At a time when competition for the best talent is fierce, organisations across all sectors covet a place on ‘The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For’ list. But while a small but successful band of law firms are celebrating making the grade in 2016, the real challenge remains… to hold onto their place and turn a one-off victory into a longer term reputation for employer excellence.

And the job is getting harder. This year no fewer than 925 organisations registered to take part in the annual survey, including 79 which were brand new entries. The questions are comprehensive too, with employee responses spanning a wide range of issues including leadership, wellbeing, corporate social responsibility, pay and benefits and opportunities for personal growth.

There’s nowhere for employers to hide, especially as employer review sites like Glassdoor have only made employees more willing to express their views – both positive and negative. For law firms, getting ranked is no easy ride.

This year’s results…

 

Indeed, while 10 law firms made it onto the list in 2015, only eight ranked among the top 100 in 2016. Those missing this year include Asons and Freeths, which failed to follow up their first appearances in 2015. And global powerhouse Baker & McKenzie has disappeared off the list after five years of ranking. It follows other big brand firm Reed Smith, which has yet to make its return after losing its place in 2015.

It is, in fact, the smaller regional firms that are making their mark. Heading up the list for law this year, for instance, is Exeter based Stephens Scown LLP, which moves up from 39th place in 2015 to 12th place in 2016. The firm credits its success to its ‘comprehensive staff engagement programme’, and particularly its ability ‘to mobilise people around supporting local communities and charitable causes’. And for the first time this year appears a medical negligence firm – Fletchers Solicitors – which prides itself on its strong training and development structure, including a spotlight talent programme recognising rising stars within the firm.

Others, meanwhile, are beginning to make a mark for their consistent and rising success in this survey. Kingsley Napley, for instance, has moved up the rankings from 49th to 38th to 23rd place over the past three years. In a feature published by The Lawyer this month, the firm’s managing partner Linda Woolley describes the importance of its open culture in achieving employee engagement. Information, including activity levels, billing, collections and cash movement, is openly shared with links to team and partner key performance indicators. This practical measure helps underpin what she describes as an open culture of ‘teamwork and respect, integrity and fairness’.

Withy King too is on the up, rising from 58th place in 2014 to 45th place this year. It received an 89% positive score for its charitable activities and a green steering group has resulted in 77% of employees believing their firm genuinely cares about the environment.

Others are going further still. Withers, for example, is celebrating five years on the listings, rising 20 places over the past two years to take 61st place this year. This is an impressive record suggesting that its people initiatives are no mere tick-box exercise. Its support service My Family Care, for instance, which helps working parents who have problems with childcare arrangements, represents an approach that has surely gone far to helping make staff at the firm (78% in fact) feel genuinely cared for.

And there are some others that are making their listing something of a permanent feature. Mishcon de Reya (17th place) has now featured on the list for nine years running, together with Lewis Silkin (ranked 76th), which has made it to its eighth consecutive year on the list. These are firms that continue to impress with their people initiatives - agile working and a green fund at Mishcon and some impressive charity and community work by Lewis Silkin are but a few worthy highlights.

But for longevity, there is one firm leading the pack – Mills & Reeve. Making it onto the list for the 13th year in a row (ranking 74th in 2016), it is also the largest firm to make the grade this year, with solid scores across pay and benefits and training and development. It’s no mean feat to get staff to repeatedly and consistently rate your firm highly across all criteria year after year.

A point of differentiation

 

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the smaller firms tend to score well in this survey, this year nudging out some of the bigger brands altogether. With fewer staff it’s perhaps easier to gauge the mood and respond to staff needs and concerns with initiatives that can be deployed firm-wide relatively quickly. But managing to do that for successive years suggests these results are more than just a product of size.

Considerable and sustained success suggests that these firms understand that people management can be an important point of differentiation – underpinning a positive employer reputation that helps attract and retain top talent.

The biggest brands will always be able to offer talented candidates the opportunities that come from size – not least the salaries. But these small and mid-tier firms are building a reputation for something that might be equally compelling for today’s candidates: a sense of being part of a team that genuinely cares, not just for each other but for the wider community too.

For these firms, The Sunday Times list is so much more than a one-off triumph. It’s about standing out from the crowd enough times to be recognised as something truly different - and then holding on to that reputation amid stiff competition. The firms that achieve sustained success are those that fully understand that achieving employer excellence is a job that never ends.

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