Over the past few years, law firms have witnessed high levels of employee attrition, putting them under intense pressure to attract and retain top talent. As a result, the roles of senior HR personnel –such as chief people officers – are growing in importance, helping firms finetune the talent strategies that will provide them with their competitive edge. 

The legal industry currently has a people problem. With the global Great Resignation not sparing the industry, law firms have been engaged in a war over talent, occasionally having to offer large sums of money in the face of slowing legal work – as it is after all, the quality of lawyers that can provide a firm with the edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

However, while large salaries are useful, they might not be enough. Younger lawyers can have a different set of priorities than earlier generations - valuing the purpose of their organisations, happiness, and fulfilment in their work, and more, over simply the money they take home every month. This is where the roles of senior HR personnel, led by the chief people officer or CPO, play a big part.

Anirban Das, CPO at Indian law firm Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan (LKS), has been observing the talent war in the industry, particularly at the mid-level, as the demand for people with relevant skills far exceeds the availability. “This makes it imperative for HR leaders to re-think and re-design their Employee Value Proposition to attract talent from the market and, at the same time, retain the existing workforce,” notes Das. “The priorities of Gen Z are very different to that of millennials.”

He adds that apart from the pay and the quality of work, four factors are attractive to the younger generation of lawyers. “First, the work flexibility, with remote or hybrid work being preferred over onsite work,” says Das. “Then, the desire for meaningful work opportunities, involvement in decision-making, a focus on health and wellness.”

In Singapore, Karen Gwee, head of human resources at Dentons Rodyk, found that the period of lockdowns and remote working led to a decline in engagement among the more junior members of the team, who found it harder to feel integrated and settled without the consistency and organic learning of an in-person environment. “HR teams within the legal space are navigating high turnover and the need to fill positions against the backdrop of loss of productivity while new hires are onboarded and trained,” she notes. Her colleague Elaine Tai, head of human resources at Dentons Hong Kong, says that the situation offers “an opportunity to strengthen employee value proposition and maintain a competitive edge with regards to employee benefits – which are key to retaining and attracting talent.”

Helen Anthony, chief human resources officer at Herbert Smith Freehills says that the pressure to attract and retain top talent in the legal sector is not new, but it has become more com-plex with client and employee expectations changing since the pandemic, with dramatic shifts in how people see work and their careers. “As a result, it’s vital that HR teams lead the discussion about - and clearly articulate - what life in law firms is like,” she says. “It’s about being clear about what is expected of colleagues and what they will receive in return which, combined, answers the question about why people should entrust their careers with a firm.”


HR heads agree that maintaining a high level of engagement is vital, but how firms track it could vary slightly. Das says that LKS is continually fine-tuning its people engagement initiatives based on formal and informal feedback. “We have created multiple touchpoints with employees,” he notes. “These including an onboarding survey, conducting periodic meetings between the new joiners with the reporting partners and HR, institutionalising a process of quarterly review and feedback for the existing employees, skip-level meetings with the CPO, monthly sessions on wellness and health, fun activities, and hobby clubs.” He adds that an exhaustive quarterly People Report is shared with the partners, highlighting quantitative data on the above parameters.

Tai says that Dentons considers employee feedback as an essential tool to guide the firm in its engagement and retention efforts. “It is not just a talent tool but a business tool,” she notes. “While retention is a key metric, we also do an employee survey and a broader salary survey twice a year. We are part of a network of HR professionals in law firms in Hong Kong where we share results with other law firms related to benefits, so everyone is aware of the changing needs of professionals and can keep abreast of new trends in benefits and well-being.”

Technology plays a key role as well. “Dentons has implemented SAP Success Factors across 35 countries, and in Asia, we started with Singapore,” says Gwee. “This has changed the way we process, track and optimise people data. It has brought efficiency and accuracy to our methods and increased connectivity across the firm with the time saved, HR professionals can do more with the analytics which are now very accessible.”

Gwee adds that the firm is now able to see trends quicker than it used to and can move within the dynamic environment with better results. “Employees can access their own data from their laptops and mobile devices which puts ownership on them to manage their own data,” she says. “We are in the process of implementing Qualtrics to ensure we are gathering employee pulse in the flow of work as opposed to large engagement surveys once or twice a year.”

Anthony says that HSF is also using data analysis to support effective decision-making and change within the business. “It informs talent decisions and helps improve workforce planning pro-cesses,” she notes. “What skills someone has, what experience they have built up and what their aspirations are fed into decisions about the opportunities people may be given across our global network or to help teams identify who they can turn to for specific expertise.”


All-in-all, it’s evident by now that the needs of law firms have changed dramatically, and firms need to embrace that, with specialist human resources personnel leading the way. According to Anthony, in challenging times, it’s even more important to be clear about what life in the firm is like, and what the firm is about. “Making assumptions about different generations aims and aspirations is risky, so it is vital that two-way channels of communication are kept open,” she says. “It’s also about celebrating, embracing, and understanding differences. At Herbert Smith Freehills we don’t expect our people to be or think the same – indeed, diversity and inclusion drive our success and the innovative solutions we deliver with our clients. That’s why fostering an inclusive culture where our people can be themselves, contribute their perspectives and perform roles which are meaningful and aligned to our shared values is a core business priority.”

Tai says that Dentons’ mantra of being “open to experimenting and redefining what is possible” is applied to talent management as well. “For junior lawyers flexibility is paramount – we are redefining how, where and when work gets done,” she notes. “Reward and recognition are important, but it is clear that our people are not just focused on their remuneration; they want to engage in purpose-led work with recognition and training.”

Gwee adds that it is critical to remain aware of the changing mindsets of junior employees and their expectations. “They operate differently to previous generations and will not blindly follow senior partner orders - they want to be heard and to understand the strategy and be part of change and innovation,” she says. “Listening is very important, and ensuring a two-way conversation is the path-way to success. Internal communications are also very important.”


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