Employment matters - post COVID realities for law firms
- By Mark Simpson
Like most industries, ensuring staff are coping is a real priority for law firms following the challenges thrown up by the global pandemic. While workloads may have initially dropped off following the 2020 lockdown, this year has seen the firms remain busy during lockdowns, and some even looking at record years. So, the work is there, but sustaining staff morale and keeping the team together, motivated and able to work effectively has perhaps been an even bigger challenge.
The issues now have their own vernacular. Lockdown fatigue, maintaining energy levels and motivation are common struggles for many people. Supporting employees’ emotional, physical and mental wellbeing has become a top priority for legal firms and supporting remedies include care packages, one off bonuses to encourage staff to treat themselves and granting additional time off. Naturally some staff struggle more than others, and the use of NZLS Counselling Service has been beneficial for some. One less usual response has seen a firm have staff from outside of Auckland send morale boosting personalised care packages to their Auckland counterparts.
Relative Impact on Senior and Junior Staff?
Senior lawyers, who are used to running their workload fairly autonomously, appear to have managed the best whilst working remotely, and are more likely to be supported by well-equipped home working arrangements.
The more junior level Lawyers on the other hand seem to have encountered greater challenges. They need more direct supervision, and their learning is often driven by osmosis - listening and watching their more experienced colleagues operate; so, the lack of direct supervision and mentoring while working remotely has impacted both their effectiveness and their ongoing development. Additionally, home working environments of more junior staff can make their workday more challenging because of sharing common spaces and resources.
Are people hiring lawyers through lockdowns?
The lockdown of 2020 saw recruitment activity stall almost immediately, with a huge amount of uncertainty as the business community navigated unchartered waters. Subsequently, and most notably in Auckland since August this year, a strong volume of work has resulted in the need to maintain adequate staffing levels. This has seen firms move their operations to virtual overnight, adapting to virtual interviewing, onboarding and induction.
How effective is remote working?
In the 2020 lockdown law firms around the country were forced to embrace remote working, despite previous misgivings by some that working from home wouldn’t work. To the surprise of some, they found that working from home worked relatively smoothly; most firms had in place the necessary technology and systems and were able to quickly move back to remote working when the subsequent lockdowns occurred.
The return to the office after the first 2020 lockdown saw a mixed response from the firms - ranging from working from home whenever, to reverting to all staff being back in the office each and every working day; the latter response being more likely from the larger corporate law firms who traditionally have resisted more remote working. Speaking with some of our small to medium law firm clients, remote working continues to work remarkably well. Some have adopted a “one day working from home a week” policy across the board, while others have taken a more nuanced approach, leaving it to individual teams and Partners to make their own determinations. Another more common adaptation we’ve seen has been affording greater freedoms to the more senior staff as they are seen to be better equipped to manage this.
Attraction and Retention
With strong work flows across many of their key teams, firms have faced a range of challenges sourcing quality Solicitors in this post-pandemic legal labour market.
Returning Kiwis and Overseas Candidates
Initially there was a reasonable flow of Lawyers returning from offshore when COVID-19 first hit in early 2020. As a result, when the legal market began picking up in the third and fourth quarters of 2020, those returnees initially helped to fill some of the talent gaps. However, Lawyers returning from offshore usually tend to be at the more senior end of the scale, which means higher salary expectations and a strong desire to see a clear progression path. Taking on too many seniors can leave firms and teams top heavy, with limited partnership opportunity.
This year we have seen that uncertainty and ongoing issues with MIQ, coupled with an easing of COVID-19 restrictions in places like the UK, has seen a number of Kiwi Lawyers deferring their return to NZ (most likely until the tail end of 2022). Having come out of lockdowns in their offshore countries, they can finally look to enjoy living and working in a major European or Asian city again and travelling within their region.
With the rest of the world starting to open up again, many junior Lawyers currently working in NZ firms, who had deferred their planned OE last year or earlier this year, are now deciding the time is right to head offshore. So, firms are anticipating having to potentially deal with two or three cohorts of their intermediate lawyers heading off in the same year, probably starting at the end of the first quarter of 2022 (to get two summers if you are heading to the northern hemisphere).
Offshore non-Kiwi Lawyers, often from the UK or Australia, are as of writing this, still totally locked out of gaining entry to NZ unless it’s via a Partnership Visa (ie - they are the partner/spouse of a returning Kiwi). The number of these Lawyers coming into the country has never been huge, but it’s been pretty much zero now for the last 18 months.
Salaries and Bonuses
Not only are firms currently having to compete for the limited pool of qualified candidates, but they are also looking to do what that can to retain their own staff. We saw a well published, and many would say long overdue, significant rise in graduate salaries early this year. This has rippled through the subsequent year bands. What’s more, while the salary bands for each year are being pushed up, we’re also aware of several firms introducing special across-the-board additional bonuses for their Solicitors, to reflect market salary movements. So, not only will the next band they move into be higher, they are also being compensated for the current years’ band being retrospectively moved as well.
Given the current shortage of qualified Lawyers, firms are desperate to hold on to their good performers. It is now almost obligatory for a firm to counteroffer one of their employed Solicitors who is looking to resign and move to another role. While boosting salary and bonuses can be an effective tool for both attraction and retention, we are seeing new talent strategies being offered such as additional inducements to stay that include a change in work mix, additional time flexibility and even a job title change / promotion.
Part-time and Flexibility
COVID-19 forced working from home to become a reality for every firm, and that has in turn only increased the expectation from employed lawyers that they will be able to utilize that option more and more as time goes on. Flexibility is something of great appeal to employees, be that around being able to juggle starting and finishing times, to being able to work remotely, or the ability to work something less than full time.
Is this a perfect storm? COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the importance of looking after staff wellbeing. Work volumes continue to remain high across most firms, but the difficulty of getting ex-pats home through MIQ, coupled with an anticipated exodus of lower-level lawyers, means there will likely be a continued significant shortage of quality candidates for professional roles in private practice.
Salaries are being driven higher as are candidate expectations around flexibility and remuneration. COVID-19 has only highlighted the importance of looking after staff wellbeing and retaining your good people more than ever. Burnout issues were already a very serious issue to the industry, so perhaps a silver lining to this gloomy COVID-19 cloud is that we will see changes for the positive by law firms as they seek to retain, develop and grow their key staff.
This article is based on conversations Mark had with Partners, HR Directors and Practice Managers across a range of different sized firms around the country.