Blog Engagement

Employee engagement in law: Are associates the E.E. ‘middle child’ of the legal sector?

Law careers are often seen as prestigious, usually getting mentioned in the same breath as careers in medicine by hopeful parents everywhere. Pay within legal professions is considerably higher than the UK average, with the best talent taking home mid-to-high six-figure salaries. The legal sector is also one of the best sectors for employee benefits including travel and flexible working on top of the usual employee perks. 

But despite these things, research by professional services firm AON shows that firms and chambers are facing a potential retention and happiness crisis, lagging behind other professional industries significantly in terms of employee engagement. 

With the proven links between employee engagement and outputs such as productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover and talent acquisition, being at the bottom of the league table for professional sectors is not an ideal state of affairs for the legal industry.

Not only was engagement poor across the sector but also varied significantly between different role types and seniorities. In particular, the lack of engagement reported by associates begs the question, are they the legal sector's so-called "œmiddle child"?

Download our free summary of AON's research looking at engagement in the legal sector

Overall engagement across the legal sector

AON surveyed over 10,000 legal sector professionals from the UK, mainland Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East. To do this, they established three criteria for employee engagement: Say, Stay and Strive:

  • Say: engaged employees are positive advocates of a firm and recommend it to future potential employees. 
  • Stay: employees also feel committed enough to the firm that it would take a lot for them to consider leaving. 
  • Strive: engaged staff feel motivated by the firm's leadership and objectives, and are willing to go the extra mile when needed. 

On average, only 52% of employees from surveyed law firms were engaged. AON compared this to the average rate of engagement for a number of professional service sectors such as accounting and consultancy (59%) and IT services (68%).

As well as showing that nearly half of law firm employees aren't engaged, AON's research also shows that average levels of engagement vary significantly across the different levels and roles within a firm.

Employee engagement in law firms varies wildly across role types and seniorities.
Workloads are just one contributing factor to the poor engagement seen within the legal sector

How law firm engagement varies by job type

AON found that partners had the highest levels of engagement with an average of 66%. They were followed by trainees at 59% and business support staff (56%). The least engaged employee group was actually the associates at 43%. Even business services staff employed by the firms had their engagement rated more highly at 56%.

Partner engagement: It somewhat makes sense that partners would be the most engaged people in a firm. They spend a long time getting where they are, and responsibility for the firm rests squarely on their shoulders. But even among partners, over a third of them were found not to be engaged. 

This may be due to the myriad of pressures they can face on a daily basis, as well as the ways that attitudes and approaches to partnership are changing. While the proportion of disengaged partners is far from a majority, it's still significant because AON's findings show that the firms which exceeded the average level of overall engagement consistently had partner engagement levels over 75%.

Associate engagement: With over two-thirds of associates in AON's study found to be disengaged, there is very clearly a problem. In comparison to the higher levels of engagement reported by trainees, it makes us wonder if people moving up the legal track are being forgotten about during the mid-point in their careers. While they can be fee-earners, they don't bring in as much as partners.

However, the fact that associate engagement may be influenced by how engaged the partners are in a firm is supported by research from Gallup, which shows that management accounts for up to 70% of variance in employee engagement.

Trainee engagement: One of our favourite talking points at Weekly10 is how engagement benefits when employees feel like their personal development matters to their boss. So given that trainees are fresh out of law school, and they are there to learn the ropes, it follows that they would be pretty engaged. They're the shiny new talent that might go on to do big things, so of course there's a lot of attention on them.

What about the other 41%, and what's causing their engagement to drop as they progress further into firms? AON suggests that over time, less positive experiences may put trainees' engagement at risk. Disengagement is a problem for trainees who do not feel empowered, or that the extent of their work isn't being reflected in their rewards.

Business service and support staff engagement: The jobs undertaken by service and support staff are typically the least glamorised roles in firms. And while more than half reported being engaged at work, others do not. While many respondents in AON's study reported high satisfaction and work/life balance, lack of engagement tended to stem from a lack of career opportunities or personal development.

Employee engagement in law firms and chambers needs improving, fast, in order to unlock the very real benefits on offer.
Chambers are no more immune to poor employee engagement than firms.

Engagement in law chambers

While AON's report focused on firms, chambers can have plenty of issues of their own. The Bar Council's 2017 "œWellbeing at the Bar" report can shed some light on this, especially if we use AON's three engagement criteria as a reference point.

  • Say (Positive advocacy): Only 48% of respondents said that they would recommend a career at the Bar, and less than that (45%) believe they are fairly paid for the work they do. However, the report points out that these are both up from their previous responses in 2013.
  • Stay (Organisational loyalty): Respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement, "˜I would not leave the bar if I could.' 59% agreed with the statement.
  • Strive (Going the extra mile): On top of the fact that less than half felt fairly compensated for their work, the number of respondents reporting enthusiasm about their job (61%), the amount able to balance work and home life (45%) and those able to cope with the stress of their job (58%) are all down from previous years. On top of that, only 40% were satisfied with their working hours.

While the concept of "œextra effort" is somewhat nebulous for barristers, who must work hard to keep their position, these findings don't paint a good picture in terms of people's willingness to go above and beyond.

How can we improve employee engagement across the legal sector?

AON's findings strongly suggest that, although partners had the highest average level of engagement in firms, their further improvement may be the key to helping everyone else. More engaged partners would be better able to give attention to the careers of associates and support staff that lack development opportunities.

It's imperative that partners take the proper measures to deal with the impact of their high-pressure job. They need access to mental health services and need to be encouraged to make proper use of their time off, which they can often feel unable to do. Finally, it's important to streamline tasks wherever possible using the best tools.

A closer look also needs to be taken at the transition from trainee to partner. The dip in engagement that professionals at this stage can experience seems to stem from a lack of empowerment and opportunity for development. This is one area that can benefit from proper tools such as an employee check-in. With the proper tools, this can be a quick and easy way for partners to keep an eye on everyone's wellbeing.

Finally, issues affecting engagement in chambers seem to stem from stress and a lack of work/life balance. Barristers and clerks may benefit from the wider implementation of flexible working arrangements. Much like partners, it's also imperative to support their mental health at all opportunities. If you want to learn more, we've written plenty about employee engagement in the legal sector on our blog!

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