In such a tough economic climate, you would have thought assistants and associates would be keeping their heads down – and counting their blessings that they have a job at all.

Not so. They’ve never been so demanding, claim some firms, and firms in turn are being most attentive to them.

Managing the career of assistants and associates, and promoting their progression, appears to be going up the agenda of law firms.

The objective: retain top talent, whatever the economic weather.

Kevin Hogarth, HR director at global law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, says: ‘Associates have high expectations now about the feedback they will receive, the progress they are making, their performance and their prospects.

'It is something of a generational change.

'Whether you call it Generation Y or not, certainly, these days, younger generations of associates are much less deferential and more pro-active.’

For Reed Smith partner Diane Galloway, this new approach by firms stems from lessons learned in previous recessionary periods, such as the early 1990s: ‘Law firms made a whole lot of people redundant.

'They got rid of a huge amount of talent and experience, and then, as they came out of the recession, found themselves short of experience and goodwill, and the level of expertise that they needed.’

She adds: ‘People have been slower to reach for the redundancy tool this time around and tried to be more inventive.’

One reason for this is that, while retention is expensive, so is the cost of replacing an associate.

The price tag of the latter is placed, conservatively, at £125,000, and this does not include intangibles such as loss of client knowledge and legal expertise, according to a recent report ‘Obstacles and Barriers to the Short- and Long-term Career Development of Female Lawyers’, prepared for the Law Society by Insight Oxford Ltd, a research and coaching firm.

Clearer structures

So what strategies are law firms pursuing? One is the provision of a much clearer structure for assistants’ and associates’ career progression.

According to Galloway, Reed Smith had to make redundancies and defer trainee intake as a result of the tougher business climate.

Nevertheless, in October 2009, the firm launched a new competency-based programme, CareeRS, aimed at associates, as well as at the support team.

The programme has since been rolled out across the firm’s global footprint.

‘We tried to give much more structure to what we thought associates ought to be able to do at different levels,’ Galloway explains.

The programme sets out the behaviour, skills and knowledge that Reed Smith expects to see from trainees and from associates in junior, mid and senior bands.

These are based on nine competencies, including key legal skills, support of the firm’s culture, understanding and effective management of client needs, and the demonstration of leadership and business skills.

CareeRS has a two-fold function: it is a development and assessment tool, which gives associates a clear idea of what the firm expects of them and allows the firm to have clear and transparent parameters against which to measure the performance of its associates, says Galloway.

A central plank of Reed Smith’s associate programme is a career mentor: each associate is paired with a partner adviser with whom they have quarterly one-to-one meetings to discuss career progression and obtain feedback.

HR support has been beefed up to ensure the CareeRS programme is implemented consistently across all of the firm’s departments.

Manchester firm Pannone has also gone through a ‘tough economic cycle’, but operations partner and head of HR, Rachel Dobson, says this did not get in the way of its associate development programme, which was launched when the hard times started to bite in 2008.

When Dobson trained with the firm, there was no intermediate step between being a solicitor and a partner.

But, as Pannone expanded, the firm needed a ‘more structured and sophisticated approach’, Dobson relates.

‘We needed a career structure and opportunities to develop skills for people who were not going to come through partnership so quickly because firms are changing.’

As Dobson puts it, the development programme ‘is very much about preparing people for taking a more senior role in the firm.

It’s really not good enough anymore for people to work it out by osmosis.’

Philippa Howard, an associate at Pannone since May 2010, who works in the corporate department, is a beneficiary of the development programme.

‘It has given me more clarity about the path to promotion,’ she says.

‘The programme provides clear steps towards partnership and plenty of support to get you there.’

This includes guidelines on attributes and competencies needed to go up the ladder, and training in business development and soft skills, plus ‘very valuable’ one-to-one coaching with a mentor who ‘gives you more of an individual focus’, she says.

Each associate at Pannone is assigned a partner from a different discipline as a mentor and confidante, who can offer advice on career progression.

The process is confidential and, as Dobson notes: ‘It is rare in a very busy working world to get a firm-approved opportunity to talk about yourself and what you want to achieve in a confidential way.’

As part of the scheme, associates are prepared for senior roles through support in developing their business skills.

Training, delivered by Pannone’s staff or by third parties such as the College of Law, gets associates up to speed on law-firm finances and business development, client care skills and people management.

This will soon be supplemented by a reciprocal work exchange programme of two to three weeks with barristers’ chambers or referrers such as banks and accountants, to boost associates' understanding of the world in which clients operate.

Dobson says: ‘People come into the law wanting to be lawyers, but don’t necessarily think that much about the business side of it.

'The more difficult economic times have made everybody think a lot harder about the business aspect.’

