The ‘war for talent’ was a term coined by Steven Hankin, a senior executive of McKinsey & Company in 1997. Since then it has featured in many features and articles written by luminaries from Harvard and other learned institutions.

In simple terms the war for talent refers to the competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees. It is often highlighted as particularly fierce in markets where the knowledge worker is the key competitive resource. There could be few more competitive knowledge-based industries than professional services and, within that, legal services.

As a niche recruiter into the legal sector, we are privileged to have a particularly clear view of what goes on in this market. One indisputable fact is that, with the uptick in the market, law firms are once again competing fiercely for the best people in the market. And these people are in short supply and high demand.

These are not solely lawyers (or fee earners as most people still refer to them) – we are talking about all of the people who work in law firms. Of course this includes partners with followings, associates with skills in certain sectors and teams who can plug a gap in the firm’s offering to the market.

But it also covers the large population of business services professionals in firms. These are the people who provide specialist support in human resources, business development, financial analysis, risk management, knowledge management and marketing.

The war for business services talent

For every lawyer in a law firm there is roughly one person who is not a solicitor. And the war for talent is raging in this market as well. At Totum, there are certain types of candidates in high demand – specialists in bid management, sector and practice-focused business developers (in particular banking, corporate (no surprise there given the uptick in the economy), in-house recruiters (ditto), project management and pricing professionals).

In fact any modern, commercially minded law firm needs high-calibre business services people to help them succeed. And most now recognise the value these people bring. And yet, somehow, when they recruit these people they often fail to give the process the focus it needs to not only reach the desired outcome (making a hire) but also to avoid the stigma (in the candidate market at least) that the firm just doesn’t ‘get it’ and is one to avoid.

How to win

So, what are the firms doing right and wrong? What tips can we give to firms when they decide to recruit a business services professional?

  1. Give it proper focus and attention – and as much as when recruiting a lawyer. Write a proper specification (see below), set out a process, make sure the people involved are engaged and know what they are looking for, make sure they arrive for the interview on time (or on some occasions at all). Manage the process like any important project and do so efficiently.
  2. Remember that candidates – successful or not – will leave the meeting and tell their friends and colleagues about their experience with you. Sound obvious? Yes, but there are certain firms in the market that have a reputation as the place NOT to go. This is partly on account of how candidates were treated in an interview process. Always give feedback – and avoid the ‘cultural fit’, ‘not able to stand up to partners’ cliché – what does this actually mean? 
  3. Sell the opportunity – this does not mean presenting it as something it is not. It means highlighting the success of the firm, the things that stand-out for the firm as an employer (cultural stuff, career development, flexible working, international secondments) and the things that make this bid manager role rather more appealing than the other four that the candidate might be considering. Don’t fall into the trap of admitting to candidates (as some have) that you know the market is full of similar roles and infer that you know the market is tough and that you have been looking for the past six months with no success. Present your role as THE one in the market and tell them why. Also, write a compelling brief on the role – some of the specifications given to us make the role leap off the paper as one that is different, exciting and bespoke. Others are cut and paste jobs, which serve no purpose and are dull.
  4. Get the offer right – if you are working with a recruiter then listen to what they have to say about getting the offer right. If it falls way short of expectations then the candidate may walk away immediately. At the very least they will feel deflated. Of course you may have salary bandings and there are certain constraints that you will never be able to overcome (eg certain benefits) but try and get the offer right first time. And please don’t think that a recruiter is trying to drive up the salary to get a larger slice of commission. In the scheme of things 20% of an extra £2,000 is neither here nor there for a successful recruiter
  5. Post acceptance – once you have had an offer accepted do not think it’s ‘job done’. Far from it. If one assumes you have recruited a good candidate you should also assume that their current firm will do a whole load to try and keep them. If someone is on three months’ notice then make a note to check in with them once every couple of weeks – even if it is to share some great news about your firm, a deal or award won, an office opening or a new initiative that will make them realise they are doing the right thing in deciding to join you. Counter-offers are back and we have several calls a week from depressed in-house recruiters saying that job X or Y is back on.

Basic stuff this isn’t it? And yet so many firms get parts of it wrong. At best it results in one piece of recruitment (for which a lot of people have put in lots of work) falling by the wayside. At worst (and I am afraid there are some firms who get aspects of all five points above wrong) it will paint a picture in the market that this is a firm to avoid. And that’s a reputational obstacle that can take months, even years, to overcome.


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