Deborah Gray, founding director at Totum Partners, discusses how the ‘great resignation’ has affected law firms


The ‘great resignation’ movement sparked in the aftermath of Covid-19 has seen record numbers of employees resign across all sectors, with a fifth of all UK adults having voluntarily left their jobs in 2021.

The legal services sector, in particular, has been affected heavily by this, with 45% of law firm partners citing retention as their biggest challenge throughout the pandemic, according to a survey by litigation funder Harbour.

For many, pay rises have offered an easy solution to the problem, with firms increasing salaries by 15% to 50% in a bid to attract or retain talent. Top firms have been handing out starting salaries of up to £150,000 to graduate lawyers. Those in business services are also benefitting, with firms such as Slaughter & May having recently reviewed salaries across the breadth of its services.

However, in many cases, resignations aren’t caused by the lure of greater pay elsewhere. Rather, the situation can be attributed to a variety of causes, including the pandemic causing a reevaluation of work-life balance. Instead of increasing salaries and bonuses to a worryingly unsustainable level, firms must consider the true causes of staff turnover and implement measures designed to attract and retain top talent.


Remote problems

For many, the shift to remote working has been one of the biggest benefits of the pandemic. This shift has coincided with increased health, happiness and productivity, and many have no desire to return to pre-pandemic practices. In fact, more than half of workers are unwilling to stay with a company that denies them flexibility.

Digital onboarding can ensure firms remain attractive to those that wish to stay away from the office environment, while assisting them as they learn the ropes and form connections with their colleagues. An efficient digital onboarding system can provide new hires access to the information and support when they need it, helping them to settle in quickly and effectively.

But remote working isn’t for everyone. In the legal sector, in particular, working from home hasn’t proven such a positive experience. Only 49% of high-earning lawyers reported being happy with remote-working arrangements, compared to a UK average of 66%. Similarly, 67% of law firm employees expressed a desire for more in-person work post-pandemic after two years away from the office.

As the pandemic has taught us, technology often cannot replicate the social and mentorship aspects of the office environment. Therefore, firms must continue to include in-person training as part of onboarding. However, with only a meagre one in ten employees happy with their company’s onboarding process before the pandemic, and between one to two thirds of hires leaving within their first year, firms cannot revert to old ways.

Rather than rushing new hires through a week of training and hoping they swim, firms should build an experience around frequent communication, easy access to support, and social interactions that help them to form relationships in the workplace. Shown to increase retention by as much as 82%, improving the way new hires are welcomed into the firm will be vital to retaining recruits and navigating the talent shortage in the sector.


Culture club

Even with a successful onboarding process, it remains all too easy for employees to grow isolated from their peers – particularly those working from home.  Therefore, firms must implement measures that prioritise inclusivity and support the integration of new members joining the team. With the future of returning to the office still unclear for many firms, even those with long-term hybrid working policies are now looking at improving support for employees working from home.

Ensuring everyone feels accepted and welcome will reflect positively on firms, making them attractive to a more diverse group of prospective jobseekers and providing access to a larger talent pool.

Assigning mentors to show young employees the ropes is an excellent way to help them feel part of, identify with and build loyalty to the firm, which in turn will make it easier to retain them. Without building such bonds, new recruits may find it hard to connect with their co-workers and may even struggle to identify the firm’s culture within an increasingly decentralised workplace.

To combat this, firms need to have sustained values embedded throughout the organisation, with change starting at the top. Establishing values as a partner provides a model for the rest of the firm and allows these values to filter down to the lower levels. While financial incentives may turn the heads of top talents, 56% feel a strong company culture outweighs a hefty pay packet.

With firms that rank best for company culture sharing simple values such as being nice, providing help, and supporting wellbeing, this is a good place for firms to start.


Diversifying the workplace

The professional services sector has historically struggled with minority representation.Gender representation, in particular, remains an issue – the lack of women in senior roles highlights the existence of barriers to progression and a lack of support to overcome these barriers, harming both diversity and retention statistics.

This often stems from inequalities on issues such as parental leave. Some 43% of large law firms offer mothers 14 to 20 weeks of paid maternity leave. In contrast, just 23% offer paid paternity leave. This puts a strain on women in the sector to choose between their family and their career. When mothers return to their firms, they may also struggle to cope with their workplace responsibilities alongside childcaring.

Simple measures such as offering understanding and flexibility to parents and providing opportunities to move into less demanding roles can help to keep talent within the business.  By retaining talent, firms don’t need to go through additional onboarding processes as employees are already familiar with these and integrated into the work culture, which benefits everyone.

Although firms should prioritise retention, they should also welcome departures as an opportunity to increase diversity and inclusion (D&I). At Totum, for instance, we welcome candidates from all groups and backgrounds. Women made up 60% of the candidates we worked with in 2021, while 27% were from Asian/Asian British, Black/Black British, or mixed ethnic backgrounds. Incidentally, 9% identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

It is worth keeping in mind that inclusive workforces tend to work better together and outperform less diverse companies by 36%. Diversity is becoming an increasingly important factor in recruitment and retention, with younger workers more likely to take a job and stay on beyond five years in companies where diversity policies are in place.

Investing in diversity-focused roles can help to ensure D&I strategies are being appropriately implemented throughout the business and that all candidates are being given equal opportunities. Not only do these roles improve company culture, but they can also help to increase revenue by up to 25%, according to a McKinsey study.


A sustainable approach

Firms today face many challenges in attracting and retaining employees. Rather than increasing financial incentives, they must work on improving their practices. By implementing D&I strategies such as hiring from diverse talent pools and investing in diversity-focused roles, creating a positive culture and helping employees to feel welcomed and supported, firms will be better positioned to keep their employees happy – and end their reliance on unsustainable financial incentives to keep recruitment and retention high.