How In-House Legal Teams of All Sizes Can Retain Talent in a Post-Lockdown World

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Law firms have historically been the obvious choice for lawyers in the early stages of their careers, due to the opportunities they offer for exposure to challenging, cutting-edge work and training.

But things have changed in recent years. Increasingly, talented lawyers are being lured by in-house teams. Here, they can fully immerse themselves in the company’s culture, objectives and strategy, influence future direction, and tailor their efforts to support corporate goals.

However, taking the in-house route is not without its challenges – particularly from a career progression perspective. Competition for internal promotions can be extremely high and teams are generally smaller, so new positions come up less frequently than at law firms. It’s not uncommon to encounter a “dead man’s shoes” scenario, in which progression can be limited by more senior roles simply not becoming available.

This is a concern for in-house legal departments, and particularly for smaller in-house teams: how can they retain A-players? It’s a particular issue right now, with the market starting to thaw after months of lockdown-induced inactivity.

With that in mind, in this article we’ll discuss six actions that in-house teams can take to reduce attrition among top performers.

1. Highlight how you helped employees during lockdown

Almost 10 million UK jobs at 1.2 million employers have been furloughed, according to the latest HMRC data. While we would like to imagine that the overwhelming majority of companies to have utilised the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme have acted ethically, scrupulously and with their employees’ best interests in mind, there’s no doubt that some have fallen short.

The repercussions will be substantial for companies that are perceived to have let down their staff during lockdown. In particular, they can expect to face significant challenges in recruitment and retention. Given the proliferation of employee review sites like Glassdoor – not to mention platforms like Did They Help?, specifically set up to rate the positive and negative actions of companies and public figures during the pandemic – employers simply can’t afford to even appear to treat their teams poorly.

Of course, furloughing staff and/or making redundancies does not automatically mean that a business has failed its employees. Those that have done so should take the time to highlight ways in which they helped their workforce and give context for the decisions they made.

Business that furloughed members of their in-house legal teams should demonstrate the steps they took to keep those staff engaged with the business, while those that made redundancies should explain how this decision was very much a last resort, taken only after all other options were exhausted.

2. Create new challenges

Smaller in-house teams offer few opportunities for traditional career progression, which can leave counsel feeling disengaged, making them more likely to leave. Indeed, the most engaged departments enjoy on average 33% lower attrition compared to the rest of the business.

One way to improve engagement is to continually present in-house counsel with new challenges to prevent the feeling that they are standing still rather than progressing. “Cross-training” – where in-house lawyers with different specialisms share elements of each other’s jobs – can be an effective way to achieve this.

While its in-house legal team is by no means small, global fashion brand Gap has seen success through this approach. Global General Counsel Julie Gruber explains how she took lawyers from the retailer’s real estate and intellectual property teams and tasked them with taking on half of the other’s job. “The programme provided not only legal learnings but gave individuals greater exposure to different parts of the business,” she says. “Greater exposure is in itself engaging.”

3. Define your purpose

In any industry or profession, employees who feel they have a strong sense of purpose in their job are more likely to stay long-term. Research shows that purpose-oriented people are more satisfied in their jobs than non-purpose-oriented people, and are also more likely to stay at their company for 3+ years.

The Crown Estate, the sovereign’s public estate, is just one example of an organisation that has sought to unite in-house counsel behind a common purpose.

“Defining your purpose provides the consistency which empowers in-house lawyers to make decisions and be engaged with the business,” says General Counsel Rob Booth, who manages a team of six lawyers. “Purpose is a gift for law firms: they’re there to protect the rule of law. Finding your purpose as an in-house legal team is critical not only to be a responsible business, but also to retaining top talent.”

4. Hire more effectively

Experience and skills demonstrate that a candidate can do their day job. But they offer little insight into whether that person will thrive within a business, buying into its culture, values and mission, and actively wanting to remain with the organisation long-term.

Kellye Walker, General Counsel at military shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries, explains: “Excellence in a prospect’s area of law is the baseline. They have to be good stewards with the right skill level to provide the business with maximum value. Hiring people who fit the company and who will buy into its goals is key to keeping talent.”

Of course, hiring on culture fit and soft skills is nothing new. But it remains harder to quantify, often leaving hiring managers to rely on gut feeling – which, in turn, opens them up to unconscious bias.

Choosing the right recruitment partner – one with a deep understanding of your niche – can go a long way to finding exceptional and engaged talent. At Montresor Legal, our Financial Services and Commerce & Industry teams have vast experience of recruiting in-house counsel. Our ability to reach passive candidates with the right culture and values is unmatched, courtesy of our vast talent network and our proprietary online platform, Third Way Legal.

5. Build a culture of learning

It’s not enough for in-house lawyers to be qualified for their role; they also need to be given the opportunity to build on their skills and expertise.

Beyond career development programmes that exist across the organisation, leaders of in-house legal teams should identify learning opportunities specifically tailored to in-house counsel. As well as focusing on honing their legal skills, this learning and development should address wider aspects of the role, such as:

  • Legal and business knowledge related to the organisation and the sector in which it operates;
  • Business intelligence that allows in-house counsel to identify risks, opportunities and trends within business, legal, political and regulatory environments;
  • Enhancing relevant soft skills such as communication, leadership and negotiation.

While this represents an overarching framework, learning and development must always be delivered with the individual in mind, empowering them to pursue their desired career objectives.

“Development is very personal,” says Marie Oh Huber, General Counsel at eBay. “Make it a priority to really get to know the individual goals, strengths and areas of development and, assuming the desire is there, help that person stretch and grow.”

6. Offer structured career development

Career plans are now being used by the majority of in-house legal departments. They are increasingly geared toward closing the gap between legal and commercial colleagues, and empowering A-players through greater autonomy.

The “Room to Grow” General Counsel report from law firm CMS discovered that clear, tailored career plans are highly valued by junior legal talent. Indeed, they are considered more valuable than a host of other common “management activities”, including:

  • Changing team structure to enable career progression;
  • Coaching and mentoring;
  • Communication of business strategy;
  • Team-building activities;
  • Regular one-to-one meetings.

But what does an effective career development programme actually look like? According to General Counsels at CMS, the following components are important for in-house lawyers:

  • Detailed development plans spanning one, three or five years;
  • Half-yearly talent review meetings to discuss progress and whether goals need to change, or more regular, scheduled one-to-one line manager meetings;
  • Informal review sessions throughout the year;
  • Appraisal meetings incorporating feedback from legal and business colleagues;
  • Focus on skills development, rather than fulfilling a tightly defined role;
  • Individual goals that align with those of the in-house legal team and wider business;
  • Potential for individuals to forge their own path and create their own opportunities;
  • Ability to identify A-players and adopt a targeted approach to their development;
  • A commitment to directly involve individuals in quality legal work;
  • The use of development plans to bring the individual closer to the business;
  • An acceptance that lawyers may need to leave the organisation to ultimately achieve all of their career goals.

At Montresor Legal, we go beyond recruitment. From bespoke technology to exclusive market intelligence, we provide legal teams with unparalleled value to help them hire and retain the best in-house counsel.

Need our help to build a stronger, more engaged in-house team? Get in touch.