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A wind of change has accompanied 2022. The lingering effects of the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Great Resignation and the prevailing tough economic conditions.
However, Australasian Lawyer’s 5-Star Employers of Choice have managed all of this disruption whilst still providing inclusive and supportive working environments.
To really stand out and to make their mark, employers needed to offer a favourable working schedule and a progressive culture.
“Approximately 80% of our people nationally indicated that their preferred way of working would be part-time in the office and part-time remote”
Andrew White, Sparke Helmore
Andrew White, national managing partner of 2022 Employer of Choice Sparke Helmore, believes that the profession is facing The Great Realignment rather than The Great Resignation.
“Having diversity and flexibility at the core of our thought processes as well as our approach is key for us,” he says. “People are definitely thinking about what’s important to them, and for many that has taken a new direction given the experience of the past two years. Certainly, some people have re-evaluated their priorities.”
One challenge law firms have faced is finding people for certain roles. Employees today know what they want. Compensation is far from the only factor, but pay rates are in some cases 20% higher compared to last year, according to some industry sources.
“The median average for a graduate lawyer would have been around $50,000 to $65,00 plus superannuation and that has grown astronomically,” says Thomas Ciot of recruiters Michael Page Australia. “I’ve recently placed someone at $87,000 who’s only been practicing for eight months, which is around $94,000 inclusive. I’ve had candidates been offered $100,000 and [they have only] one-year post-qualified experience".
However, remuneration is not the only important issue for employers. They need to show a favourable working schedule and a progressive work culture.
Thus, it is even more vital now that firms are able to keep tabs on what’s important to employees so they don’t fall behind in an increasingly competitive recruitment market. According to Ciot, being able to work flexibly is now a crucial requirement for many lawyers, as is a strong law firm culture.
To bolster employee engagement and keep turnover rates low, among the perks offered by top legal employers today are shortened work weeks, promotions, salary increases and wellbeing support.
White believes that employees are looking at things differently now. He says, “People are definitely thinking about what’s important to them, and for many that has taken a new direction given the experience of the past two years. Certainly, some people have re-evaluated their priorities,” he explains. “For the most part, however, people seem to be looking to manage their current work and personal lives in diverse ways.”
One of these methods is greater freedom for lawyers to be able to work wherever they wish.
“Approximately 80% of our people nationally indicated that their preferred way of working would be part-time in the office and part-time remote,” White shares. “What we have seen is a need to be more flexible in where people work and that may mean they work for us from overseas locations from time to time.”
Richard Wood, managing principal at Employer of Choice Gilchrist Connell, says that of the firm’s permanent workforce, over 20% work part-time and over 60% of the part-time staff are in fee earner positions.
“We certainly see benefits in having our teams together in the office some of the time – to foster the team spirit, to learn from others, exchange ideas and collaborate face-to-face. But, having seen how well we’ve done over the last few years, the very last thing we want to do is to dictate to our people when and why they should be in office or working from home,” he explains.
Wood adds that the key to staying ahead of the competition is being able to adjust to what employees need.
“We offer a targeted benefits program which is developed based on what our people tell us will make a difference to them. We pride ourselves on being flexible and catering for the needs of the individual where we can, and this approach has seen us emerge relatively unscathed on the people front after COVID,” he says.
This ethos is echoed by John Castello of Gatehouse Legal Recruitment, who adds, “Working from home and alternative working hours are not necessarily going to be the silver bullet to attracting talent. “They are not the only things that candidates are looking for and are not going to be the only reason why they go to another employer.”
Coutts Lawyers & Conveyancers, another Employer of Choice, is precisely the type of firm that offers a range of benefits such as flexible arrangements that accounted for commitments like studies and picking up children from school, along with introducing a policy that allowed senior lawyers to work only four days a week with no pay cut.
“KPIs are also decreased to ensure staff do not feel the burden of working more hours within the four days,” Coutts partner Luisa Gaetani adds.
“There is an increase in structured mentorship and more of a willingness on the employer’s part to negotiate salaries, offer more significant bonuses”
Karena Nicholls, Coutts Lawyers & Conveyancers
According to Jason Elias of Elias Recruitment, the legal market is presently a “candidate-tight” one where employers are offering competitive salaries to keep talents out of rivals’ hands.
