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Making the case to attract the best talent

In face of increased competition, law firms are going above and beyond to attract and retain the brightest graduates

“There is a lot of competition out there for the best talent,” says McCann FitzGerald managing partner Barry Devereux. Photograph: iStock

“There is a lot of competition out there for the best talent,” says McCann FitzGerald managing partner Barry Devereux. Photograph: iStock

 

Legal talent acquisition, retention and development: in a tight labour market how do organisations compete for the best talent?

You’re now almost as likely to find a qualified lawyer leading an aviation finance firm or acting as an agent for a Premier League footballer as you are to run into them in a courtroom. This presents real challenges to the top law firms when it comes to attracting and retaining top legal talent.

“There is a lot of competition out there for the best talent,” says McCann FitzGerald managing partner Barry Devereux. “We start with universities and we spend a lot of time and allocate resources to ensure we are present on the campuses. Graduates’ eyes are being turned by all sorts of places now. I started out 32 years ago and back then you joined a firm for life. You started as an apprentice with the hope of becoming a qualified solicitor and perhaps becoming a partner in the long term.

“There has been a generational shift and there is a very different mindset now. They no longer see it as a job for life. They will only stay as long as they feel they are progressing. There is an unwritten bargain between us, and the graduate is saying that I’ll stay with you as long as I feel I am progressing. If they think they have plateaued, they are not going to hang around.”

A&L Goodbody managing partner Julian Yarr agrees: “Our trainees and other young professionals are really interested in personal development, purpose and inclusivity. This is why engagement is so important to this generation.”

Devereux says firms have to make themselves as attractive as possible. “It’s not just the legal side. Personal skills development is very important as well. We hired someone from Carr Communications to train our people in non-legal skills like speaking in public, communications, networking and so on. You will have better and happier client relationships if your people can bring their own personalities to bear and if clients like spending time with them. It’s a good investment and it acts as a retention tool as well. Our model is to train people to stay, not to leave. Most people who qualify with us stay with us.”

Beyond Ireland

A&L Goodbody looks beyond Ireland in its search for talent. “Our award-winning intern and trainee programme attracts high-quality trainees from all over Ireland and from further afield,” says Yarr. “We are seeing increased interest from candidates from other EU countries as well as Australia and New Zealand. We actively support their transition and relocation to Ireland, providing sponsorship where required and assistance in navigating through the system.”

Development is also important, and the firm offers a bespoke programme. “The ALG School of Business & Law is a big draw for graduates and lateral hires,” says Yarr. “It’s a holistic, integrated programme that spans trainee through to partner and can culminate in a masters’ qualification through our partnership with the UCD Smurfit and Sutherland Schools.”

Technology is also assisting firms when it comes to holding onto talent. “It is having a big impact on the sector,” says Devereux. “We first began using Technology Assisted Review [TAR] software back in 2011. Ireland was the first country outside of the US to introduce technology to assist in the legal discovery process. We can train machines to do a lot of the grunt work and this frees up lawyers to spend time adding real value for clients. That’s a key point in terms of attraction and retention. Firms where that work is still being done manually are not the type of organisation young people want to join. They want to focus on solving key strategic and legal challenges for clients.”

Innovation is also important in the training of lawyers. The King’s Inns in Dublin has been training barristers since 1541 but its current suite of courses is very much geared to the 21st century. “We have historically provided pre-qualification training for barristers in Ireland,” says dean of the School of Law Dr Eimear Brown. “We offer the barrister-at-law degree through one-year full- time and two-year part-time courses. We also have a Diploma in Legal Studies programme which provides a pathway to a qualification in substantive law for non-legal graduates and mature students who may not have a degree.”

‘Culture of innovation’

The school continues to expand its programme of courses aimed at giving lawyers and non-lawyers specialist legal knowledge and skills. “This is part of our culture of innovation,” says Brown. “Our Advanced Diploma Programme is open to people from a range of backgrounds who may have a skills or knowledge gap they want to fill. They could be in HR and need to get up to date on employment law, for example. We cover a wide range of subjects such as data protection and white-collar crime. Most courses are available via blended learning so students don’t have to attend in person.

“We use technology a lot. We really want to reduce the geographical barriers to doing these courses. We use elearning software for a lot of courses. Students can stream the lecture and are able to participate as if they are in the room. We also have online tutorials as an option on some courses. This helps people who can’t get to Dublin or busy professionals who can’t make the time to get to lectures when they are on.”

Listening to employees is also vitally important for retention, Yarr concludes. “We are always looking for ways to continually improve our firm so that we attract and retain the best talent. We have an annual engagement survey that helps us to stay close to what people want. We also use focus groups and feedback sessions to help shape our programmes.”