Two phenomena are affecting the legal world; productivity and talent retention. The Gazette has widely reported on increasing cost-pressures for high street firms (practising certificate price rises, cuts to public funding for legal aid), as well as talent retention (both lawyers and support staff) in firms both large and small.
Both issues – keeping your best people and ensuring professional productivity – are intimately linked to those people’s feeling of happiness and wellbeing in their working environment. This is not such an obvious statement as it might seem. Aside from earnings, iOpener Institute has collected over 18,000 management interviews assessing other identifiable key components of ‘happiness’ at work. Positive factors such as recognition, respect, decision-making empowerment, and time on task; as well as negative indicators such as likelihood of leaving or sick days off.
Like many professions, legal firms have tended to think they can simply throw money at people to retain them – yet analysis of iOpener Institute’s database professionals clearly shows that lawyers are in a profession least motivated by extra money. Other factors are far more important to keeping people and getting the most out of them.
Our research, which measures the legal sector against workers in other professional services (management consultancy, business consultancy, accounting, etc), found that lawyers are 18.4% less happy than their professional services counterparts. Looking at critical behaviours – ones that will tangibly affect a practice’s bottom line – we see that this means that lawyers are 22% more likely to leave their jobs, and are 11.4% less likely to feel that they are achieving their full potential. Lawyers take more days sick leave than employees in other professional services – 47% more, to be precise. And even when legal professionals are in the office, they spend 9.3% less time on task than workers in other professional services.
This picture may seem gloomy, but strategies can be put in place to improve happiness and wellbeing at work for lawyers, with tangible and commercially positive effects. The first step is being able to recognise which precise factors are contributing to unhappiness, in order that they may be addressed.
One large international legal firm recently identified that it was losing talent – especially its younger, Generation Y, lawyers – because they felt neither empowered nor respected in a firm they perceived as being mainly populated by white, heterosexual, middle-aged men in suits. This allowed the firm to radically reduce its talent loss through a combination of executive training and an internal communications programme illustrating the level of diversity (gender, race, age, sexuality) that had already been achieved.
So, in what other ways can declining morale and low levels of happiness be detected and what can be done about it? Research shows that there are five drivers of individual productivity because they propel performance and ensure that employees are happy in their work.
Driver 1: effort. This is about what you do. You’ll never be productive without clear goals, without precise and well-articulated objectives that lead to those goals and without addressing problems that arise on the way. That means the ability to raise issues and have others help you solve them too. Constructive feedback helps you contribute even more while personal appreciation goes a long way to boosting productivity. Interestingly, negative feedback, which is poorly given, doubles sick leave according to our data. And increased sick leave of course affects productivity levels.
Driver 2: short-term motivation. Good organisations encourage motivation by helping partners and staff own issues and take responsibility. And they do that at a level that fits with an individual’s skills, strengths and expertise levels. Lawyers and support personnel are encouraged to work on what they are good at, to prioritise what they do and to build efficiencies into their work.
Driver 3: how well you fit into a firm. Performance and happiness at work are both boosted when people feel they fit within their organisational culture. Believing that you’re in the wrong job, feeling disconnected from the values of your workplace or disliking your colleagues is dispiriting and de-energising. And all of that feels much worse if decisions in your workplace feel unfair.
Good firms can address this by being as transparent as possible about why decisions are made, explaining why resources are allocated in the way they are, and making sure that their approach is as equitable as possible.
Driver 4: long-term engagement. This is about commitment, the long-term engagement you have with what you do and your organisation. Having to work hard in a job you feel stuck in is energy draining at best and, as we’ve found, associated with higher illness at worst.
This tells firms that they need to regularly and convincingly communicate the practice’s corporate strategy, along with tangible proof of how that strategy is being implemented and the contribution it is making – to the bottom line, but also to the whole working environment and ethos.
Driver 5: self-belief. If you’re not confident, you won’t make decisions, take risks, or invest in development. Confidence is the gateway to productivity and our data shows that a primary indicator of confidence is that things get done. We also found that things get done better, faster or more economically because people are confident of the outcome.
It may be the case that the traditional partnership structure of law firms has led to the sector’s sub-par performance in fostering lawyers and supporting staff motivation, wellbeing and happiness. However, there is a clear trend in the sector to move towards more professional management techniques, with some firms engaging non-lawyer senior management to introduce such management skills.
Talent loss is an issue in its own right, and in the legal profession, this often means a direct loss of business to the partnership where clients defect with the partner leaving. There is a growing body of hard evidence to show that identifying the precise underlying components of happiness, empowerment and fulfillment at work are helping to retain the best people, improve productivity, and produce a tangible, measurable improvement in the bottom line.
Jessica Pryce-Jones is joint founder and partner of the iOpener Institute for People & Performance, which examines the factors that contribute to resilience and how it can be maintained