An engaged employee is one who feels valued, is so committed to the company that they want to deliver over and above what is required, and, ultimately, they feel proud of who they work for and what they do.

It makes good business sense. The engaged employee is less likely to look around for another job, retention rates are high, and client service better.

According to Aon Hewitt’s 2013 'Trends in Global Employee Engagement' report, there is a strong correlation between engagement levels and total shareholder return (TSR). Its analysis found that companies with engagement levels in the top quartile, with 72% or higher engagement, attain 50% higher TSR than the average organisation.

The study looked at what drives engagement. ‘Career opportunities’ is seen as the number one factor, followed by the reputation of the organisation, with pay the third most important driver. But Aon Hewitt also found regional and generational differences, and points out that leaders operating in multicultural, multigenerational and cross-geographical environments face challenges in driving high levels of employee engagement. Businesses have not got it right yet – four out of ten employees are not engaged.

So, what is the legal industry making of all this? The picture is mixed. Legal Week’s 'Employee Satisfaction Report 2013' found that while employees are increasingly happy with the quality of work and calibre of clients, lawyers feel less engaged on a personal level, with “costs not careers taking priority” last year.

The findings make interesting reading, with respondents from the top-ranking firms all making similar comments as to what the “best things about their firm” are. These include a collegiate environment, variety of work and quality of the client base.

When it comes to the “things they would change” about their firm, respondents are also of much the same view and would like a better work/life balance and more flexibility, clearer career progression, better bonus structures and increased transparency.

The recently announced ‘Sunday Times Best Companies to Work For 2014’, which monitors employee engagement, features eight law firms in the top 100. When you look at what these firms are doing right, similar incentives are cited. Respondents in these firms are happy with their pay, believe they are being developed in their careers, there is strong management and they agree with the firm’s ethos and CSR initiatives.

Mishcon de Reya is the highest legal firm on the list at number 20. Of its 500 staff, 81% wouldn’t leave tomorrow if they were offered another job. Meanwhile, 82% of staff believe the firm is good for their personal growth. The firm spends on average £500 per head on training per year, trainees spend a day at a London children’s charity, and staff can do at least 50 hours of pro bono work annually.

Baker & McKenzie, at number 25, keeps employees engaged with benefits such as an in-house GP surgery, subsidised gym memberships and free private healthcare. Its CSR initiatives are also valued by staff, such as a work experience programme to help encourage people from less financially privileged backgrounds into the industry.

Kingsley Napley is 49th on the list with employees engaged through a ‘collegiate’ culture. They have confidence in management with 76% saying that their managers are good listeners. In addition, more than two-thirds of senior managers have been promoted from within. There is also a training programme for fee-earners and support staff, as well as a cycle-to-work scheme and free private healthcare.

But, in line with what is happening in the corporate world, law-firm managers face the question of how to drive engagement across the organisation when one size doesn’t fit all. While clearly there are factors that are universally popular such as pay, benefits, company values, and career opportunities (incidentally, Legal Week’s survey found that while job candidates talk a lot about their desire to do pro bono work, this category ranked lowest in importance) what matters to one employee is of less importance to another, and even an individual can change their priorities throughout their career.

While today’s business environment has been challenging, it is worth remembering that many of these things can be achieved with little or no outlay. Pay rises and bonuses, while a high priority for employees, come at a cost for the firm; promoting a supportive, collegiate culture where individual contribution is valued does not.

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