How to keep law firms talent pool alive

This resource was also featured as a Briefing Industry Interview in the November 2014 issue of Briefing magazine. To read the issue in full, download Briefing magazine. 

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We’ve dedicated this issue of Briefing to a new breed of law firm business manager – project-focused and process-trained to help firms maximise their profitability. And who better to explain just who those people are than the people paid to find them?

One skill set increasingly important to have on board is pricing, says Nicky Acuna Ocana, director of professional services at boutique recruitment agency Ambition. “For some time larger firms, and now some mid-tier firms, have been bringing in pricing experts to provide more commercial focus. Lawyers sometimes even need to gain commitment and approval from them before they agree to reduce a client’s rates.” 

Typically from an accountancy or analyst background, they are accustomed to assessing the maze of factors affecting overall profitability, and can judge whether a discounted or alternative fee can be justified.

“Historically, lawyers have often approached the end of a piece of work and suddenly thrown lots of people on board to force it through as quickly as possible,” says Ocana. “Only then have they carried out more detailed analysis and found they haven’t made as much money as they had thought. Many of the pricing experts just aren’t allowing these things to happen now.”

Pricing effectively also means being able to pass efficiency gains along the chain to the client – but another skill in high demand is communicating that value effectively in the midst of growing competition.

“There’s a big increase in firms wanting to get proposal specialists on board,” says Ocana. “Firms need the ability to drill past the pricing structure, into what a client is really looking for. Proposal documents must be designed as commercial selling tools. Historically, a lot of firms have traded on their names, but as everything’s getting so much more competitive now, they need to think more innovatively about bidding.”

But finding these people is challenging, as they won’t necessarily have a legal background. For pricing and project management expertise, that means venturing into commerce and industry as well as the more obvious comfort zones of accountancy and consulting – while in the proposals arena firms are increasingly hiring people with a recruitment background to fill what is essentially a void.

“They really don’t exist in the legal business development and marketing specialism,” Ocana says. “Firms need to open up to exploring other areas. For example, technology and telecommunications businesses can also have parallels in terms of pricing and being more structured in their marketing.”

She suggests that HR departments engage a recruitment agency with access to candidates representing a breadth of sectors to find the perfect fit.

The other lesson firms could learn is to forward plan as much as possible, anticipating needs in advance and investing in training and upskilling at an earlier stage. “Some sectors do a lot of talent pooling – running regular intakes of a group of candidates they have targeted in an area,” Nicky explains. “Then they already have the succession plan in place in the event someone leaves. There’s less risk of having nobody primed.

“We know that when skill vacancies come up, law firms sometimes struggle, and it can take six months to get somebody on board. By then you are behind the curve. If agencies are already looking at these new people and identifying hot candidates, you can almost recruit them in advance.”

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