updated on 19 April 2023
Law firms are locked in a never-ending arms race to attract the top talent. This is because they’re predominately people businesses – the value of a firm’s offering is derived directly from its people and their legal expertise. The only way to become (or remain) a leading firm is to attract and retain the best people. This is a significant challenge with a recent survey finding that 63% of UK legal firms believe their biggest obstacle to growth in 2023 is recruitment.
The surge in demand for legal services following the covid-19 pandemic has only intensified this competition. There’s been a marked increase in legal salaries as firms vie to poach staff from rivals with lucrative offers while handing out pay rises in an effort to keep existing staff from looking elsewhere.
However, this dramatic rise in salaries is unsustainable and pay is only a single factor for prospective applicants when considering a place of work. In fact, research by Reuters found that “law firms that have experienced lower rates of turnover among their attorneys tended to have the lowest compensation growth among firms in the market”. Rather than focusing on pay, it found that lawyers may be giving higher priority to intangible factors.
Consequently, firms should consider alternative ways to make themselves more attractive places to be, such as providing a better work/life balance, instilling a sense of purpose for employees and fostering a positive culture that people find rewarding. One avenue that’s been noticeably underutilised is learning and development.
The benefits of a well-implemented learning and development programme are manifold, and upskilling should be a key priority for legal firms. It increases the expertise of its existing people, which makes each staff member, and therefore the firm, more valuable. It also gives the firm an edge in the competition for talent by providing an attractive pull factor.
Ambitious people will be drawn to a firm that they believe will upskill them and provide a clear route of development – they want to work somewhere that supports and boosts their career trajectory. Further, staff that feel they’re being progressed and are growing within their roles are more likely to stay with the business and feel happier – improving retention and morale.
Meanwhile, ignoring training presents a serious risk as employees look to competitors for their career growth. The International Bar Association conducted a global survey of young lawyers last year which found that of the respondents who were somewhat or highly likely to leave their current role in the next five years, 38% cited lack of progression as the cause, while more than one-quarter were looking to leave because of a lack of professional development or training. Further, 40% stated that artificial intelligence and legal technology training was critical for their future to stay relevant and appropriately skilled, underlining the importance of development in positioning firms to take advantage of technological advancements. Upskilling for law firms goes further than purely legal training.
A cost-effective tactic
There's never been a more opportune time to invest in learning and development. Recent technological advances and intensified competition from software providers mean that training options are more cost effective than ever and are now accessible for law firms of every size.
Technology makes it possible to achieve legal qualifications entirely online, providing a more flexible and cost-effective solution. It can cut costs compared to classroom learning by removing the need to have and maintain a property as an educational establishment; it allows teaching to be delivered at a larger scale lowering the cost per student; and it reduces the price of learning materials by disseminating them digitally instead of in print.
However, it’s important to note that although technology can be used to enhance teaching, it’s not the technology that does the teaching. High-quality online learning requires significant time, effort and knowledge to be delivered effectively. Technology can drive savings and make learning cost effective but learning and development will always require a meaningful investment to be made. It can make learning affordable but not negligible.
The main advantage that it confers is allowing smaller firms with fewer resources the ability to provide an avenue to upskill. In this way, technology can level the playing field by providing the opportunity for people to garner additional expertise who would never have been able to otherwise.
Balancing time to study with the onerous demands of working in legal practice is one of the biggest difficulties learners working full time face. The challenge can be compounded by other responsibilities learners may have, such as providing care. For firms to successfully implement a learning and development programme, it needs to take the realities of daily life into account.
Fortunately, online learning is particularly well suited in this case because it can be undertaken anywhere and at any time. Learners don’t need to commute to class and can simply stay later at the office to undergo their studies or do it from the comfort of their home. In addition, a well-designed e-learning course will be on demand and flexible. This enables learners to take the course at their own pace, when time permits, and pause their studies should workloads or other commitments require it.
A worthy investment
Learning and development should form a core pillar of every law firm’s recruitment and retention strategy. It’s a far more cost-effective investment than paying out ever larger sums in salaries, which is unsustainable and subject to diminishing returns.
When implemented well, learning and development provides myriad benefits: the firm receives a return on every pound invested by receiving a more skilled and productive workforce; staff are happier because they feel that the firm is investing in their future and that they can grow within the business; the firm can attract ambitious talent, passionate about their personal development; and clients benefit too from receiving a better service. The rewards are simply too good to ignore.