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How can firms benefit from recruiting outside the sector? 

Faced with candidate shortages and the risk of staff leaving for new pastures, how can law firms broaden their scope outside the sector when it comes to recruitment? We look at the benefits and challenges of fishing from a bigger pond. 

Despite constant headlines about skills shortages, employers are beginning to see post-pandemic growth on the horizon and want to build a strong team to meet their goals. At the same time, there has been a lot of noise about the so-called ‘great resignation’, as workers reassess whether their employer can give them the work-life balance they need or the career progress they require.

With candidate pools of people with direct sector experience shrinking, it pays even more to look beyond the “usual suspects”. But arguably some sectors find this more of a challenge than others, including the legal sector.

“Some firms are still reluctant to hire from outside but there are simply not enough people around,” says Laura McNair, who heads up HR recruitment at professional services recruitment agency Totum Partners. “We have candidate shortages across most functional areas. This is partly because a lot was put on hold during the pandemic and when firms realised their financial performance had not been negatively affected (indeed many had record years in terms of profitability) the floodgates opened. Not unexpectedly, another feature of the market we are in is that counter-offers and buy-backs have re-emerged, with firms looking to retain their best people at all costs.”

McNair believes the culture of law firms can feel very different to someone who is used to working in a large corporate: “People who understand the partnership model tend to adapt more quickly,” she adds. “You have to understand that decision making can be quite time-consuming; there’s not just one owner to convince, there are multiple Partners who can influence decisions. Senior executives working in this environment need high levels of emotional intelligence to understand when to press an issue and when to hold back, she advises. “[Partners are] the owners of the business. It’s personal, they’re vested in the firm and they often want their say!”

McNair adds: “Having said that, many firms look for people with legal sector/wider professional services experience, we are seeing an increase in the number of people joining from wider industries – particularly in new and developing areas which are new to the profession. This means that it is critically important to onboard and support these new hires in their early days with the firm when the environment may be somewhat alien to them.”

Decision by committee 

Lloyd Stephenson, head of diversity and resourcing at Ashurst, previously worked at Barclays so has personal experience of entering the legal sector from another sector. “Partnerships make decisions through consensus rather than being able to knock on the CEO’s door,” he says. “But in non-legal roles, there is a growing realisation that you need to be able to hire people that are different. If someone’s good, they’ll learn how to navigate the partnership experience and the way decisions are made.”

He adds that firms will increasingly need to respond to developments outside of law, particularly in the digital field. “When I worked in banking our competition for talent was coming from tech companies such as Apple and PayPal, or utility companies who know all about data analytics and consumer information. Lawyers are good at problem solving but there will be digital efficiencies, and often these skills sit outside of the legal sector.”

In this vein, a number of firms have launched new businesses alongside their core legal offering: Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner has a service called BCLP Cubed, for example, which deals with high volume legal work by automating some of the transactional aspects. Developments like this will in turn shift how they source talent.

“There’s still a lot of comfort if you’ve done a stint in a partnership, but there are areas where we’re beginning to accept that people from outside can do it better than us,” Stephenson says. Ashurst has recently hired someone from Capita to run its shared services operation, for example, who can offer unique experiences in operational effectiveness.

Diverse backgrounds 

Jamie Irwin, director and founder of Straight Up Search, says recruiting from outside can help firms find people with “different skills, backgrounds and experience that might not otherwise be available”. Having a clear idea of the skills and competencies you’re looking for before the search will ensure you’re not sourcing from too wide a pool, he adds. “Sometimes people will apply for roles they are not necessarily qualified for, but it’s worth giving them an interview as they may be aware of someone who would fit the role better. It also puts less pressure on the candidate if they know there is a shortage of suitable applicants – reducing disappointment and resentment.”

At Capital Law, a number of lawyers converted to law after earlier careers in business, management and academia, with many travelling the globe before joining the firm. Ffion Hopkins, recruitment coordinator, says the firm would be “a very different place if everyone had followed the same path to get here”. She adds: “Instead, we have a collective mix of people joining us from all walks of life. We simply couldn’t survive without our central support function, who help us do our jobs every day, almost none of whom come from a legal background. We value the skills taught in non-law degrees and believe in their applicability to law.”

Hopkins points out that the recent introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) route has made it easier to invite non-law graduates to qualify as lawyers. The firm is currently supporting its first SQE trainee through the inaugural SQE1 exams this November. “As well as adding diversity to our teams, [those from a non-legal background] bring a wealth of practical and commercial experience which is most valued by our clients,” she says.

Naturally, a number of roles in the business will not have or need a background in the legal sector, such as chief information officer, marketing director and chief financial officer. Susana Berlevy, chief people officer at nationwide firm Irwin Mitchell, mostly worked in the banking sector prior to joining the firm. “We recognised the opportunity to bring in non-lawyers to help with running the business and that expertise is invaluable,” she says. “We were one of the first law firms to become an Alternative Business Structure (ABS) in 2012, which allowed law firms to appoint non-lawyers to senior positions. Being open to new ideas from outside of the legal sector means that we can bring the best talent into the business, whether that is sales and marketing, HR or technological roles.”

Flexible culture and values 

Berlevy believes it’s all about embedding new hires into the culture and values of the business, or its unique DNA. “This is hugely important to ensuring that as a business we continue to improve and grow,” she adds. “Our commercial growth team, for example, is a combination of lawyers and non-legal staff such as sales, marketing and PR specialists. By bringing these different groups together in one team we can combine specialist knowledge of the sector with dedicated specialist advice which is really powerful.”

The company also just introduced a ‘flexible by choice’ approach to working arrangements, which helps to embed a less rigid approach. “Many other law firms are still wedded to their offices and are asking staff to come into a set building or stipulating they need to be in the office three or four days a week. I think having people who have worked outside the legal sector has helped us to come to a better solution for our colleagues, while taking into account what our clients want from us,” she explains.

Employees coming in from outside the sector do need to meet the various regulatory requirements of the legal sector, for example a law firm advertising a role would need to satisfy the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s rules as well as those of the Advertising Standards Agency. Effective onboarding and buddy structures can help with getting used to the culture, adds Berlevy. But the sector itself will reap the benefits of diversifying the experience it seeks, she concludes: “There’s an opportunity to drive agility into legal organisations as the sector is now starting to open up to more agile ways of working that have been used in other sectors for some time now. Therefore for the right type of ‘outside hires’ that like a challenge, there is a lot of opportunity to create real impact by driving agility into the sector for the benefit of the colleague growth and satisfaction but also for the benefit of the client experience.”

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