Deborah Frank Montero. Deborah Frank Montero.

In the summer of 2016, Cravath, Swaine & Moore rocked the legal world by raising starting salaries for associates from $160,000 to $180,000. Shortly after, 101 additional firms announced they would follow suit, raising the stakes in the war for legal talent. Small and midsize law firms with fewer financial resources, however, have had to get more creative when attracting skilled job seekers.

According to legal blog, Above The Law, Miami firms Weil Gotshal, Locke Lord, Baker & McKenzie, Boies Schiller, Hughes Hubbard, McDermott Will, Jones Day and Holland & Knight followed suit to match the new salary scale. Even smaller firms began to do more with compensation—Washington, D.C.-based boutique firm Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz recently beat Cravath’s bonus scale for all associates, providing bonuses at one and a half times the market rate.

However, when the well of excess financial resources is shallower than most, what are small and midsize firms to do? One of the biggest advantages small and midsize firms have over large firms is partnership track offerings. While it certainly depends on the experience level of the attorney, more small firms are offering partnership track upfront in place of a higher starting salary during job negotiations. Another benefit for employees of small firms? Opportunities for more responsibilities on a higher volume of projects.

A recent Robert Half Legal survey revealed 62 percent of lawyers at small and midsize firms said finding skilled legal professionals is somewhat or very challenging, while 31 percent of survey respondents expressed concern about losing legal personnel to other job opportunities in the next six months. In the same survey, 28 percent of lawyers said that, aside from compensation or bonus, flexible work arrangements provide the greatest incentive for legal professionals to remain with an employer. Challenging work or variety of assignments ranked second, receiving 26 percent of the survey response, followed by professional development opportunities, at 20 percent.

While law firms are focused on growing revenue in an increasingly cutthroat environment, it’s clear that many job candidates are looking beyond compensation for an employer that can provide competitive benefits, interesting projects and increased responsibilities. According to another survey, helping legal professionals diminish job-related stress and improve work-life balance may be a legal firm’s most effective retention strategy. Forty-two percent of attorneys interviewed by Robert Half Legal cited reduced stress levels as the one aspect of their job they would change, an 11-point increase since the survey was last conducted in 2008.

In the effort to create a positive work environment that makes employees want to stay, smaller businesses often have an edge over big firms in the ability to be more creative with policies that address work-life balance, including flexible work arrangements such as:

  • Flextime—Flextime refers to any arrangement that gives employees options for structuring their work day or work week. In the most extreme (and rarest) form, employees decide for themselves not only when they work but also for how long. More typically, though, employees operating under flexible work arrangements are expected to be on the job during certain core hours of the workday. They’re given the opportunity to choose (within certain parameters) their own start and stop times—as long as they work the required number of hours each day.
  • Compressed workweek—Under this arrangement, employees work the normal number of hours but complete those hours in fewer than five days. The most common variation of the compressed workweek is the so-called 4/10, in which employees work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days. Employees often appreciate this arrangement as it provides an extra day at home, thus improving work-life balance—a topic explored further in the Robert Half report, The Secrets of the Happiest Companies and Employees.
  • Telecommuting—Telecommuting refers to flexible work arrangements in which employees—on a regular, predetermined basis—spend all or a portion of the week working from home or from another noncompany site.

In addition to alternative work arrangements, fostering a professional environment and culture where employees feel comfortable and appreciated can be extremely attractive to job candidates. For instance, nearly 60 percent of lawyers interviewed by Robert Half Legal reportedly prefer a casual work setting. In today’s competitive job market, employers are using creative strategies to recruit and retain legal professionals, including adopting a less formal work environment. A more relaxed workplace can reduce stress, foster creativity and ultimately enhance productivity and job satisfaction.

Small and large firms may be looking at completely different pools of applicants, but the current hiring market favors candidates and requires firms of any size to get creative with recruiting and retention. Compensation alone can’t sustain an employee’s interest and loyalty, though strong company culture and values, professional development opportunities and flexibility can help.

Debra Frank Montero is regional vice president of Robert Half Legal, the premier provider of experienced project and full-time professionals for law firms and corporate legal departments in South Florida.