Rae Digby Morgan: Workplace Transformation and the Next Generation Employee
Gen Z are eyeing up their future employers – is the legal sector ready for them?
Our next generation employee is not far away. With high expectations for technology, flexible work-life arrangements and a ready-made entrepreneurial mind-set, Rae Digby Morgan from Wilson Fletcher explores what this evolution looks like in the legal sector – and is it ready?
What does the future legal employee look like?
Career paths through the legal sector are already becoming more divergent and meandering (and note my reference to the ‘legal employee’ as opposed to ‘lawyer’ above). There is a growing shift in focus from maximum remuneration to work-life health and balance, and we should expect to see that reflected throughout the legal sector as it accommodates the Gen Z employee of the future.
They are confident with technology
Tomorrow’s legal employee will be self-assured in the technology domain, to say the least. They can already pay for something using facial recognition, use their phone as a boarding pass, so they aren’t going to tolerate tech that is clunky and under delivers when at work. Their expectation is that technology used at work will be the peer of technology used in every other aspect of life – they won’t care whether it’s ‘good for the sector’ or not.
They are not lawyers
As law firms continue to diversify their business models, other professionals will become more prevalent; designers, service strategists and researchers for example. As recognition of the need for specialism and skill in these non-legal areas rise, we will see decreasing reliance on, and obsession with, the fee earner as the only way to drive the overall success of the firm.
They expect flexible working as standard
The future employee will expect a better work-life balance in place of the higher remuneration that is emphasised today. As other industries continue to evolve and adopt flexible and progressive working practices, the future legal employee will expect the same – or they’ll vote with their feet.
They approach client needs differently
The future employee is much more curious about the challenges faced in the businesses of their clients, questioning – and listening to – what their in-house customers really need to operate effectively. This is currently being fuelled by a new suite of skills and behaviours being bred into trainees at law school.
They don’t want an office…or even a desk
The next gen employee prefers collaborative working spaces to solve problems together with their team and their clients. Flexible and remote working means that they are not always in the building and neither are their peers. A desk for everyone, every day is an expense the firm no longer has. Vast expensive real estate has become difficult to defend to clients looking for value for money so it is traded for smarter spaces that better support the new ways of working.
They are digital natives
Gen Z and those that follow are growing up in a digital world. They’ll expect a professional ecosystem underpinned by a coherent and articulated digital-first strategy – committed to and driven from the top of the firm.
So what is stopping a law firm from adapting to that?
That world is a far cry from the sector as it stands today. Understanding the obstacles to getting there is the key to unlocking the opportunity.
It’s not a lack of engagement or successful implementation of technology that is holding law firms back from evolving into a destination of choice for a diverse talent pool. The stumbling block lies in a much softer sphere – which is not to say that it is easier to address. The culture that often pervades law firms is built around some fairly narrow measures of financial success. Frequently it doesn’t recognise its most valuable asset; it’s people.
Let me use an example very close to home. At Wilson Fletcher we work a 4 day week. Our team has a whole day to ourselves where we focus on recharging, exploring creative outlets, allowing us to be at the top of our game to think. We don’t get paid less, we don’t work longer hours to compensate, we can still work flexibly, we can work a day from home. We are more productive, we are more committed to the success of the business, we are doing better work. With the exception of one in Plymouth who extend their hours to compensate, no law firms are doing this.
When I’ve explained this to clients and contacts in the legal sector I am always greeted with the same response. Envy, which is not unexpected, but also with an emphatic statement that their firm would never do that. It begs the question – why not?
I’m not suggesting that every law firm needs to shift to a 4 day working pattern in order to succeed in the future world, but such an emphatic response illustrates how rigid the culture still is in this sector.
Frame your competition for talent with the likes of technology companies that embrace an open culture and progressive working practices….and your attractiveness as an employer slips away.
It’s still common in a law firm to show commitment by being at your desk long after the average working day has wound down. It could even be seen as harmful to career progression to not be physically present late into the evening. Psychologically, there is (a perhaps unintended) implied lack of trust that an employee not in eye line, will not be doing their best for the firm. Trusted employees feel engaged and bought into what the firm is doing, they feel valued and fulfilled. An office full of people in the evening is no measure of productivity.
