Tools of the trade

There are many ways to build and maintain a successful law firm, but most start with the staff. Lawyer2B looks at some of the most innovative methods.

The days when law firms lagged behind other professions in terms of innovations in human resources, training and personal development are over. Not only have they caught up, but in recent years firms have thrown their full weight behind initiatives that would be considered groundbreaking in any industry.

Changing demands and expectations in modern business have made it necessary for law firms to revolutionise their approach. From trainees through to assistants, right up to senior equity partners, HR, training departments, and in some cases the senior partners themselves, law firms are devising ways to not just keep the wheels turning but bring out the best in their staff. And the good news is that many of these efforts are working.

Here Lawyer 2B showcases some of the best.

Diversity matters

Headed by larger-than-life chief executive officer Yolande Beckles, Global Graduates seeks to help talented young people from non-traditional backgrounds achieve their dreams of working as solicitors at top law firms. This includes expert coaching in job interviews, interpersonal skills and advice about dress, speech and etiquette.

Global Graduates started five years ago when Beckles marched into Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and told Hugh Crisp – now the firm’s chief executive – that his firm was suffering because of its failure to recruit ethnic minority and working-class trainees.

She walked out with a 10,000 cheque and the organisation was officially off the ground. Today Beckles, thanks in part to sponsorship from a number of top City firms, commands a staff of 15, and is branching into the banking, museum and arts sectors.

This summer, Global Graduates launches its first Diversity in Law summer school aimed at year 11, 12 and 13 students who want to study criminal law in a continuation of its push to catch students at a younger age. At the same time the organisation will be rolling out its first undergraduate programme for students aiming to become barristers with sponsorship from the Bar Council.

Beckles says: “There is a wealth of talent among our young people and that talent comes from all kinds of places, in many different forms.”

Rounded learning

The ‘360’, as it is known, is compulsory for all partners every three years and feeds into their main appraisal. It works by getting opinions on the partner from people at all levels and functions in the firm covering everyone from support staff to senior partners.

The information is processed by the London Business School and the results are fed back to the partner in question by one of the school’s management experts. Together they discuss the answers generated and how to leverage some types of behaviour or minimise others.

Herbert Smith HR head John Lucy, the man responsible for introducing 360 to the firm, says the process “increases their [partners’] awareness of their style and the impact of their style. It acts as a refresher to the partners of their responsibilities over and above the fee-earning stuff.”

Lucy says the use of an external agency rather than running it wholly through the HR department makes a big difference to its credibility. “This individual is clearly a professional who is experienced in providing feedback to senior people,” says Lucy.

There is no report back to the firm, but Lucy says partners enjoy the experience and take the information they receive onboard.

Stepping out

Senior partner Janet Gaymer explains that the move was prompted by changes in employment law, which gave employees the right to request flexible working.

Gaymer, founder of the Employment Lawyers Association, says: “It struck me that it was unfair to have a system where salaried partners had a right, but the equity partners didn’t.” So now, as long as it does not harm the business needs of the firm or its strategic offering, partners can step across into another profession or move to becoming a salaried partner, although Gaymer stresses there is no automatic right of return.

Gaymer says nine partners have taken up the opportunity for reasons ranging from being close to retirement to personal problems.

‘Step across’ is not a way of demoting partners by stealth. “The point about the scheme is that it’s triggered by partners. The partner comes to me and says ‘I want a change’. The idea is to empower the equity partners to ask themselves if they’re still happy with what they’re doing.”

Firm fun

For a start, when the firm hits its monthly targets, the entire workforce is rewarded with cream cakes from the local bakery. “We even vary the day the cream cakes are given out to include people who work part-time, which is why we’re all the size of houses,” jokes HR head Rachel Dobson.

Christmas attracts an extra half-day holiday to go Christmas shopping, and over the festive and New Year period it is not unusual for an extra day to be thrown in to give employees an uninterrupted break. Pannones also funds a day out for employees’ children.

“These are all gestures that are really appreciated,” says Dobson. This claim is borne out by Pannones’ fantastic showing in The Sunday Times’ ‘100 Best Places to Work’ list, which placed the firm fourth overall, way ahead of the next best-placed law firm Wragge & Co, which came 24th. Eighty-six per cent of Pannones employees said their firm was a fun place to work.

“We have a very low turnover so there are very good commercial reasons for doing this sort of thing,” says Dobson. “It’s not good for clients if people keep leaving and they end up having to talk to different people all the time.”

In perhaps its greatest innovation to date, the firm is also pioneering what they call ‘speed-networking’ to combat the problem of partners in different departments not knowing each other and improve client referrals. Dobson says the event went well and the chance to speed-network will be offered to all the firm’s fee-earners.

Dobson says of the atmosphere at Pannones: “We don’t go around holding hands and skipping into the sunset, but people can tell when they walk in that people like working here.”

Net gain

Lovells is leading the way in its use of the internet to get its lawyers trained and has developed an anti-money laundering course which 13 other top City firms have also signed up to receive.

It is now compulsory that lawyers receive training in money laundering as they are now under a duty to be more vigilant if they suspect that any of their clients are involved in some shady business.

Lovells decided that the best way to offer this training to its offices around the world would be through a web-based course rather than a traditional face-to-face one. In partnership with an IT company, the firm developed the interactive course to meet the legal requirements. The result is an interactive, colourful and fun course featuring funky moving illustrations, including a wolf character who is the evil money-launderer. The hour-long course has been individually branded for each firm involved in the initiative.

Lovells’ head of legal training Suzanne Fine says: “This plugs a big gap, as if I wanted to give the same training to all the offices I would have to be flying the trainer all over the world. If you put a course online it helps bring everyone at the firm closer together.”

Fine says the wide involvement of other City firms – plus the fact that Lovells has received 50 orders from smaller firms to buy the course – will change the way that law firms regard online training.