Bridging The Gap In A Skills Short Market For Law Firms
- Posted by Joel Okoye
- October 31, 2023
The legal industry is experiencing change at a remarkably rapid pace. The last few years have ushered in a transformative period that will come to define the future of the legal landscape in later years. Amongst the many developments we have seen emerge in the past few years, such as the gradual shift towards greater flexibility in the work life of legal professionals, the incorporation of AI technology into legal and hiring practices and the transition of the industry away from established traditional norms comes a particularly pertinent point of discussion – and contention – one that has (and will continue to) influenced how law firms will operate in years to come: The well-documented skills shortage experienced by law firms across the market.
It’s no secret to anyone keeping tabs on how the industry has fared since the pandemic from a hiring perspective, with redundancies, and a resulting candidate-led market just a few of many defining features of the post-covid era. Much has been written about its impact on business performance, and in particular, recruitment, as law firms large and small face a lot of difficulty today in acquiring the talent and expertise they need, due to a variety of factors at play.
Why is there a Skills Shortage?
Some of these said factors are simply a direct consequence of the pandemic, as businesses across the world of work have struggled to keep their head above water amidst a multitude of challenges such as economic turmoil and changing regulations, which has led to a sharp increase in client demand for legal services, one that law firms are buckling under the pressure to meet. Last year UK law firms were reported to have advertised over 2,300 jobs for London-based associates between January and November the year before – a whopping 131% increase on 2020’s numbers – but struggle to actually fill them.
And with the increasing effort to expand workforces to address this issue, comes an inevitable squabble for the top legal talent on the market, leading to stiff competition between law firms for the same candidates and consequently the difficulty in recruiting we see amongst businesses today. Chris Sullivan, head of Clifford Chance’s London private equity division echoed this sentiment: “The hires we are making are about growing our business to meet client demand…The aim is to grow our headcount and given the demand we’re seeing I wouldn’t put a cap on that. It is certainly a very competitive market for talent, there’s no question.”
Law firms are consequently plugging the gaps with an attempt to turn the heads of legal professionals with much-improved remuneration packages, including ‘retention bonuses’, offered to those wanting to leave for a rival firm, and a host of other benefits now known to be in high demand amongst candidates, such as flexible working arrangements. Such a shift from practices expected of legal employers in hiring points to another reason the fight for talent is so intense, and that is the changing needs and priorities of legal candidates.
Partly borne out of the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic, the idea of flexible working has quickly become a staple in the list of demands of candidates today, due to a greater need for better work-life balance in such turbulent periods and is now expected to be part of any benefits package worth considering from legal employers. Hybrid and remote working have been warmly welcomed amongst legal professionals, and any idea of returning to a type of culture that, according to a recent article in Bloomberg, pushed so many to leave for the sake of their well-being is firmly rejected. The rising demand for other desirables such as development opportunities, and a real sense of purpose that provides lasting satisfaction beyond a handsome salary, makes meeting candidate expectations while fulfilling business obligations a real challenge for law firms, especially considering how averse the industry is in general to changing established practices.
Perhaps one of the biggest drivers of change in the industry today, and a big reason for the skills gap, is its movement towards digital integration and a technology-centric approach to business. The pressure of rising costs and shrinking budgets on firms across the sector has pushed many to embrace the value that digital technology holds in streamlining legal procedures, improving productivity, and bolstering efforts to comply with data protection regulations, giving rise to the need for lawyers who are digital-literate and capable of adding such expertise to their value as a professional. As the legal industry has always held fast to its very straight-and-narrow approach to cultivating legal talent in terms of culture and education, there is now a lack of ‘business of law talent’ in the skillset of legal professionals, with ‘practice’ narrowing as the ‘business of delivering legal services’ expands.
Where is the Gap?
