Queensland-based law firm McInnes Wilson Lawyers has taken a definitive number of steps to become an employer of choice, according to its head of HR, who said this has reduced turnover, improved talent acquisition and boosted firm revenue.

Law firms are not traditionally perceived as an employer of choice, according to full-service firm McInnes Wilson Lawyers’ head of human resources, Elizabeth Rowe, who noted that being a lawyer is a tough, demanding role and many senior lawyers believe in total personal sacrifice and “putting the firm first”.

“The industry has a reputation of high stress, long hours, burnout and constant turnover,” said Rowe, and she explained that HR was integral to developing and delivering the changes needed to make the firm an employer of choice.

The starting point was to present a change proposal to the CEO, that referenced a Harvard Business School case study of US law firm Sloan and Harrison.

The study found high turnover and dissatisfaction was putting the workforce at associate level under pressure, resulting in a lack of continuity and poor performance.

It also pointed to generational differences, a lack of work-life balance, lack of mentorship and communication, and insufficient management leadership.

“Having identified this, I devised a strategy and key deliverables, and worked closely with the CEO to develop projects and goals, and ensure their implementation across all levels of the firm,” she said.

“These initiatives link directly back to firm revenue”

The firm’s CEO, Paul Tully, supported and drove the change by delivering a strategic overview to employees prior to the introduction of HR strategic initiatives.

“It needed to start from the top,” said Rowe, who added that the in-house traineeship scheme could not have been effective or successful without the direct involvement of the principals, due to their expertise and willingness to develop the subject matter content needed to meet competency requirements.

“I presented to the firm’s leaders on the direct benefits of the firm becoming an employer of choice and focussed on the costs of turnover and the direct link between effective leadership and business success,” said Rowe.

“I kept the messaging succinct, and focussed on efficiency and profitability, both of which would be significantly improved with the introduction of the HR strategic initiatives.”

As a result of its employer of choice strategy, Rowe said that turnover has reduced while its principal numbers have increased through both internal promotions and lateral hires.

“There has also been a huge increase in applications from law students which I believe is a direct result of the benefits that we offer young lawyers, that other firms simply don’t offer,” she said.

“The calibre of applicants has been exceptional and it appears that we are attracting applications from the best candidates in the marketplace.”

Client satisfaction surveys also show increased levels of satisfaction among corporate and personal clients, and Rowe said HR’s strategic initiatives have allowed the firm to meet best practice criteria when tendering for work.

“This means that these initiatives link directly back to firm revenue,” she said.

“The calibre of applicants has been exceptional and it appears that we are attracting applications from the best candidates in the marketplace”

In the planning stages, Rowe began analysing turnover statistics and qualitative data derived from exit surveys.

The firm then conducted an employee engagement survey which measured job satisfaction, leadership and communication, career development and opportunities, rewards and recognition, diversity and inclusion, health, safety and wellness.

From the survey results, strengths and areas for improvement were identified, and results were grouped by experience and length of service which helped identify interventions for targeted staff groups.

“I knew that we needed to roll-out initiatives that were visible, tangible and relevant,” said Rowe.

“Our strategy focussed heavily on learning and development initiatives, work/life balance and development of leadership capabilities.”

HR communicated directly with employees about these initiatives through MCW Connect (the firm’s internal newsletter) and via presentations, workshops and direct emails, while a communication plan was followed during the rollout and the careers page on the firm’s website was also updated to reflect the new initiatives.

“Some of the initiatives introduced included professional and technical training for the staff, a mentoring program to enable and guide entry-level lawyers, and a health, wealth, life and sustainability program (including personal training, yoga, massages and external experts presenting on topics such as nutrition, mental health and financial planning),” said Rowe.

“We made changes to the way that work can be done – by introducing home-based work agreements, part-time work, paid study leave and sabbatical leave subject to operational requirements.”

“Our strategy focussed heavily on learning and development initiatives, work/life balance and development of leadership capabilities”

In addressing industry-specific issues such as high stress and turnover, long hours and burnout, the firm started by imposing more realistic KPIs and lower yet achievable billing targets for lawyers.

The firm also has a performance bonus structure in place that recognises and financially rewards those who meet their KPIs, while monthly bonus payments also extend to support staff, based on overall firm performance.

To help support development in the firm, there has been a concerted focus on creating a culture of learning with the introduction of an 18-month leadership program.

“This program aims to ensure that our next generation of leaders are mentored and supported in developing their leadership skills, because we want to ensure that the firm’s future leaders are subject matter experts and also skilled in bringing out the best in people around them,” said Rowe, who added that the firm also invests heavily in developing career paths for support staff.

“Another significant step was the introduction of an in-house traineeship scheme for graduate lawyers.

“This saves young lawyers money and allows them to fast track their experience by working on the ground with our senior lawyers.”

“It is all too easy to lose momentum if HR isn’t seen to be proactive about responding to employee feedback”

However, the journey to becoming an employer of choice is not without its challenges, and Rowe said that in any workplace the biggest issue is resistance to change by those who want to keep the status quo.

“The best strategy to deal with this is effective communication and engagement and ensuring that change is seen to emerge from employees’ feedback,” she said.

“The initial employee engagement survey was, therefore, a vital first step which I urged future change leaders to factor into their planning.”

Once desired changes were identified, HR’s role was to ensure staff knew what changes were being made, the timelines and the reasons for change.

Project delivery plans were prepared by HR which clearly set out roles and responsibilities for key stakeholders, and Rowe said these were “an invaluable part” of the process.

“It is very important to ensure that employees aren’t left waiting to hear the outcome of internal surveys and other feedback mechanisms,” she said.

“Staff want to see actions being taken,” said Rowe.

“Timing is vitally important to ensure that change is seen as a direct result of the feedback that employees have given.

“It is all too easy to lose momentum if HR isn’t seen to be proactive about responding to employee feedback.”

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