The billable hour
When work is charged through time rather than value, it creates a barrier to thinking laterally and collaboratively in order to solve problems. Time becomes the unit of value and pulls our focus towards it. For example, put this in the context of getting to grips with technology. At the moment most emerging tech and services require an investment of time to absorb and utilise them effectively. Putting those time units of value into technology becomes a trade off with fee earning – hard to reconcile when the billable hour reigns supreme.
Current partnership models
Most law firms operate under a fairly traditional partnership model that hasn’t changed for decades. Sustained digital habit will struggle to form within firms where the ideas to revolutionise the firm have to pass through a risk averse and comfortable partnership layer. If a new Managing Partner comes in with a leading edge agenda, they might find it difficult to persuade those people to risk their own funds when the status quo is currently doing rather well.
That model doesn’t fuel change, and unless it’s dismantled in favour of new models that don’t feed the hierarchical and financial nature of the practice, it’s hard to see how law will catch up. There are different routes to partnership germinating in a few firms of note, but it’s still far from embraced by the industry, and ultimately the fundamental problems remain.
In an age where firm profits are still increasing there is rarely any dramatic change in a law firm’s competitive position beyond the occasional merger or buy out. That is a recipe for complacency. Add to that, clients who aren’t expressing their dissatisfaction with law firm relationships by moving away in volume to something different. It’s incredibly difficult to change when by most business measures you are very successful. Mark Wilson’s article on why healthy companies don’t see the cliff edge coming is a great read on why this success trap can be so catastrophic to a business, and law firms are no exception.
Investing to attract Gen Z
Law firms that want to attract the best talent, in both fee-earning and non fee-earning roles have a rich seam of opportunities to invest in.
Let’s start with a commitment to consistent cultural change that comes top down and is based on an ambitious and well-articulated vision. Law firms that look outside the legal sector for inspiration on how other industries tackle this change will eclipse the rest of the pack. Aim to be the best, not just inching towards parity. Boldly, that would be moving away from the concept of a ‘fee-earner’ and acknowledging that revenue has been a collective endeavour across a large swathe of people from the legal secretary, to the business development professional, to the lawyer, to the designer.
Invest in embedding diverse skill sets, people and career pathways that will encourage creativity within practice and in the wider context of the firm.
Explore the value in benefits for employees that aren’t either remunerative or of the traditional ilk such as private health insurance. Flexible working will almost definitely pay you back much more than a bigger trainee starting salary.
Change how you assess technology. The usability and interface is at least as important as the underlying engine. Implement a measurable pilot with your user base and an experienced, qualified UX professional to evaluate it for you. That small step could save you millions in expensive software that once bought, sits unused on the proverbial shelf as it is so painful to do anything with. A tool doesn’t have to be best in class in terms of the underpinning technology if it is beautifully designed and enticing for the user to engage with – you’ll get greater usage and much better outcomes this way. Make sure the technology fits your user base, not the users fit the technology.
Is it finally time to ditch the billable hour? A very bold move, but against the backdrop of unlocked opportunity, perhaps not as big a leap we imagine.
Assuming qualification continues to follow the current pattern, then how about an extra seat? Spend this not on learning a practice area or the business of law, but on the kind of problems real clients are facing and how to ask the right questions to understand what’s really needed. It’s learning how to listen – which sounds simple but is harder than you think.
The nextgen legal employee is almost on the doorstep and the workplaces that attract them will be quite different, utilising technology we aren’t even aware of yet. Imagine that future environment is only 5 years away. Many law firms aren’t serving their employees of today in terms of modern working practices, flexibility and technology enablers. There is a lot of work to do to bring it up to par with other industries right now. Increasing salaries to irresistible levels is not sustainable when your clients are demanding better value for money.
Without focus on the expectations and diverse skill set of the nextgen employee, the legal sector is risking a drain of talent and expertise increasing from a trickle to a flood.