Rigorous process

Firms are also shifting systems away from a strict Post-Qualification Experience (PQE) basis.

For example, under Reed Smith’s CareeRS programme, associates are no longer graded by year, but by competency level – junior, mid-level or senior.

Advancing from one band to the next depends on performance, assessed by a ‘rigorous review process’.

Galloway says: ‘It’s not logical to move people through the band and pay more each year just because they are one year more qualified.

'The new grading system leads to a more realistic assessment of what people can do and what level they are at.’

Charles Jurd joined Reed Smith as a trainee in 2003 and qualified in 2005, moving from mid to senior associate in January with under six years’ PQE thanks to the new system.

‘It’s quite bold to move away from a PQE system assessment,’ Jurd says.

‘It’s better for the lawyer because their progression is not stifled and the client gets an all-rounder.

'It also allows the firm to measure if you are a high-performing associate or need more assistance.’

In 2012, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s London office will replace a remuneration system based on PQE, to grade its solicitors in accordance with ‘career milestones’.

The firm’s associate development framework divides an associate’s career into four milestones, starting at foundation level for newly qualified solicitors.

To progress to the next milestone, associates are assessed in seven core areas, including technical skills, client relationships, business development and business advisory skills.

Bonuses will also be measured in this way.

Hogarth says: ‘We should not pay people more just because they have been in the firm for a period of time.

'We will pay associates based on their performance, their skills and their capabilities, and that’s what our clients want – to pay for people who have the requisite skills and capabilities.’

Judith Perkins, chair of the Junior Lawyers Division of the Law Society, welcomes the change: ‘If you are an associate who is three years’ PQE, but you know you are not going to be earning a higher salary or be offered that senior associate position until you are at least seven years’ PQE – no matter how good you are or how hard you work – that’s demoralising.

An approach to salary and promotion that is based more on performance is generally a good thing because it puts the opportunities for career advancement more in the hands of the associates themselves.’

Strategic Excellence at Freshfields

Counsel Lindsey Canning participated in a pilot of Freshfields’ Strategic Excellence programme in London.

Now being rolled out firm-wide, the scheme aims to improve retention by supporting the career development of female associates and partners at the firm, and ensuring they are aware of their importance as role models.

Canning took part in the 12-month, small-group coaching programme for senior women associates.

It included workshops that incorporated discussions and exercises to help participants identify and analyse their strengths, build leadership skills and mentor juniors.

The workshops also covered ways of recognising and mitigating unconscious bias.

In addition, there were monthly sessions with a coach from consultancy Aspire, as well as Q&As with senior partners, who also acted as mentors.

Canning, who has just completed the programme – along with five other female senior associates – says: ‘It helps you analyse and focus on your strengths, gain confidence in what you do and become more strategic about how you raise your profile in doing it.’

She enjoyed the opportunity to share experiences with her peers, with whom she has struck up good friendships.

‘The solidarity and the ability to talk in very free terms with others who are in a similar position has been a great benefit. It has helped me to really understand how unconscious bias works and how to mitigate it.'

The programme, most importantly, helped her progress her career. 'It has been a great platform to step up to counsel and in my move to New York,’ she says.

Alternative paths

Firms are also rewarding associates by offering them alternatives to partnership, such as counsel.

This trend is fuelled by a number of factors, according to Emma Spitz, of the Executive Coaching Consultancy (ECC).

First, the economic situation means there are fewer opportunities at the top. Second, there will be new and different positions once alternative business structures (ABSs) come into force in October this year.

Third, not everyone wants a partnership.

Perkins notes: ‘These roles may be attractive to people who want to achieve seniority in their firms, but who don't necessarily want the management baggage or the equity that comes with it.’

At Freshfields, for example, associates can be elevated to the role of counsel, although it is not automatic.

‘We deliberately keep this role open for a relatively small proportion of our associates,’ says Hogarth.

The appointment to counsel – the most senior post in the firm below partner – must respond to a business need and be approved firm-wide, he says.

Lindsey Canning, who was working as a senior associate in the firm’s IP department in London, was promoted to counsel last year.

She is now setting up a transactional intellectual property and commercial practice in Freshfields’ New York office.

She says of the new role: ‘I am now fully involved in business planning and strategy, as well as recruitment and management of the team.

'It gives me the opportunity to assume a leadership role and, potentially, move forward to partnership.’

Reed Smith has introduced a similar role, ‘of counsel’.

Galloway says: ‘In years gone by, you either became a partner or you left, but now we have different options for associates.’ She adds that these roles are popular within the firm.

For example, in her department, which focuses on international commodities, there are three of counsels: ‘It can be a stepping stone to partnership or it can be in recognition of associates who don't want to become partners for all sorts of reasons – such as the hours, the travelling or the extra commitment – but would like their seniority and their expertise recognised within the department.’

