LexisNexis recently published its annual Bellwether survey UK SME law firms. The Brief has taken a look at its findings relating to legal talent, and discussed them with law firm leaders.

May 2022 saw the publication of the tenth annual Bellwether report into the UK’s small and medium-sized law firm, compiled by the legal information provider LexisNexis.

The headline findings of the report, titled “Transformation Troubles”, were that 91% of respondents felt confident about their firms’ futures and that 33% had outperformed revenue expectations over the past year.

However, although 51% of respondents said their firms were growing, this marked a significant drop compared to 66% in 2021, and 57% in 2019, before the pandemic.

Attracting talent

In addition to measuring the sector’s growth, the Bellwether report also contained a number of findings relating to the market for legal talent.

Among these was that 49% of respondents identified attracting and retaining talent as the biggest challenge facing their firms, with 77% citing attracting good lawyers as either a very significant or quite significant threat to their current business.

Responding to these findings, Michael Buckworth, managing partner at the London-headquartered commercial firm Buckworths, told The Brief that recruiting and retaining talent was his firm’s biggest concern, and that he believed two years of working from home had changed the outlook of many lawyers at the start of their careers.

He said, “Jobs are increasingly seen as a temporary steppingstone, and many applicants are only looking for experience, not a long-term career. Salaries and the cost of living are also prompting lawyers to pro-actively ask for pay rises, and to be prepared to jump from job to job to get them.”

Managing stress

Heightened stress levels were reported by the majority of respondents to the Bellwether survey, with 75% saying they operated at stress levels of between six and ten, on a scale of ten. Forty-four per cent said their stress levels were between eight and ten out of ten.

Reflecting on this, Buckworth said, “We find that junior lawyers are less able or prepared to manage stress than five years ago. That results in additional stress being piled onto more senior lawyers: I would say that stress levels amongst the senior members of the team, myself included, are far higher than pre-pandemic.

“Clients expect things to be done immediately with minimal understanding of what is involved in legal work. I believe that is the result of commoditisation of the world – if you want a pizza, it arrives in 20 minutes; if you need a chainsaw, Amazon will deliver it the next day.

“Commoditisation of law has been far less successful. However, it has changed the perception of what is involved in the legal process, which means clients want everything immediately.”

Demanding clients

Like Buckworth, 58% of respondents to the Bellwether survey stated that clients expected the same or an even greater level of service for less compared to a year ago, with 45% saying that client expectations were noticeably higher. So, how can firms continue to meet client expectations without burning out their lawyers?

Kathleen Harris, managing partner at the London office of the global firm Arnold & Porter, told The Brief, “Any service-focused role is tough, as you are not always able to contribute to the external factors that create pressures. However, encouraging and fostering a positive work culture, and never believing it is something you can rely on to happen organically, is a step in the right direction.”

Work-life balance

Another finding of the report was that, for those considering moving to a new role, work-life balance was the most important factor – cited by 45% of respondents.

Leah Harwood, head of talent at the national firm Harper James, said, "Many employers have needed to adapt to offering flexible working as a result of the pandemic and, as a result, employees have become more heightened to how important a healthy work-life balance is. As the return to the office culture is slowly creeping back and remote/hybrid working opportunities are shrinking, we are definitely seeing an uptick in people seeking to maintain the newfound flexibility and work-life balance, which is driving an increase in demand for remote roles.

“For us as employers, the increase in applicants seeking remote and flexible opportunities widens our access to talent and it’s a trend we’re welcoming. Going forward, in order to attract and retain the best talent employers must accept that this approach to working life is here to stay and build this into their culture to remain employers of choice.”

For Buckworth, by contrast, “work-life balance” and “working from home” are not synonymous. He told The Brief, “We don't offer WFH and don't want to. Junior members of the team need to be in the office to benefit from access to know-how and experience from other members of the team.

“We noticed a dramatic decline in performance during the lockdowns when people worked from home. Many candidates seem to conflate work-life balance with WFH. We don't see it that way at all and, frankly, consider that WFH worsened work-life balance for many of our team.”

Diversity and inclusion

Finally, another finding was that just one per cent of lawyers contemplating moving jobs said diversity and inclusion would be the most important factor when considering a new firm, with two per cent citing climate change.

So, are law firms’ current diversity and inclusion and environmental initiatives a waste of effort? Not according to Harris.

She said, “The result is disappointing but not surprising, as the answers indicate a little of what we are seeing in wider society. People are naturally concerned for themselves first, as opposed to seeing the value and impact of addressing climate change and the benefit of working in a culture that strives to provide opportunities to all irrespective of religion, gender, race and beliefs.

“It will never be a waste to invest in these issues. Who really wants to work in an environment where the organisation doesn’t see the benefit of enhancing what it does and supporting positive change?”