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The difficulties of hiring lawyers in the face of new challenges and prospects

July 27th, 2012 · No Comments

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I am happy to share with you the below article which was recently published at Praxis (July to Dec Issue 2012). (Praxis is a magazine published by Malaysian Bar for their Members).

By Eddie Law

This article is to analyze the challenges faced by law firms in hiring lawyers and to suggest some practical solutions that law firms could consider to overcome such challenges.

Hundreds of vacancies for lawyers exist in local law firms. Sought-after are lawyers with at least two or three years’ post qualified experience (PQE). This is because these mid-level lawyers have a certain level of competency in technical skill but their salaries are not too high. These lawyers are therefore “hot cakes on the shelves” in the current legal career market.

Throughout my years of recruitment experience, I have noted that many law firms have experienced difficulties in hiring suitable lawyers, especially the mid-level lawyers, regardless of the size of the law firms. Among the reasons are:

1. Shortage of mid-level lawyers

Many lawyers with three to five years of PQE contemplate over their career directions and question whether private practice is really their “cup of tea”. Besides, many career options are open to this group of lawyers, e.g. working abroad, going “in-house”, setting up a small boutique venture, staying at their current firm with the hope of being promoted to partnership in the near future or moving to another firm to take up another area of specialized practice.

Inevitably, the market for mid-level lawyers is competitive. The acute shortage is evident when “pushing factors” prompt the lawyers to leave their posts.

A strategy to maximise resources is for law firms to map out a plan to retain these lawyers by producing “pulling factors.” These “pulling factors” include the creation of more promising career prospects for their lawyers, e.g. law firms should put forward clearly their expectations and promotion plans. Lawyers with many years of service will therefore know what they need to accomplish in order to be made partners of the firm. This will definitely boost the strong sense of belonging and give the lawyers a sense of career security. With a clear and transparent KPI system, lawyers will understand that their promotion is not based on the “whims and fancies” of the boss.

2. Employer branding

Employer branding is a crucial advantage of which many law firms are not aware. Most experienced lawyers obtain new jobs through referrals. They conduct their own “market survey” or “background checks” on a particular firm prior to submitting an application for a better position. This shows the importance of maintaining and enhancing credible employer branding.

In general, employer branding means the firm’s image perceived by employees. For instance, do they regard their employer’s treatment as reasonable and courteous? Are employees encouraged to take part or support Bar’s activities? Are they often assigned urgent, last-minute work that forces them to work after office hour and on weekend? Does the employer set an unreasonably high monthly collection target? Is the staff turnover high?

The successful low-cost airline company – AirAsia — has a good example of employer branding under its motto, “Employee First and Client Second”.

Apart from treating employees fairly, law firms should also do an exit interview. During the exit meeting, the interviewer should find out the real reasons that an employee is leaving the firm. For an employer to obtain the true and overall picture, the interview should be conducted on an absolutely confidential basis. One advantage of the candid meeting is that an employer can determine the firm’s shortcoming or competitive weaknesses so that they can take immediate steps to rectify or improve the situation. It also benefits law firms to address any misunderstanding or grievance of the departing employee so that no one will leave the firm with grouses.

3. Working environment

In the fast-paced city life, the office is where employees spend most of their time. As such, the office working environment is one of the very important considerations for a new lawyer when thinking of joining a particular firm. The office set-up is one of the first things that a candidate pays attention to when he or she comes for an interview, and the first impression matters.

Many employees feel comfortable to work in a tidy, clean and systematic environment. It is definitely an added advantage if the firm can provide a room for the newcomer. Law firms may consider using external storage service or online storage service if the office is too small to accommodate old files. It is thus wise to allocate some funds to upgrade the fittings or improve the office setting.

4. Remuneration package

Over the past few years, the starting salary of a fresh lawyer has increased considerably (just like the value of the property market). In 2009, for instance, the salary was around RM2,500 to RM2,700, but it has risen to RM3,000 to RM3,500. This is nearly a 40% increment and the trend is likely to continue as an attractive remuneration is one of the motivating factors for an employee to move to another firm.

Law firms should therefore keep abreast of the market’s salary scale and be prepared to offer a competitive remuneration package to their existing and new employees, all of whom seek a better quality of life. Employees are also facing the upwards trend in the prices of consumer goods (not to mention property prices). When the remuneration package is not competitive employers will find it hard to hire competent and experienced or retain existing employees.

Conclusion

Law firms face many challenges in recruiting competent lawyers. Nevertheless, it is an investment in the long run to enhance working conditions, for it is unproductive to replace dissatisfied employees. The Malaysian legal career climate is now more vibrant owing to the change of working attitude of young lawyers and greater availability of career options. Competition in the market will intensify when foreign law firms appear on the scene and the market can be expected to be increasingly aggressive.

In the long term, law firms should allocate more resources to enhance career management and development so that the cost of hiring could be reduced accordingly. All in all, this process is intended to attract and retain loyal and proficient lawyers. In general, a good career management and development strategy will enable lawyers to embrace their firm’s vision, air their views and advance their career. Perhaps it’s time to set up a special task force committee to spearhead and review your firm’s career management strategy. In the end, a good lawyer can be valuable, long-term asset in a law firm.

(The author of this article, Eddie Law, is the legal recruitment director at eLawyer.com.my. Eddie is a lawyer turned legal recruitment consultant who is passionate about improving the legal career landscape in Malaysia. Any feedback regarding the legal career market is most welcome and could be sent to him at eddie@elawyer.com.my)

You may click here to see the published copy.

Tags: eLawyer · Law Firms & Internet · Legal Management

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