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Best People Leader: Jonathan Agar at Birketts puts women and wellbeing first

Birketts has an ambition to become the leading law firm across the south of the UK by 2030, and a core part of realising this vision is creating the working conditions to support that. 

Jonathan Agar, judged Best People Leader at this year’s People in Law Awards, was commended for a range of contributions he made that helped the firm grow its revenue this year and become a UK Top 50 law firm. 

As chief executive of Birketts he has: introduced a number of development programmes to enhance women’s careers; enhanced the firm’s maternity and shared parental pay policies; appointed a wellbeing nurse as part of the firm’s THRIVE wellbeing programme; granted employees a cost-of-living support payment; and driven the development of purpose-driven values around the guiding principle of ‘Next Level Law’. Furthermore, all of this happened while Birketts embarked on a merger. 

Jonathan is proud of how the firm approached the rebrand of its values and how this was executed. “I believe the Next Level Law brand positioning really does speak for itself in its simplicity,” he says. “When conducting the rebranding exercise, we specifically chose something that was already aligned with our ambitions and central to who we are as a firm. The benefit of this alignment is that it quickly became part of the daily conversations around the firm and has been embraced by all teams and departments.”

He takes a personal approach to boosting leadership and engagement at the firm, hand-writing a welcome letter to all new joiners and aiming to meet with them within the first week. After each board or executive committee meeting, a video is posted to the company intranet to ensure transparency with the wider workforce. Jonathan also hosted town hall meetings at each of Birketts’ five locations to present the Next Level Law brand. 

As part of the firm’s expansion there is a clear focus on attracting, recruiting and retaining more women, particularly given the backdrop that 74% of all law graduates are women. Programmes aimed at supporting women at Birketts include ‘Clearing the pathway to leadership’ (completed by 60 female staff) and ‘Pathway to Partner’ (63 female staff), full maternity and adoption pay up to 24 weeks and flexible working hours. The firm has now achieved 40% female partnership, up 13% from 2020. Jonathan describes this as “an important milestone to have met”. “It is the product of many years of focus in this area and is just the beginning – we’re already well on track to exceed this in the coming years,” he says.

Embracing employee wellbeing complements these initiatives. Its THRIVE holistic wellbeing programme is one of the most comprehensive in a UK employer, and the appointment of a wellbeing nurse in October 2022 means Birketts can now offer confidential, independent support for its employees, signposting them to specialist help if they need it. 

In 2022, THRIVE had a focus on sleep, diet and nutrition, with the firm offering webinars on aspects of these topics such as the link between diet and menopause symptoms and improving sleep hygiene. 

“The question I ask myself is why anyone wouldn’t prioritise the wellbeing of their people? Health matters more than anything else and so it felt a natural theme to have as a core feature of our culture,” adds Jonathan. 

“Our colleagues are central to Birketts’ success and the firm is a product of all of those who work here. Looking after them is therefore a priority, and has been for some time, even long before the pandemic hit.”

Employee surveys show improvements across wellbeing, loyalty and pride in the firm. In a Gallup engagement survey, the overall average score was 7.6 out of 10, an improvement of 0.5 from 2021. More than 90% of staff are proud to work at Birketts, and 98% agreed with the statement, “I care about the future of Birketts”. 

The firm’s people-focused strategy is paying off in terms of attraction and recruitment, too. There were more than 400 trainee applicants in 2022, compared to 200 in 2021, and solicitor attrition has gone down from 11% in 2021/22 to 10% in 2022/23. (Average attrition in UK law firms at this level is between 17% and 28%, according to PwC.) 

Colleagues who work closely with Jonathan commend him for his strategic judgement and creative thinking. Grace Kerr, a partner in Birketts’ commercial property team, has been impressed with his commitment to boosting female careers. “I’m proud to have played a role in the advancement of women in the firm,” she says. “To be among such a strong cohort of women within the partnership is a great testament to both the firm’s focus on advancing the careers of women within the legal profession, and the top-tier talent we have within our teams.” 

And while the commercial results speak for themselves – revenue increased by 12% last year compared with 2020-21 and Birketts rose up the ranks – Jonathan is proudest of the changes that can be seen in its culture. 

He adds: “Our culture has changed for the better. We now have much more transparency, trust, and harmony across the firm than before and this has been evidenced by our latest NPS scores. To me, this all serves to support a sense of common purpose which will form the backbone of continued success for the firm.”

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