The other talent war

Boston-based Goodwin Procter seems to be one of the more innovative and forward-looking firms out there (how many law firms have not one, but two people blogging on knowledge management?). They solidified that reputation earlier this week by announcing the appointment of a director of professional development and training for professional staff (HT to Legal Blog Watch). Jamie Krulewitz’s job, evidently the first of its type, is to oversee the professional development and training of the firm’s administrative and secretarial staff.

This is self-evidently a good move, because everyone in law firms needs training and development, not just the lawyers (and many firms don’t even provide lawyer T&D). Goodwin Procter recognizes that if it wants its lawyers to operate at their very best, it needs to ensure they can count on equally top-notch staff support. This is consistent with the firm’s refreshing approach to its website personnel listings which, again unlike many others, groups lawyers and non-lawyers together as both “professionals” and “people.”

What’s interesting, though, is to consider that the firm went to the trouble of a press release and announcement for a “simple” staff hire. Firms hire non-lawyer professionals all the time without any public notice, and I’m sure Goodwin Procter normally is no exception. Probably this was simply a matter of endorsing the new person and boosting her morale by giving her a high-profile welcome, consistent with what appears to be the firm’s staff-positive culture.

But try this exercise: read the announcement again, this time not as a press release, but as if it were a recruitment piece for non-lawyer professional staff:

“We are first to the table among law firms in establishing a director-level position focused exclusively on the development of non-legal staff,” said Krulewitz, who has overseen the firm’s HR function in New York for years. “I look forward to building a platform that will serve our talented staff for many years to come.” …

[T]he firm’s professional development team has established an award-winning interactive staffing process that closely links attorney assignments to their professional development and helps to ensure optimal staffing of client matters across the firm. The firm also has developed a monthly speaker series for all attorneys and staff featuring prominent leaders in their field, such as a former CIA director, Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, and athletes.

If you were a legal secretary, administrator, paralegal or IT professional looking for a good place to work, wouldn’t you find this appealing? Wouldn’t this be a sign that here was a law firm that took seriously the performance, skills and career paths of all its professionals, not just the ones admitted to the bar? And if you were looking for a tiebreaker among different offers, wouldn’t this be it?

I think Goodwin Procter, intentionally or not, is on to the next wave here: the recruitment and retention of professional staff beyond lawyers. Much has been made, rightly, of the coming talent crunch for lawyers, what with Boomers retiring, 40-somethings looking to change careers, and new grads demanding “work/life balance.” But all these things apply equally to the professional staffers that keep most law firms running from day to day. They’re in demand from other industries, their qualifications and experience are hard to replace, and they’re increasingly in a position to dictate favourable terms of employment.

Look around your own firm. Think of the very best secretaries, the sharpest IT people, the most reliable law clerks and accountants and assistants. Are they getting on in years? Are they underpaid relative to their contemporaries in other offices? Are they doing the same dull law office things they’ve always done and getting bored and restless as a result? What would you do if they left tomorrow?

Law firms can’t be shortsighted and think only about raises, recruitment, and retention efforts for their lawyers. They need to look at their whole operation and consider who really keeps it from crashing down around their ears. Because think about it: do you think your secretary, who’s been with you for 15 years, is amused to see you throwing money, holidays and valuable perks at fresh law school grads who don’t know 1% of what she knows? While she gets an annual cost of living increase and an extra week’s vacation every five years?

It’s funny, because this morning I edited a forthcoming article for the magazine about law firm IPOs and non-lawyer ownership of law firms, and I kept looking for another term for “non-lawyer.” We’re sufficiently self-absorbed, we members of the bar, that we routinely divide the entire world into “us” and “not us.” The successful law firm of the future will dispense with that specious difference and recognize the contribution of everyone who works in a law office, lawyer or “non-lawyer.” Goodwin Procter is out of the blocks first.

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