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Moving On: Why Private Practice Lawyers Change Jobs and How Law Firms Can Help Prevent This

Written by Aquis Search

As recruiters at Aquis Search, we pride ourselves on our consultative approach and we endeavour to strike to the heart of why a candidate is seeking a prospective move. Once we have engaged in a full and frank discussion on a candidate’s grievances/ concerns, we are tasked with partnering with them in sourcing a role, firm and culture more in line with their expectations and aspirations. In some instances, a lawyer moving on from their current role may be unavoidable. There may be pressing personal circumstances causing them to leave the region, they may wish to be at home with their young children or leave employment to take care of a sick relative. However, we are very much of the view that these form the minority of cases and many of the departures we see are largely in the control of the law firm in question. 

Many of our law firm clients seek counsel from Aquis Search on how to avoid excessive attrition and to ensure that the best possible conditions are in place to retain talent. We outline below an overview of the reasons lawyers commonly provide for their decision to exit their role and we offer some practical, and where possible, preventative solutions to avoid losing valuable employees.

 

Advancement

In private practice, partnership prospects are becoming increasingly elusive and lawyers can find themselves working excessively long hours under tremendous pressure with no real appreciation of the ultimate goal or even if that goal is achievable. There may be several lawyers above them blocking their chances of promotion. Lawyers will often jump ship to secure the advancement they are seeking by turning to a competitor, or ultimately leaving practice altogether and moving in-house.

This can be challenging for partners to manage. Whilst partners may wish to promote a promising individual and endeavour to provide a time frame for the same, external factors such as market conditions may change dramatically or a firm’s growth strategy in a particular region may change rendering it difficult to give concrete assurances. Whilst it is appreciated that moving up the private practice ladder can be precarious, we feel that associates respond better when partners have an open door policy and are able to engage in a transparent discussion on progression (subject to the usual caveats) and provide direct feedback and clearly defined objectives that help lead them in the right direction.

 

Work

Lawyers often cite a frustration with the work they are doing and being bright and ambitious people, they always seek to be continually challenged. Everyday our phone rings with Equity Capital Markets (ECM) lawyers frustrated with the process driven nature of the work and minimal law available and seeking a more diverse role, typically to expand into a more M&A/ PE focussed role. We hasten to add that this grievance is not restricted to ECM lawyers and lawyers in almost every practice area at times cite frustration with the quality of work they are tasked with. The firm may not be performing well or the market for their practice area may be underwhelming and they simply aren’t busy enough. Lawyers are ever mindful that their future marketability is contingent on the richness of their experience and if this is not growing at a satisfactory pace, they will need to consider their options. 

Partners are managing a business and business needs must of course prevail, but it is useful to strike a balance between servicing clients and ensuring lawyers have a diverse range of work. This may be as simple as proposing a lawyer works with a different partner to get a fresh approach or ensuring that they are earmarked to work on a specific type of transaction matter/ transaction which will enrich their experience. In our experience, a lawyer who feels that partners take their personal development seriously is less likely to jump ship.

 

Culture

Firm culture is an important factor when you work long hours and invest so much in your job, as lawyers invariably do. We often see lawyers moving on as they feel a firm’s culture is not right for them. Culture very much depends on the individual and different lawyers respond differently to different cultures. Some lawyers thrive in an aggressive, driven culture with long hours whereas other lawyers prefer a more nurturing environment with a work life balance. Cultural fit is a key consideration in any possible hire and due care and attention should be devoted to ensure the culture is right for the individual. That said, there are certain aspects of culture which apply globally and partners should strive to have these in place. Partners should seek to create a culture where communication is key, career paths are fair and transparent, management is accessible, lawyers are approachable and respected and the overall firm direction is clear and understood.

 

Pay

Local Hong Kong firms, UK firms, offshore firms and US firms all pay vastly different rates and some US firms even offer COLA in Hong Kong which can make a significant difference to the overall compensation package. Moving excessively can be detrimental to a lawyer’s career and it is our observation that lawyers are increasingly mindful of this. However, lawyers like any professionals want to get the maximum financial return on their work and we often see lawyers changing roles in order to get an uplift in salary. We urge lawyers to consider the composite proposition in the context of their long-term career (rather the pure financials) but within Hong Kong, it is not uncommon for lawyers to achieve a 30% pay increase in making a lateral move. At Aquis Search we keep our law firm clients continuously appraised of changes in salary trends and by striving to position themselves as competitively as possible insofar as their business model permits and offering attractive increments and a healthy bonus scheme, law firms can avoid unnecessarily losing talent to competitors.

 

Financial stability of the firm

In Hong Kong, we have seen many prestigious law firms close. Consequently, lawyers tend to be cautious if they sense that business is not going well for the firm and they tend to be ever mindful of what this can mean for their career. We frequently receive calls from lawyers concerned that the work is drying up and they may find themselves at risk of redundancy, or there have been departures at partner level which puts question marks over where future work will come from. Lawyers often cite a lack of transparency on these matters and this anxiety can be reduced with open communication from both the partners in their team and senior management level about the status of the firm. As ever, an open door policy and a forum for lawyers to air their concerns will help provide the security they require.

 

Please click here to download a PDF version of this document.

If you have questions on the above or have concerns about staff retention, please do feel free to reach out to - 

 
Ciaran Foy
Associate Director - Private Practice
+852 2537 0333
ciaranfoy@aquissearch.com