Adapt or Die: How to Attract and Retain Top Legal Talent

Adapt or Die: How to Attract and Retain Top Legal Talent

Data released from legal recruitment expert, Douglas Scott’s, annual Salary Survey recently revealed that flexi-time is the most valued benefit by legal professionals – yet only 20% of firms offer it as part of their package. Managing Director of Douglas Scott, Kathryn Riley, explains what lawyers are really looking for in their benefit packages and asks if firms are doing enough to attract and retain top talent…

I’m sure you’ll agree that it comes as no surprise that lawyers are looking for more flexibility in their roles; the world of work is changing and has been for some time now. Millennials in particular are seeking that elusive work-life balance, and the gig-economy is bringing about the ‘Uberisation’ of the workplace across industries.

Glassdoor’s 2018 50 Best Places to Work revealed the UK’s top employers as Google, Anglian Water and Bromford – businesses that all focus on employee wellbeing. Google is renowned for its culture and vast range of benefits including flexible working, free food and working from home. It’s a great formula to drive a happy workforce and something the Google credits for great performance.

Within the legal sector, however, that flexibility and balance is harder to come by; donning yesterday’s shirt after pulling an all-nighter is still seen by many as a badge of honour. It’s backed up by our research, which showed that in London across all levels legal professionals on average work a 44-hour week. Legal professionals are measured against ultra-high expectations which, while enforced by partners and management, is ultimately directed from bill-paying clients. For this and many other reasons, it’s important to note that from a practical point of view most businesses simply cannot mirror Google’s formula.

Remuneration has historically made up for these high expectations (and for many, remuneration alone is sufficient), but now we’re seeing a shift in attitude, with lawyers looking for a more holistic package. While changing expectations are largely being driven at employee level, if we can learn anything from Glassdoor’s findings, it is that prioritising employee happiness can pay dividends. This year, our Salary Survey showed an increase of three per cent on firm’s offering flexi-time from 2017’s results – a sign that smart firms are adapting.

In order to attract and retain top talent, firms need to get under the skin of what lawyers want and identify what they can offer. While flexi-time was voted number one in our survey, the results also showed a desire for increased holidays and private health care -all fairly standard benefits that will tick the box for many -, but to keep top talent, firms should start thinking outside the box.

There is no need for packages to follow the rigid formula they once did and, while some may view Google’s list of benefits as gimmicky, feedback from those benefitting is largely positive.

So, how do you know what benefits to include? Trial and error can be costly, not to mention disruptive to business. Research is key – conduct surveys with your existing team and be open when interviewing about what would excite them and demonstrate that they are valued by the firm. All too often we see the right candidate rejected because the employer is unwilling to show flexibility.

Something we all could do with reminding ourselves from time-to-time: work isn’t everything. For many, family, friends and travel all come before work. Rather than persecute those who are upfront about it, firms should be championing balance. Time and time again studies show a correlation between happiness and performance. If firms want dedicated and engaged teams, then the firm should show willing to help people find a balance across their lives.

A good example comes from a story I heard on the grapevine recently – a well-regarded solicitor was looking to make her next move on the career ladder. On the top of her priority list sat a desire to work a four-day week. She intended to spend the fifth day taking care of her child. Despite knowing her wishes, a firm went through the interview process, continuing to be taken by her credentials but thought that their reputation and high remuneration package would convince her otherwise. After rejecting their first offer and reiterating the importance of the four-day week, the firm instead offered to help with child support. She kindly declined and has since found a business who could offer what she was looking for. Fundamentally, and to the first firm’s detriment, they failed to understand the solicitor’s drivers, mired in an old-fashioned mindset that the way to attract talent is to keep adding to a salary.

Firms aren’t keeping pace with the make-up and expectations of today’s professionals – they must think beyond financial reward to understand what individuals really need.

There is huge opportunity for firms to trail-blaze and start setting new best practice. But the window is closing, with early adaptors already reaping the benefits of taking a new, braver approach.

As always, the best talent will go where the honey takes them – many firms will need to reconsider their definition of honey.


Kathryn Riley

Managing Director


A legal recruitment specialist for over 15 years, Kathryn Riley launched Douglas Scott back in 2004 with the intention of doing things differently. Widely regarded as one of the UK’s leading legal recruitment specialists, the business goals are to continually provide an exceptional service to both candidates and clients, to recognise talent and reward it accordingly, and quite simply, work in a way that is respectful of principles and basic good manners. Kathryn’s role as MD has allowed her to further her passion for innovation and technology within the recruitment sector and demonstrate her commitment to creating and supporting the growth of skills across the legal sector.  A highly respected thought leader within the legal recruitment industry and a regular speaker on the HR & Recruitment circuit, Kath is passionate about adding tangible value to stakeholder relationships and shaping the future of legal recruitment.

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