The last year has seen no shortage of challenges for law firm leaders – forced to navigate a period of switching rapidly between actual certainty, apparent certainty and no certainty at all without warning. There is, however, one lesson from the previous year that certainly has stuck: namely that the Covid era has brought about a permanent shift in paradigms which shape the operating environment for legal businesses.
Getting the communications right will be pivotal for law firm leaders to establish a new and sustained centre of gravity. A poorly-managed transition out of the pandemic can be the recipe for exposure to unnecessary reputational risk – or to miss a beat in an increasingly competitive market. With that in mind, here is just a selection of the key communications challenges for the year ahead:
- Culture and Conduct
Last year, Byfield consulted with a range of law firm leaders to identify the Six Things Keeping Managing Partners up at Night. It that found, amongst the highest areas for risk, 85% of managing partners considered SRA and other regulatory investigations to be a major risk to their firm’s reputation. Specifically in relation to harassment, the regulator is thought to have a considerable backlog of cases – which it has allocated a significant amount of resource to tackle. It is also seeking opinions on how sexual harassment and discrimination claims are regulated – with a potential increase in fines under consideration.
This year, we should expect to see the back-and-forth of emergency measures give way to softer methods of virus control – meaning that for most of us, regular office attendance will be part of some form of blended model. With it comes the social aspect of city life, accompanied by increasing regulatory vigilance. As well as ensuring that conduct policies are robust, firms will need to consider carefully how outline expected behaviours as part of internal communications around a return to the workplace. Externally, positive stories about initiatives to create more inclusive cultures can form part of the wider corporate communications strategy.
- Diversity & Inclusion
More broadly, there is likely to be a particular focus on the impact of the pandemic on underrepresented groups in the profession. Management consultants McKinsey found that 79% of men reported “positive work effectiveness” at home, compared with only 37% of women. The gender pay gap widened during the pandemic, according to ONS data – although it did surmise that greater workplace flexibility may, in the long run, be beneficial to progression. Likewise, claims relating to menopause discrimination is expected to be a major theme for 2022 – and the legal sector is unlikely to be an exception.
These issues clearly present a latent reputational risk – particularly given the highly mobile, ‘candidate-led’ labour market for employers. Lawyers may be much more willing to see that the grass is greener on the other side, and to tell their story on the way out – a point underscored by Law.com’s Varsha Patel recent story about a black woman who quit the City as “the way law is structured in London is built for White men”. To get on the front foot, firms will need to be bold in their communications with positive, people-led stories.
- The War for Talent
The talent war has been heating up since 2020 and has reached almost unmanageable levels in the legal sector, with the pandemic accelerating an existing trend of NQ pay. The consequences are now being felt amongst mid-size to smaller firms, faced with the challenges of redefining their proposition to current and potential employees. The so-called “War for Talent” appears to ratcheted up a gear just this week, with BBC News shining a sharper spotlight on salary rates for NQs in top City firms. This is against the backdrop of the so-called “Great Resignation”, with the pandemic leading many to reassess career choices and further threatening retention. The Guardian reported in November that 1 in 4 were actively considering switching employer in a few months. A survey by Employment Hero found that people aged 25-34 are the most fed up with work. Another recent survey found that 58% of workers globally are prioritising a better work-life balance, leading to demands for permanent flexibility. The FT’s Kate Beioley’s recent piece notes a 37% rise in London law vacancies in 2021 and increasing reliance on temporary or contract workers. Competition for talent at partner level has also effectively killed off the lockstep model, which will have far-reaching consequences not just for how partners are compensated but how firms are run and partnership cultures.
Many firms are obsessing over their current strategy for retention and recruitment. Outside of traditional marketing and internal communications, there is also a critical role for communications and PR specifically. Central to this is the development of a clearly defined, employer brand which draws equally from the firm’s values and unique attributes to create a compelling value proposition. As Sheree Atcheson recently wrote for Forbes, “workers expect more than the status quo, especially when it comes to diversity in the workplace. For instance, nearly half of recruiters said job seekers are inquiring about D&I initiatives more than they did in the previous year–up 16% points from 2020.” Finding those areas where the firm offers more than the usual, and communicating them proactively through a campaign-led approach, may be essential to finding key points of differentiation – and in doing so, get ahead in the recruitment and retention battle.