Amongst the most desired hard skills missing in the repertoire of candidates, cloud computing and cybersecurity rank the highest, and unsurprisingly too, considering the level of efficiency (collaboration and cost-wise), flexibility, and scalability the former offers firms looking to keep pace with increasing client demand and adapt to changing workloads. Hand in hand with that comes the necessity of ensuring client data privacy and security can be maintained across cloud-based systems, (especially considering this is a sticking point with the use of such technology) explaining the high demand for competence in cybersecurity. With the world shifting towards a digital-oriented way of working over the last couple of years, the skills gap present in firms and general counsel in this area, is increasingly striking. A 2021 EY CEO Imperative Survey revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents (which comprised of business leaders and senior legal officers) admitted that they lacked the data and technology required to respond to a data breach. Sixty-eight percent of General Counsels stated that they lacked access to accurate, real-time info on their legal entities, highlighting a real lack of confidence from GCs in their ability to handle increasingly complex corporate risk management.
With GDPR in the EU a big driver of the use of technology amongst firms, and GDPR regulations tightening the noose around businesses failing to comply, the need to ensure client data security, as well as competence in risk management, has never been more evident for employers active in the hiring market for legal talent.
However, a notable by-product of the industry’s sudden shift towards digital technology is the difficulty of younger candidates stepping into the profession during the post-pandemic era in building core soft skills essential for career success, leading to a soft skills gap in the today’s talent pool. Many will be well aware of how the divide in digital literacy has created multiple issues in building and maintaining relationships – personal or professional – over the last few years. As consultant and psychologist Kim Tasso eloquently put it, those who missed out on acquiring these key skills while the world grappled to cope with the impact of Covid and lockdown now find themselves playing catch-up.
So what exactly is missing when it comes to soft skills?
At the top of employers’ lists when looking at an ideal skillset for advancing employees is attention to detail according to research conducted by Business Name Generator, with more than a quarter of respondents within the legal industry stating it was the most important skill to have in the workplace. Self-motivation came in close second, with 22% highlighting the need for it in a new recruit’s repertoire, and this was further echoed by Kim Tasso in her piece on what soft skills legal professionals will need this year: “Set goals…and keep these goals front of mind. You will need to constantly check them against data and evidence to see if you are still on track; and know when it might be appropriate to revise or update them.”
Communication & Emotional Intelligence
One important skill, however, that atrophied in many due to the nature of the pandemic era is communication – both verbal and non-verbal. It’s no secret to any aspiring legal professional the importance of active listening, good conversational skills and confidence when interacting with peers, colleagues and clients, as it is a non-negotiable for key areas of the profession such as client and relationship management, effective networking, and conflict resolution. The ability to present cases and ideas persuasively, whether through a Zoom call or in front of hundreds of conference delegates, is indispensable for any legal professional who wants to be taken seriously.
Even more important for things like effective client management is the awareness of and ability to pick up non-verbal communication cues such as body language and facial expressions, particularly when cultural barriers are involved. As it comprises the vast majority of overall communication, it can and often is the difference between a closed deal with a client or a major career opportunity, and a failing endeavour to achieve lasting success on an individual and corporate level.
Another highly sought-after trait that comes hand-in-hand with, and actually facilitates excellent communication is a high EQ (emotional intelligence). As the single biggest predictor and strongest driver of leadership and excellence, it is also a must for employers to have among their legal teams in abundance. This can be broken down into several different skills: self-control (ability to understand one’s emotional triggers and manage one’s own emotions), empathy (ability and desire to recognise and understand the emotions of others), and the aforementioned self-awareness (ability to recognise our own emotions, and impact on others).
While these are already highly relevant and desirable, they are set to become even more so in future for employers as the industry continues embracing the value of digital and AI technology in streamlining processes and automating more mundane, non-complex tasks. With this highly likely to lead to a big jobs slash across the legal sector, ‘what will be left is the capacity to deal with human beings’, as Fuller stated in HBS’s publication Working Knowledge. Only the high value, complex or newest areas of law will need human input, among which will inevitably be client and relationship management, pointing to an even greater rise in demand for legal talent with a well-developed set of soft skills in the near future, something that Fuller also emphasises in the above publication: “Bosses will be hungry for good judgement, strong motivation and the ability to collaborate and articulate a vision.”
