With the COVID pandemic rewriting the workplace rulebook, retaining and recruiting talent remains one of the biggest challenges for law firms. Compensation alone is no longer the crown jewel as younger professionals are increasingly valuing work-life balance, autonomy, and a visible career development trajectory. ALB spotlights law firms that are regarded by their employees as not only places where they work but also where they find engagement and fulfilment.
The legal industry has been traditionally seen as a cutthroat world, with gruelling working schedules and stringent client demands often inevitably encroaching on lawyers’ work-life balance and mental wellness.
The stereotype was embodied by a recent online circulation of an internal document from Paul Hastings, where junior associates were told to buckle up to meet “non-negotiable expectations”, ranging from staying responsive 24/7 to crossing out “I don’t know” from their vocabulary.
The reactions were mixed – a combination of fury, amusement, and justiﬁca-tion was observed from Big Law partners, in-house counsel, and human resource specialists alike, sparking an industry-wide reﬂection on law ﬁrm culture. The incident has also signalled a dissonance between upholding parochial law ﬁrm hierarchy and championing talent investment underpinned by progressive values, including diversity and equity.
With Cooley and Sherman & Sterling amongst the latest international law ﬁrms making deeper talent cuts in a bid to correct overcapacity responding to lower demand levels, on top of the already dis-mal rates of attrition among associates observed in markets such as the United States, ﬁrms in Asia are offering a rare sight. Many of them are doubling down on their commitments to increase human capital, and in some cases, their investment has no doubt paid off.
Tilleke & Gibbins, one of Thailand’s largest law ﬁrms with ofﬁces spanning Southeast Asia, has been swarmed by a sea of praise from employees across its network. It was described as a “wonderful working environment” with “good leaders with serious working attitude” as well as “friendly and supportive peers,” according to one associate.
A partner at Tilleke also commends the ﬁrm for showing compassion to its employees. “We had one young lawyer untimely pass away 12 years ago, and since then, every quarter, our firm’s staff contribute to a fund for his wife and special needs daughter, and also all employees and the ﬁrm helped contribute when a staff member got cancer and needed expensive treatments,” the partner tells ALB.
Apart from workplace atmosphere and solidarity, the availability of hands-on opportunities is also highly prized by younger lawyers. For example, Indonesia-based UMBRA – Strategic Legal Solutions is hailed as a ﬁrm where associates “will be directly involved in the transactions regardless of their positions,” allowing them to expand their skills and experience in the legal ﬁeld.
Employees at Drew & Napier have the same thing to say about the Singapore Big Four ﬁrm. In contrast to a Hunger Games-like scenario, “the senior lawyers are excellent and willing to train. The environment is not toxic but friendly although the expectations are still high,” says an associate, calling the ﬁrm “a good place to learn.”
Flexibility is another much-prized trait that wins hearts and minds across law firms. UMBRA is said to have “adapted to the situation of today’s legal industry, in a way they provide a work-from-anywhere policy, and easy access technology to support the WFA policy,” according to an associate.
Bangkok-based Weerawong, Chinnavat & Partners is also applauded for embracing workplace ﬂexibility. “They give us certain degree of freedom to work from home and to manage our work schedule,” say associates, who are also happy that they get to work closely with supervisors to chart their career paths.
Chandler MHM, also a market-leading firm in Thailand, stands out by championing diversity and inclusion within the organisation. “The ﬁrm has a long unique history and diversity environment which drive their crew to be more energetic,” says one associate. Others complement Chandler MHM for embodying an “integration of Thai and Western values” as the ﬁrm bolsters its international presence.
As a result, these firms have emerged victoriously as the “employers of choice” for not only lawyers but also ofﬁce support staff. They thrive by keeping their talent happy, who, in turn, are driven by a sense of meaning and purpose rather than a Monday-through-Friday kind of torpor.
MORE THAN MONEY
It’s no doubt a delicate act for organisations to ruthlessly pursue a constant boost of competitiveness while staying compassionate to the troops at the same time. But as the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many people to reshufﬂe priorities in life, incentivisation has been given a new layer of meaning. As a result, compensation alone - with its signiﬁcance undisputed - is no longer the most effective weapon to reel in and keep top talent. Firms which understand that would more likely gain a headstart navigating the tight labour market.
Jessada Sawatdipong, co-managing partner at Chandler MHM, acknowledges that competitive and fair compensation still plays a crucial role in his ﬁrm’s talent strategy, which recently has ﬁnessed its compensation structure.
However, “fulﬁlling work and opportunities for career advancement are also very important. We focus on nurturing our talent to provide opportunities for promotion within the ﬁrm (we recently made a number of promotions). This includes providing strong support for lawyers developing new areas of practice in which they have a particular passion, and which fulﬁls the needs of our clients,” says Jessada.
