Remember: employees are only human too
Law firms too often believe that a high salary automatically equals high satisfaction for employees. But Malcolm Finney says partners need to familiarise themselves with basic management theory relating to human behaviour
Organisations, and law firms in particular, have for a number of years jumped on the ‘employees are our most important and valuable asset’ bandwagon. Senior partners and managing partners throughout the land can be heard at every opportunity – Christmas parties and the like – extolling the importance to the firm of their hard-working employees. For many employees, however, such statements often prove little more than rhetoric.This seems to have been demonstrated in the recent survey of assistants by Legal Business. To be fair, not all firms fared badly in the survey. DJ Freeman, Simmons & Simmons and Bird and Bird were three firms which, according to their assistants, have got things about right.But what about the so-called leading firms? By comparison to some of their smaller brethren they seem to have got very little right. According to the survey of some 23 law firms Allen and Overy ranked 11th; Linklaters 16th; Clifford Chance a lowly 18th; followed by Freshfields at 19 and Slaughter and May at 20. Pretty unimpressive.Despite their poor showing, this has not stopped some of these firms (and in fairness some of the smaller firms too) continuing to assert that their own firm’s approach to recruitment represents the best approach. In the light of the survey’s findings, however, perhaps these firms should forget about recruitment, and the arguably irrelevant pros and cons of ‘in-house’ versus ‘external agent’ recruitment, and rethink their employee retention strategy. If firms made a greater conscious effort to retain employees, once recruited, then the issue of ‘in-house’ versus ‘external agent’ recruitment would be much less of a worry and significant cost savings would automatically follow. The fundamental reason for the unhappy state of affairs at a number of firms in the survey (and probably many others) is that once an employee has been recruited the firm perceives its ‘problem’ as having been solved. Thus, everyone can now get back to normal, and the crisis is over. Normal, it would seem, appears to mean giving the new employee tons of work; making them feel important by demanding that they work into the night and at weekends; and providing little if any feedback as to how they are doing – often because partners hold the view that ‘if it was good enough for me then it should be good enough for them’.But this approach clearly cannot work. Once recruited, employees will stay and become committed, motivated employees to the cause if they feel that their own needs and wants are being continually satisfied. These wants and needs will change over time with age and experience, and the firm needs to be aware of this and adjust accordingly. Unfortunately, for many firms the panacea for assistant needs and wants is to pay them more. Why firms continue to believe that highly educated employees’ motivation and commitment are a direct function of monetary levels defies belief. Research has demonstrated time and time again that money is not, per se, a motivator. This is most readily demonstrated where the initial favourable impact of a significant salary increase is soon seen to pall. Paying high salaries might attract employees in the short term, but will not result in a stable, content and highly motivated workforce in the medium to long term.But how many firms have seriously addressed the issue of their employees’ needs and wants? A questionnaire despatched by the human resources (HR) department once a year raising the issue is not the answer and neither is an annual formal appraisal system whether of the ’360 degree’ variety or otherwise. Despite what many partners appear to think, ‘employee morale’ is not the exclusive preserve of the HR department, as I am sure most HR personnel would freely admit. It is the responsibility of each and every partner, and each and every assistant who has some degree of control over others. Without doubt, however, the lead must come from the partners.The findings about the work/life balance should come as no surprise although it would seem that it is clearly news to many in the legal fraternity. A perusal of even the most basic management journals and management texts will reveal that an increasing number of employees (and law firm assistants are no different) are looking to balance work and home life. Earning piles of cash and being exhausted at 40 is not something that is attractive to many new employees. It would have been interesting to see the responses to a question along the following lines: “Do I want to strive to become like the partners in my firm?.” In other words, does the firm offer the employee an attractive future as perceived by the latter, not the former.
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