It is therefore concerning that, despite efforts to attract the candidates of today, businesses are failing to hire on a permanent basis, and are at risk of becoming oblivious to the gold mine of talent right beneath their feet due to the issue of inflexibility still present in the hiring practices of many firms today. It’s one thing for a skills gap to be present due to a lack of candidates available in the current talent pool with the desired kind of profile, and another thing entirely for such a profile to be the actual reason there is a perceived skills gap in the first place. According to a report from Harvard Business School and Accenture, there is a huge pool of skilled hidden workers shut out of employment by inflexible working requirements established by companies.
Just under a third of respondents of a survey conducted by Managing the Future of Work stated that they are only able to work part-time due to caregiving obligations, a reason highlighted as the ‘single biggest driver’ of hidden talent by Fuller in HBS’s publication. With 91% of that number being women – who are said to have better social skills in general – and this preference for flexible working set to only grow amongst candidates, the inability to show ample flexibility when it comes to working arrangements in the legal industry poses a major threat to the hiring efforts and overall success of firms unwilling to budge, especially considering what the future looks like from a business perspective.
In light of this, it is, although expected, prudent to ask oneself: How do employers combat the ongoing skills shortage to avoid a grim trajectory and futureproof their tomorrow? To answer that there are a few things you must consider:
Work-Life Balance: The Cornerstone of Individual – And Corporate Success
Starting with the most obvious but perhaps least straightforward aspect of the solution, the relaxing of stringent rules around working arrangements is very much the way to go for any law firm serious about standing out to today’s candidates. This isn’t just a matter of policy, but a cultural shift that should be embraced internally. With research increasingly indicating that employees able to achieve a better work-life balance are more productive, the priority a firm places on its workers’ wellbeing is evidently inextricably linked to the level of corporate success they see. This is the first step any business is advised to take when struggling to recruit, as it not only makes your accessibility to talent looking for a supportive culture far higher but also enables you to better facilitate their success.
What will determine the amount of value you get out of these decisions, however, is the prep work you do internally – that is, the commitment you show to building that kind of culture in your firm. Yes, what this will look like will differ slightly from individual to individual and it is multifaceted in nature but the most important rule to follow is communication with both your employees and leadership team. You should aim to have regular, frank and open conversations about what kind of culture you wish to establish and what every employee can do to help the business do that. This might be easier said than done, but there are steps you can take to make every candidate sure that you are an accommodating employer when it comes to culture.
This doesn’t just apply to working arrangements. Candidates are more discerning about where they work when it comes to career development and work culture, as this plays a large part in career satisfaction and work-life balance. Considering the nature of the problem at hand it is in your best interest to prioritise and invest in an employee development plan to upskill your workforce and ensure they are well-equipped to thrive in their roles in order to shield your business from the impact of a skills shortage and mitigate the problems it can cause down the line.
Setting Your Employer Brand Apart
Once these boxes have been ticked, the groundwork has been laid for your employer brand to shine. Taking a proactive approach to changing the culture and practices of your firm ensures it has the platform it needs to position the firm as one that values and invests in its workforce. In an age where the candidate experience is more important than ever, it’s imperative that you not only have an established employer value proposition but are also capable of communicating it effectively and convincingly to candidates. We break down how to build a winning employer brand in this guide here.
Your Personal Reservoir in a Talent Drought
The value that a specialist legal recruiter holds for firms running dry in their search for talent cannot be understated. With access to a wide pool of candidates, active or passive, a profound insight into current market trends and changes at every level, and a commitment to understanding the hiring needs of your firm, they are your ultimate ally in navigating a talent drought and staying competitive in a harsh climate. By simplifying what is often such an expensive and time-consuming process for hiring managers, they help to save your firm two of its most valuable resources, while ensuring you get the skills and the talent your business needs to thrive and excel.
That’s why our team at Clayton Legal are on hand – we take the stress and complications out of recruitment for your firm so that you can focus on what really matters. If you feel that the time has come to make an important hiring decision regarding your team, get in touch with us here.
If you would like to speak to us confidentially about market conditions, opportunities in your practice area or geographical region, or if you are actively looking for a role and would like us to help give you that competitive edge, we would love to speak to you – especially if you have your heart set on a new challenge for the new year.
Click here to speak to one of our experienced Legal specialists or call 01772 259121 for more information on how our exceptional recruitment experience can help your career aspirations.