Pramudya Oktavinanda, managing partner at UMBRA, concurs. “Given the hyper-challenging nature of our legal industry and the accompanying pressures, lawyers that work only for the money would quickly succumb to burning out,” he says.
Purpose, instead, has become increasingly indispensable for lawyers weighing whether a ﬁrm is worth giving their all for.
“Deeply involving our lawyers in exciting and state-of-the-art transactions helps in motivating them to be a better professional. No amount of procedural plans, tight supervision, or incentive schemes could ever substitute for the inner motivation derived from the personal satisfaction of learning new things and doing a job well done,” says Pramudya, adding that staff also receive free counselling and sports programs for them to stay physically and mentally ﬁt.
“After all, nothing kills the excitement faster than doing mundane meaningless job every day,” he notes. “Being a lawyer is not a mere job, it is your identity and way of life.”
COLLEGIALITY VS FLEXIBILITY
Apart from purpose and motivation, the factor that comes up most often in deﬁn-ing a desirable workplace is camaraderie. To Drew & Napier, that’s the concrete holding the ﬁrm together.
“There is what it means to be part of the Drew family: being shoulder-to-shoulder through thick and thin, sharing loyalty and camaraderie, celebrating one another’s successes and willing one another to do well, for ourselves and our loved ones,” says the Singapore Big Four ﬁrm.
But with the pandemic subsiding, there have been growing calls for a full return to ofﬁce among professional service industries. Law ﬁrms, pressed with needs to shore up face-to-face contacts with clients, are walking the tightrope of maintaining workplace ﬂexibility without losing sight of the importance of collegiality nurtured through in-person interactions.
“We ﬁnd that having the ﬂexibility of choosing your own working place is very effective in keeping our talent happy and productive. We were the ﬁrst major law ﬁrm in Indonesia to implement a permanent work-from-home policy and our productivity has simply skyrocketed compared to pre-pandemic times,” says Pramudya of UMBRA.
But nodding to the power of physical presence, Pramudya says lawyers are not allowed to work from locations outside Jakarta to stand by for face-to-face meetings. Each practice group is also encouraged to organise regular bonding sessions.
“As we grow bigger, we will eventually have to ﬁnd the right mix of physical and online presence for our talents. Working ﬂexibility is important, but at the same time, instilling culture and camaraderie among the lawyers and staff are also equally important, and it is not always easy to build these relationships in a pure online experience,” adds Pramudya.
Thomas Treutler, managing director of Tilleke & Gibbins’ Vietnam ofﬁce, says his ﬁrm has been adapting to the reversion to pre-pandemic behaviour while internalising remote working as a necessary option.
“It’s clear that remote working is here to stay, and we’ve tried to embrace the positives of the ability to ‘work from anywhere’ while minimising the negatives. We offer a ﬂexible system where our lawyers have the opportunity to work remotely but are encouraged to make the ofﬁce their primary place of work, so that they can take advantage of our world-class facilities as well as the opportunities to work collaboratively with other excellent lawyers,” says Treutler.
To not only attract but also keep the best people, leaders believe the key ultimately boils down to the prestige and market strength of the law ﬁrm itself.
“These days, job seekers always do their research - they know who the leaders in the market are, who’s getting the interesting work, and which of their law school friends are thriving, professionally and personally, in their work environment,” says Tiziana Sucharitkul, co-managing partner of Tilleke & Gibbins in Thailand.
“We need to build and maintain our ﬁrm’s prestige, which is demonstrated by the quality of our client base, our reputation in the market, and our unrivalled opportunities for career development,” explains Tiziana. Darani Vachanavuttivong, her co-managing partner adds that a strong performance management system is vital to the ﬁrm’s development.
Lawyers who choose the winning team will beneﬁt professionally as the ﬁrm grows. On the other hand, “as our lawyers raise their proﬁles in the market and build and develop their practice areas, this would ensure their professional success as well as that of the ﬁrm.
We recognise that individual professional achievement, fulﬁlment at work and the success of our ﬁrm go hand in hand,” says Jessada of Chandler MHM.
Jessada highlights training and mentoring as quintessential in ensuring that the ﬁrm marches forward together with its people. “There are changing expectations in terms of how that support is provided in terms of delivery and communication style. We are investing heavily in training, new technologies and infrastructure to meet changing expectations,” notes Jessada, who adds that the ﬁrm encourages continuous feedback and open discussion to understand the expectations of its lawyers.
Adds Vietnam-based Treutler at Tilleke, “our lawyers want to learn, want to grow, want to improve. We offer regular informational sessions featuring outside speakers as well as our own team members to expand knowledge and promote best practices, and we also offer promising young lawyers abundant chances to travel abroad for conferences and training.”
With all the right tools, attitude, and approach, at the end of the day, it is the teamwork that’s making the dream work. “We want our lawyers to understand that we always work together as a team and we can only be successful when everyone is driven and shares the same passion,” says UMBRA’s Pramudya.
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