most lawyers come in-house to be a more integral part of the bigger multi-functional corporate team, rather than being an outside legal specialist who merely feeds in legal advice,” says David Brennan, general counsel and senior vice president of law at Ontario Power Generation Inc. in Toronto. “So an important part of recruitment is offering that experience, and retention is ensuring they actually have that experience.”

Kari Horn, general counsel at the Alberta Securities Commission (ASC), says keeping people on board and happy comes down to a philosophy she tries to put in practice every day. “Employees, whether legal counsel or otherwise, need to feel that their contribution is valued and seen as an important piece of the corporate puzzle that contributes to the success of the ASC.”

In private practice, lawyers move from student to associate to partner. But in-house lawyers don’t have the same clear career path, and opportunities for advancement can be seen as limited. As a result, in-house lawyers may start scanning job advertisements and calling recruiters when their once new and challenging job starts to
become boring and mundane.

“All the people I speak to in-house are extremely happy,” says Dal Bhathal, director of the in-house counsel division at The Counsel Network, a legal recruitment firm. “But one of the things they complain about is that there is no room at the top, or no room to grow.”

They often look around, realize that the general counsel isn’t going anywhere, and feel they have to move on to move up —?unless they want to keep doing the same work year after year.

“People normally take a job or look at an opportunity because of career path and part of the retention process is making sure lawyers can see some advancement somewhere,” says Adam Lepotsky, president of the Toronto-based recruiting agency The Rainmaker Group. “A high-calibre industry contributor like a lawyer needs to know they are valued and can advance in some way. Otherwise you are not going to keep them. I don’t care who you are.”

 The Alberta Securities Commission is structured differently from most other organizations with in-house legal teams, and numerous opportunities for advancement exist within this structure, says Horn.

“In terms of options for other organizations, particularly those having larger legal departments, I think it’s easier to create avenues for advancement. For example, via the corporate secretarial office, or by creating an associate general counsel position.”

Sean Quinn, general counsel and vice president law for Cameco Corporation in Saskatoon, says Cameco’s legal department has only lost one lawyer to date — and that was to retirement.


He attributes the low turnover rate to a healthy compensation package, which includes benefits, a pension plan, and stock options. But Quinn is also taking an increasingly serious interest in career development.

“We’re making sure people have opportunities in front of them to keep them motivated and interested,” he says.

Cameco’s current CEO and COO are both lawyers by training. And Quinn’s own predecessor moved into marketing and eventually became the vice president of corporate development before retiring.

“I would not be surprised if other people from the legal department take similar, interesting career paths,” he says. “There are lots of precedents around here for lawyers moving outside of their traditional area.”

Pierre Chenard, vice president and general counsel of operations at Alcan Inc. in Montreal, says the hierarchy of Alcan’s legal department is fairly flat, so it has devised other ways for advancement.

Employees see their paychecks get larger as they get better at their jobs, even when they don’t actually change positions.

And because Alcan is a worldwide operation with activities in 60 countries, he can promote lawyers by making them responsible for a country or geographic area, or for a specific legal subject matter within a region.

And when lawyers are ready for a new challenge, which doesn’t exist in their home office, he often sends lawyers on expatriate assignments, where they do the same work but from a different perspective under a different set of rules.

But too many organizations make the mistake of assuming lawyers will dream up their own career path within the organization, says Iain Morris, a principle at Mercer Human Resources Consulting.

Even when a hierarchy exists within the legal department, lawyers often don’t know what skills they need to learn to get to the next level, or what opportunities exist outside the legal department.

“That’s why a formalized career-planning process can really help so [lawyers] can learn about other opportunities, and can sort of hold up their hand and say, ‘If this opportunity arises, think about me,’” he says.

Gary Goodwin, general counsel and director of corporate services for the Stonewall, Man.-based wetland and wildlife conservation organization Ducks Unlimited Canada, heads up a one-person law department, so it’s up to him to create strategies for retaining himself.

Small departments are better situated to see a greater breadth of legal issues, he says, which keeps repetitive work to a minimum, and he tends to allocate more repetitive work to outside counsel.

Goodwin advises other sole counsel to develop business skills that increase their value to the company, and to approach executive management about financing course work or business degrees. “Having the flexibility to learn new skills and reinvent one’s self keeps the job challenging.”

Of course, employers have little chance of successfully recruiting or retaining top lawyers without paying them fairly. Most in-house counsel aren’t paid as well as their counterparts in private practice — nor can they expect to be — but employers can tap into salary surveys to make sure salaries fall within market range, says Morris.

“They don’t necessarily need to share the hard numbers, but we’ve found that people’s satisfaction with their compensation tends to rise the more information they know about the process and how their compensation is established.”

After making the decision to leave her first in-house position, Roxana Tavana approached her next round of interviews as an investigation and found her ideal job at Goodman & Company Investment Counsel Ltd., a subsidiary of Dundee Wealth Management Inc.

This time, she asked the general counsel questions about the culture of the organization, how the legal department is organized, how employees interact, and whether or not there is a system in place for allocating work.

And she made sure that the general counsel knew about her career aspirations and was committed to putting her on that path. In other words, she found the “right fit” for her and plans to stay put for a long time.

“I learned from my first experience that you really have to do your due diligence,” she says. “I’m in a great environment now, but it could have gone the other way.” 

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