Role models by Barry Davies, Douglas-Jones Mercer

Barry Davies By Barry Davies
from Douglas-Jones Mercer

This article was also featured as a column in the September 2016 issue of Legal Practice Management magazine. To read the issue in full, download LPM magazine.

Recent figures show that there is a shade over 130,000 people on the roll of solicitors in England & Wales – 20% of those undertake an ‘in-house’ role, 80% are classed as employed. An enormous number, and this is before we consider the significant chunk of employees, namely professional managers, support staff and those lawyers, who are not on the Law Society roll. But lots of firms I speak with say ‘we have too many partners’ or have reduced the amount of ‘chiefs’ within their practice as part of their strategic planning.

Where are we going with this? What will the law firm of the future look like? And what will its stakeholders (not necessarily shareholders) expect?

The two facets that will impact upon the future will undoubtedly be generational attitude and technology. Though advancements in processing power will mean huge growth of AI systems over the next decade, I think generational attitude is one that most interesting right now.

Generation X lawyers (born between the early 1960s to mid-1970s) are often already partners. This generation, and the baby boomers before them, are usually motivated by achievement, and money. Generation Y lawyers, on the other hand, (born in the 1980s or 1990s), are looking for something else. Fearing that I sound like a textbook – specifically Frederick Herzberg’s theory of motivation-hygiene – it’s not money that will be a key factor in recruiting millennials, but other drivers such as networks, recognition, quality of work and conditions.

Developing reward and recognition strategies is difficult enough for partners – so how does a law firm tackle its entire workforce? A few years ago, I held a discussion with a law firm partner and a question put to me was if the ‘John Lewis model’ would fit a law firm? This term is not only synonymous with the department store, but has become a household terminology.

Quite a few law firms have, for some time now, introduced a corporate partner – a limited company – as a partner within its practice with the intention of dealing with distribution of profits more efficiently or as part of a bonus pool. So it’s quite interesting to hear that a highly regarded firm in the South West, Stephens Scow, has developed a similar model to the John Lewis theme.

What’s different about this example is that a proportion of the firm is owned by a trust for its employees and not just its partners. This gives the employees of the firm a greater sense of belonging and the added impetus to do well. I am certain that some critics would question the mechanics of such a scheme and perhaps the barriers to entry such as defined profit levels, but setting this aside it is a means to boosting staff engagement and eradicating the ‘them and us’ mentality.

With complications at all corners of law firm ownership, new models will have to be explored to cover aspirations of all involved. There could come a time when a crowd funding option is explored generally and maybe the household name for staff stakeholder mechanisms in law firms will be the Stephens Scown model.    


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