But for Freshfields’ Hogarth, ‘there is much more to retaining people in the firm than just the title they have’.

For example, learning and development opportunities, and a ‘sociable, supportive and collegiate environment’.

Reed Smith's Jurd was pleased with the chance his firm gave him to spend two months in the New York office and that it also paid for his New York Bar exam.

‘This experience was very rewarding. I now really understand the work my colleagues do in New York,’ he says.

Pannone’s Howard values the ‘open communication with the managing partner’ with whom associates are invited to meetings and workshops.

‘It’s the recognition that there is a value to our voice. You feel more included,’ she says.

Gender balance

According to Insight Oxford Ltd’s report, ‘65% of graduate trainees at entry level are women, yet many will have left before the partner track’.

At Freshfields the female/male split at entry is 50/50, but only 12% at partnership level are women.

Hogarth says: ‘Clearly something is getting in the way of women progressing to partnership.

'Our senior leadership are very committed to addressing this. It is a critical business issue. We believe it will improve our performance and help us with our relationship with our clients.’

Freshfields’ Canning explains: ‘It makes good team sense, but also good business sense to have different views and approaches at senior level.’

She points out that there has been an increase in the proportion of women in senior positions at important clients of the firm.

Freshfields is rolling out a scheme aimed at women called Strategic Excellence (see box), which has so far received ‘really good feedback from participants’, according to Hogarth.

Pannone already has 41% of partners who are women, an impressive tally even when you consider the top-100 firm has a higher than average (66%) proportion of female associates.

Dobson, a mother of two, works part-time and so does the firm's managing partner, Emma Holt.

Because the firm has a track record of women occupying senior positions ‘it just never occurred to people to think it may be an issue coming through to partnership if you were going to have children’, says Dobson, who was pregnant when she was made equity partner.

Spitz, whose ECC provides coaching programmes to support women before, during and after their maternity leave at law firms and other organisations, says solicitors often want more flexibility when they return to work.

This does not necessarily mean part-time or home-working, ‘but more control over the hours and how they work’.

Unfortunately, notes Spitz, some of the progress she had seen pre-2008, in terms of flexible working, has been reversed.

However, she points to the big productivity increases she has observed in people working reduced hours and observes: ‘What law firms could achieve if they were more flexible in allowing people to control when and how they work could be incredible.’

In any case, firms will need to wise up to the fact younger generations do not necessarily want to give their ‘soul’ to their employer.

‘Allowing people flexibility is going to be absolutely key,’ adds Spitz.

Freshfields has been piloting a scheme in its London corporate department that offers employees flexible working options, including working from home, job sharing and a ‘buddy’ system, whereby colleagues can cover for each other.

‘There is a variety of flexible working arrangements that we are exploring to see which ones are the most effective,’ says Hogarth.

Furthermore, last November, Freshfields introduced a free ‘back-up care’ scheme for its London employees, through which, for example, nannies can come to the rescue if an associate’s child gets sick but they have an appointment they cannot miss.

The scheme, which provides properly vetted and qualified carers, is available to all employees, including those with dependants such as elderly parents, Hogarth says.

Reed Smith’s yearly staff survey showed that flexibility and work/life balance are important issues for associates and the firm has already gone some way to cater for this.

‘Associates at Reed Smith can see there is a fair amount of flexibility,’ Galloway says.

Several women partners work part-time, including Galloway, who has done so for the past 19 years.

As she puts it: ‘You have to be flexible to maintain your talent pool. If you train someone for five or six years and then they leave, I think it’s a bit of a disaster.

'You want to try to keep those people, even if, for a number of years, they are going to work to a different pattern.’

Pannone’s Dobson says that, although her firm does not have a ‘formal’ flexible-working policy, ‘we are happy to look at what works for people’.

Howard, who works in the firm’s corporate law department, says: ‘Working weekends is not a regular thing, compared to many of our competitors. I work to my workload and to our clients’ needs.

'Some nights I am here until 9pm, but other days I go at 5pm and no-one bats an eye.’

She adds the work/life balance is ‘one of the reasons I enjoy working here’.

Don’t take them for granted

If there is one message law firms need to digest it is never to take their associates for granted – in good times or bad.

Reed Smith’s Jurd says transactional work suffered during the recent downturn, but that associates working in litigation and insolvency ‘were busier than ever and there were plenty of opportunities for them to move firm’.

Jurd gets regular calls from recruitment consultants asking ‘is Reed Smith the right place for you and is the firm’s career development good enough?’

Jurd concludes: ‘The pressure to manage the career of associates is always there, whatever the state of the economy.’