In a competitive job market, the battle for legal talent extends beyond attorney recruitment.
In the legal industry’s battle for the best, most of the firepower has been directed toward attracting top-level associates and lateral hires. But there’s another, less visible, struggle going on for the hearts and minds of business service professionals. Where are the super candidates for positions in IT, accounting, marketing and administration? And are law firms even on their radar?
Phillip M. Perry
Freelance Business Writer
Those questions have risen in importance in recent years as organizations of all kinds encounter elevated requirements for enlightened process innovation.
“Law firms have evolved to being sophisticated businesses, with top-level positions in all areas taking on more authority and having seats at the decision-making table,” says Kathleen T. Pearson, SPHR, Chief Human Resources Officer at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and a member of the San Diego Chapter. “These individuals can help shape the business side of firms by providing insights into how things should be run.”
Pearson highlights some particular areas of concern. One is the IT field, where professionals must manage systems that have evolved to levels well above the plug-and-play models of the past, while protecting firms from ever-present cybersecurity threats. The financial side has also become more complicated and accounting tasks more difficult. In the area of HR, law firms require a new level of talent that can strategize about positioning for the future rather than just growing organically.
“I think all of these positions lend themselves to a different level of business professional than existed 10 or 20 years ago,” says Pearson.
Having top professionals aboard is just good business, given that today’s clients expect top-notch service in critical areas of expertise. The professional procurement people who focus solely on hiring law firms for corporations often demand to be talking to their business counterparts on the law firm side.
“Business professionals are the secret weapons at many law firms,” says Timothy B. Corcoran, Principal of Corcoran Consulting Group and an Independent member. “They help distinguish the organizations in ways that go beyond just saying its attorneys went to the best schools and have been doing lots of deals.”
So law firms need service professionals. But do service professionals need law firms? Maybe not. “It’s a competitive labor market with other opportunities outside the legal world,” says Pearson. “And I don’t know that the law is something that occurs to professionals as an industry that hires anyone but lawyers.”
If the legal industry must heighten its profile to attract top business talent, the process begins with acknowledging the difficulty of the challenge.
“Business professionals are the secret weapons at many law firms. They help distinguish the organizations in ways that go beyond just saying its attorneys went to the best schools and have been doing lots of deals.”
“As a global labor and employment boutique, we are competing primarily with a fairly small number of similar law firms when hiring attorneys,” says Margaret Fulton Holman, Chief Talent Officer at Ogletree Deakins and an Independent member. “But for other highly valued business service professionals, we are competing with a much larger and more diverse group of employers. These include the big consulting organizations, tech companies and even global banking firms. Distinguishing ourselves from these diverse competitors is certainly not easy. If you were a Gen Zer who just graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in computer science, would you rather work for Google or for a law firm?”
Before making aggressive moves on the labor front, law firms may have to do some internal housecleaning. That can require transforming the institutional mindset into one that elevates the status of business service professionals to levels equal to that of attorneys.
“Law firms need to treat professionals in all of these specialties from the mindset of understanding the level of expertise they bring to the table,” says Pearson.
That fundamental switch in attitude must be apparent in every candidate touchpoint. It starts with how available positions are described and continues with whom the candidates talk when being interviewed, and even in the choice of words employed during the application process. As an example, Pearson points to the use of such terms as non-legal or non-lawyer when referring to candidates.
“Non needs to be removed from the vernacular,” she says. “When talented folks hear themselves refer to as a non-something, that’s a non-starter.”
“While many law firms have focused on advancement opportunities for their attorneys, they have some room to grow in regard to business service professionals.”
This shift in mindset is part of a larger requirement: Law firms need to welcome a degree of process innovation that has in many cases gone missing.
“The traditional law firm business model is not necessarily built for innovation, which requires an investment of resources and time to try things that may not work the first time,” says Holman. “Most law firms are conservative when it comes to keeping the non-fee earning headcount and expense budget lean to maximize profitability.”
Given the risk-averse nature of the industry, it’s little wonder that things can look a bit stagnant to outsiders. Professionals can find it difficult to assimilate into such an environment and make the changes required to drive business forward. Navigating the waters can mean learning how to create coalitions among partners — and that can take a mix of both talent and time.
RETOOLING THE WORKPLACE
Can the legal industry take steps to make itself a more attractive option for career professionals? Many observers say “yes,” and point to the following specific steps to help:
1. Encourage professional autonomy.
Business professionals must be given a sufficient degree of freedom to innovate in productive ways.
“To be an employer of choice requires understanding that shareholder ownership of the firm does not convey special powers of expertise in all areas of business,” says Corcoran. Such expertise must be recognized in the specialists who have been brought aboard. “Professionals need to be given restraints, and then told that within those boundaries the firm wants as much guidance as possible on how to proceed. That’s a really difficult thing for a lot of law firm leaders to accept,” he says.
2. Offer workplace flexibility.
“Professionals are looking for flexibility with regard to where and when they work,” says Holman. “Coming out of the pandemic, many of their duties have become established as not having to be done in brick-and-mortar offices, elbow-to-elbow with everyone else.”
3. Support career advancement.
The legal industry can also provide more robust professional skills training.
“While many law firms have focused on advancement opportunities for their attorneys, they have some room to grow in regard to business service professionals,” says Holman. “One reason is that law firms are very flat, without as many of the defined levels as you may find in other corporate entities. As a result, there are fewer clear advancement paths.”
A manager of marketing, for example, may lack the opportunity to advance to senior manager, associate director, director and then on to vice president of marketing.
4. Provide equitable benefits.
Benefits provided to top business executives should be the same as those provided the firm’s top lawyers. “Law firms need to avoid what I would refer to as an ‘upstairs, downstairs’ approach that provides cream of the crop benefits to attorneys and then sort of everything else for the staff,” says Pearson. “That’s not going to fly today. My philosophy is if you’re a human being, you should have human being benefits.”
5. Reach out to campuses.
Hunt talent where it resides. In many cases that’s at the nation’s institutions of higher education.
“There is a case to be made for law firms going on campuses to talk with business students and career services personnel,” says Pearson. “Such visits would provide an opportunity to educate people about the exciting and vibrant legal industry, and about how it’s growing and provides extraordinary service to the world and to our economy.”
“The talent is there. It’s a matter of the firms recognizing that they need to make themselves marketable for those professionals.”
Students need to understand that law firms offer the potential for advancement to senior leadership positions in all fields of endeavor — not just the law. “There’s been so much emphasis on attorney recruiting that other roles have taken a back seat,” says Holman. “It’s just as important for us to be on campus at Georgia Tech as it is at Emory Law School.”
6. Embrace change.
Recasting law firms into more attractive operating models for professional service candidates may seem daunting. But industry observers say the job can be done.
“The talent is there,” says Pearson. “It’s a matter of the firms recognizing that they need to make themselves marketable for those professionals.”
While law firms may view changes in compensation patterns as a potent lure for top business talent, they must also retool their operating environments to recognize business professionals as attorney coequals.
“What kind of authority are people going to have to do their jobs?” poses Pearson. “Will it be in name only, or will they actually have the ability to effect change in the organization?”
It’s good to have options. While expanding to job sites outside of legal can widen the pool, it’s also worth taking a look at ALA’s Job Bank. Employers can broadcast their open positions to legal management professionals, while job seekers can find their perfect match. Check it out at alanet.org/careers.
About the Author
Phillip M. Perry is an award‑winning business journalist with over 20 years of experience under his belt. A three‑time recipient of the American Bar Association’s Edge Award for editorial achievement, Perry freelances out of his New York City office. His byline has appeared over 3,000 times in the nation’s business press.