There’s more to it than headline rates of pay. Employer of Choice Holding Redlich has focused their efforts on eliminating gender pay bias. As of July, their overall pay equity gap was 0% for legal roles.
“Our gender equality strategy consistently keeps our gender pay equity below benchmark thresholds for the legal industry and we conduct a comprehensive gender pay equity audit each year to identify and eliminate any potential gender bias in our remuneration review process,” says a spokesperson from Holding Redlich. The firm also added that it has proactively addressed the gap by prioritising parental leave entitlements and flexible work arrangements.
Gaetani acknowledges that Coutts has “not been completely immune to staff resignations” in 2022, and the firm has also struggled with filling positions with the right candidates. Thus, ensuring that staff want to stay for various reasons is a priority for the firm.
One of the ways in which Coutts is working towards this goal is by amping up rewards to employees.
“[We] have promoted a significant number of people in the 21/22 FY. This period represents the highest quantity of people we have promoted and given pay rises to in the history of Coutts,” she says.
Gaetani herself has benefited from this move, ascending from senior associate to partner during this period. Coutts managing partner Adriana Care added that the firm offers bonuses in line with KPI-related achievements, even if just one or two have been recorded.
In addition to official mentorship programs, the firm also made provisions for training.
“To support staff professionally and ensure everyone stays ahead of the curve, we created an internal survival database, which includes step-by-step legal guides – including unique legal strategies that have consistently delivered results – matter summaries and detailed analysis on updates within the law,” Care adds.
“We also held daily virtual legal strategy meetings and implemented a ‘happy news’ section where staff discuss personal successes to end each meeting on a positive note.”
Coutts partner Karena Nicholls believes that it’s “an employees’ market” now, and “law firms will likely be implementing stronger benefits to retain and attract the best staff. Perks include “extravagant holidays, free Uber Eats and Uber rides, in-house baristas, massage therapists and nutritionists”.
“There is an increase in structured mentorship and more of a willingness on the employer’s part to negotiate salaries, offer more significant bonuses, and increase the frequency of pay rises,” she says.
“Salary is of course an important part… However, we understand it isn’t necessarily the most important issue”
Richard Wood, Gilchrist Connell
Meanwhile, at Sparke Helmore, White has focused on cultivating a strong culture.
“I think we all have incentives to attract talent – that’s nothing new. What sets things apart is what is offered that enables a person to, day in and day out, feel good about where they work, who they are working with, and the work they are doing. For us, that means having a favourable culture and strong values with which our people can identify.”
The firm’s leaders seek to engage with staff’s individual needs and circumstances, something White says is inherent in the firm’s culture.
“The hunt for talent is challenging in today’s market and we don’t see that changing for a while,” he explains.
Wood echoes White’s stand on culture, adding that protecting the people-centred culture at Gilchrist Connell has been key to attracting and retaining talent in a tight labour market.
“The combination of our culture, our commitment to develop our people and the opportunities we offer are regularly cited by recruiters and candidates alike as the differentiator between Gilchrist Connell and our competitors. Salary is of course an important part of this, and we do pay well. However, we understand it isn’t necessarily the most important issue,” Wood points out.
One thing is clear from the recruiters we spoke to – this year’s winning firms will have to maintain their sterling efforts. Elias says “the genie cannot be put back in the bottle” and Castello offers a similar view, saying, “In terms of the legal sector and legal recruitment over the next 12 months, we do not see things changing that much from where they are right now.”
On 23 May, Australasian Lawyer opened the floor for nominations to the seventh 5-Star Employers of Choice list, which continues its tradition of spotlighting the law firms that most effectively looked out for their staff through employee-centred programs over the past 12 months.
The research team highlighted the following as key factors in positive employee experiences: remuneration, training and professional development, career progression, diversity and inclusion, access to technology and resources, communication, leadership, work-life balance, health and wellbeing, reward and recognition, and recruitment. Firms were asked to list the initiatives they had in place, as well as their achievements in these key areas.
The nominations period lasted until 17 June. Subsequently, the research team reviewed the entries, which consisted of both quantitative and qualitative information, to determine their performance as leading workplaces. A total of 31 firms were identified as 5-Star Employers of Choice based on their adherence to the criteria.
35% of the winning firms have 100-499 employees
9 of the winning firms have an average staff tenure of at least 5 years
8 of the winning firms have global operations