Why business services professionals choose one firm over another
Many law firms still struggle to differentiate their offerings. But recent interviews suggest a solution that lies in the experiences of their own employees.
As the legal sector has become more competitive, individual law firms have faced the increasing challenge of finding ways to stand out from the crowd. The difficulty of the task correlates to a seemingly prevailing view that all law firms are essentially the same.
However, while law firms undoubtedly share some common character traits, our work with numerous firms over the years has also taught us that law firms and the professionals who work in them are unique.
This point was made particularly clear in interviews we recently conducted with several professional business services managers, spanning HR, BD and marketing, and finance.
Preconceptions of law
These interviews were the basis of several case studies that will be published by First Counsel in the next couple of weeks (more details to follow on this blog shortly). They each provide a perspective on life as a business services professional in a range of law firms, both large and small. And something that particularly came out of all their experiences was a simple fact: that not all law firms are the same.
For instance, in speaking to many business services professionals, it is clear that prior to joining the legal sector they shared the view that law firms are conservative, traditional and slow to change. Of course they could also see a glimmer of hope, or we would wonder how they ended up in a law firm interview at all… But, suffice to say, on the whole they didn’t expect to be bowled over by the profession’s dynamism.
In then looking at how their view of law changed (or didn’t) after joining the profession, it was tempting to ask questions directly related to the preconceptions: Was it in reality conservative? Have you found it slow to change? And so on.
It quickly transpired that this approach would completely miss the point, though, failing to give a true reflection of the realities of the profession. After all, we would expect interviewees to give a relatively good account of the firms paying their salaries…
Such questions might have resulted in a few salient points – far from conservative, for example, law firms have radically modernised in recent years. And that would have been an accurate enough statement to apply to the majority of law firms.
But it would hardly have given a huge depth of understanding to today’s multifaceted legal profession. Nor would it have adequately conveyed the range of experiences these professionals have encountered in law.
Getting to the reality of law
Take the experience of a business services professional in one of the largest UK magic circle firms and you’ll find it’s quite different to that of the same titled professional in a small law firm. Sure there are some similarities – partnerships often seem to throw up the same joys and frustrations. Often mentioned, for instance, is the privilege of working with such bright individuals, balanced by the frustration of getting them ‘on side’.
But beyond the basics, there are then all kinds of complexities. A professional business services job in a large firm may be quite specialist and based in just one or two practice groups. In a small firm, a professional business services manager might have surprising autonomy and the ability to make decisions that impact firm-wide processes and strategy. Alternatively, it might be the large law firm that can offer the strategic dimension that a small law firm, mainly needing operational and administrative support, cannot.
Long-term career development opportunities might also be very specific to the nature of the firm involved and the particular ambitions of both firm and employee. One might assume that career growth would be easiest in a large firm, with a global infrastructure. But a large firm might also be more bureaucratic with promotion requiring significant hoop jumping compared to the more flexible smaller firm.
The list of variables goes on. But what is certain is that the most successful business services professionals approached each law firm interview on its own merits. Several interviewed with different firms and quickly distinguished one that was clearly more suited to their needs. And they disregarded any preconceived ideas of law as they got closer to achieving the right job for them with the right firm.
If candidates can differentiate between law firms…
For law firms, this is an important finding. In the past, law firms have been accused of failing to differentiate themselves – the classic test would be to visit a few law firms’ websites and fail to spot the difference.
But these business services candidates are not struggling to pick and choose between firms. Nor are the successful candidates conveying the same experience of actually working in these firms.
For law firms still struggling to find their identity, they could do worse than to talk to these employees – and to compare their experiences to those in other law firms. Because their unique insights may give a firm an important understanding of its own culture – that will help to not only attract and retain future talent, but also to win clients.