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Attracting talent to your law firm: Is the legal sector in danger of dropping the ball?

Along with medical careers, being a lawyer has always been one of those highly respected benchmark jobs that many parents hope their children find their way into. As a result, law firms are often viewed (with some measure of truth) as highly competitive, dog-eat-dog workplaces. But just getting a decent law degree is no small feat, so it's easy to assume that someone who's gone to all the trouble to get one wants nothing more than a career in the legal sector. But that often seems to not be the case. So today, we'll be discussing the factors driving young law students away from the legal sector, and providing some tips for attracting talent to your law firm.

Law degrees: Vocational or academic?

Traditionally, a law degree was an investment that could get your foot in the door of a firm which you would very likely end up working at for the rest of your career. And while that's still very much a possibility today, people are much more likely to work in an array of different places and positions than they were even a couple of decades ago. Even the legal sector hasn't been immune to this shift.

Then there's the fact that plenty of people end up in jobs that don't directly relate to their degree, and that these people aren't necessarily settling for less by doing so. While having a degree, in general, can make you more hireable than those without, not all of them are created equal. Like the old joke goes, "how do you get the philosophy major off your doorstep? Just pay them for the pizza."

As qualifications of higher learning go, law degrees are considered to be among the most impressive, making law students quite hireable outside of the legal sector. In that sense, law degrees can be considered just as academic as they are vocational.

"But if they're getting law degrees, they must want to be lawyers," we hear you cry. That might not necessarily be wrong, but it doesn't mean that decision is set in stone. Research by Legal Cheek shows that four-fifths of the more than 500 law students who were surveyed reported being open to other career options, especially management, consulting, and public sector work. On top of that, attracting talent to your law firm also means competing against firms with a less traditional structure. For example, even before COVID-19 forced workers across the world to adapt to remote working, recent years have seen a rise in the number of people working in virtual firms.

Is poor engagement in the legal sector putting students off?

While plenty of people who go into higher education are probably pretty flexible on what they'll end up doing, plenty of others go with dreams of a specific career. So while you'd expect there to be quite a few law students to be open to other things, the question remains, why are only 20% of law students firmly fixed on becoming lawyers?

Well, the mark of any good vocational degree is that it'll give you the opportunity to learn from people who've worked extensively within your chosen field. As well as giving you the inside scoop on how to get ahead, these lecturers, guest speakers or workshop leaders are also valued for their emotionally honest insight into what the experience of working in a firm is actually like.

But a survey by Aon of 10,000 UK professionals working in the legal sector found that only around half are actually engaged by their role. If you're one of our regular readers, then you'll know just how complex and multifaceted employee engagement and experience actually are. But as much as that's the case, it's also true that law firms can be incredibly stressful work environments. The Bellwether Report 2019 found that two-thirds of solicitors are experiencing high levels of stress, and more than three quarters consider stress and mental wellbeing to be major issues in the legal sector.

So as a result, the stress and lack of engagement felt by many lawyers may well be putting otherwise promising law students off of the legal sector. Employee advocacy can be a significant factor in recruitment potential, and these issues make it much harder for a firm's employees to advocate effectively. So the question is, how do you go about attracting talent to your law firm in the face of all this?

Attracting top talent to your firm

If students are being put off law careers by a lack of effective advocacy from people in that sector, then attracting talent to your law firm means addressing issues in workplace culture affecting employee wellbeing and establishing effective teaching relationships with new hires.

Mentorships encourage personal development: The rise of millennials and gen Z in the workplace has come with an increased focus on feedback culture, and newly-minted junior associates are generally expected to continue their legal education in the workplace as they gain experience. Mentorships can be incredibly beneficial for both mentee and mentor, giving the mentee a source of feedback and general advice while improving the overall career prospects of both parties. Offering these mentorships to young talent coming out of law school could help tackle some of the uncertainty that's driving them away from the legal sector.

Offer flexibility: Flexible work arrangements are quickly gaining traction among the workers of today. In fact, job flexibility is now becoming seen as an expectation rather than a perk. The State of Remote Work Report 2020 found that over 90% of surveyed remote workers want to keep working remotely to at least some extent for the rest of their careers. Job flexibility arrangements make careers more accessible to those with out-of-work commitments or other factors affecting their ability to commit to the standard of 9-5 plus overtime that has been the defining experience in traditional law firms for so long. Remote work especially has the potential to massively broaden your recruiting pool as geographical location becomes less of a factor.

Prioritise mental wellbeing: The high level of stress often associated with law firms may be a badge of honour for some, but for many others, it's damaging their mental wellbeing and ability to engage in their role. If law students are being put off by this reputation, then the best way of attracting talent to your law firm is to openly address and try to tackle these issues. Mental health is a significant issue for law firms. According to Mental Health First Aid England, over 80% of managers admit to being prejudiced against employees struggling with their mental health, and only a fifth of businesses train their managers to tackle these issues. This shows that efforts to improve mental health in law firms (as well as workplaces in general) need to be properly led from the top down.

Should progressive firms become the new model?

So should businesses across the legal sector try to follow in the wake of the most progressive firms? The answer is that it's complicated. It's certainly true that firms need to be looking at incorporating more flexibility in order to stay competitive when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. It's also true that it's vital for firms to address stress and poor mental health in the workplace. But even businesses in the same sector can have their own individual differences in workplace culture. So while, for example, Plymouth-based Portcullis Legals successfully implemented a four-day work week that was very popular with their staff, and successfully helped to reduce office costs. But compressed hours aren't for everyone, and could well be less popular in other firms. While it's important to take steps forward, leading partners in all firms need to ascertain what measures are best for their firm and the people within it.

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