Would you want your son or daughter to work there?

Professional Knowledge Firms lament the fact they can’t find good people. But that’s often a function of not being able to retain, and develop, the people they already have.

It seems competitive pressures, lack of a coherent pricing strategy, and the worship of the Almighty Billable Hour are all colliding, making Australian law firms relatively crappy places to begin one’s career.

In an article in the November 23, 2006 issue of Australia’s Lawyers Weekly, “Reality versus expectations sees lawyers leave the law,” Justice George Palmer recounted in a speech to practical legal education teachers:

Just in the last month, I have heard of two young lawyers who became completely disillusioned after working for a year or so in a large firm, and have left the law for good.

Palmer then cited the experience of one of his team member’s recent job interviews at a large city firm who was told by a senior lawyer:

I’m a busy man, I don’t have time to be nice, so if you’re looking for some sort of mentor you’ve come to the wrong place. I have high standards and I’ll hold you to them. If you don’t meet them you’ll soon know about it. If I suspect you’re not giving me 100 per cent of your best you’ll soon know about it. Don’t expect this to be a nice place; it isn’t.”

Makes you want to sign right up, doesn’t it? The article goes on to cite consultant Sue-Ella Prodonovich, who advises firms not to create a gap between the expectations of recent graduates and the reality of practicing law. Good advice, to a point. Until she offers her method to do this:

Say to them ‘this is hard work, you will work long hours, you will be working with great clients, a high-powered team.’

No doubt this is better than not informing the interviewee that the firms intends to make them a galley slave on the SS Billable Hour, but is it really enough to attract top talent? More importantly, is it enough to retain that talent once the firm is lucky enough to hire them? She claims US firms are doing a better job of managing team member expectations, but count me as a skeptic.

Do these firms really believe that this generation of knowledge workers is going to work long hours simply because the past generations have? Do they really believe that this generation confuses being busy with being valuable? Do they really believe this generation subscribes to the labor theory of value? Or are these firms engaged in one big hazing ritual (“I lived through it, and now you will too”).

Until these firms develop a core competency in pricing for value, not treating their knowledge workers as union employees, invest in life-long earning, and other progressive policies that will help develop and retain talent, no amount expectations management will suffice. They have to be able to deliver on the purpose and promise of their firms. Otherwise, why would a law firm student, who has invested an inordinate amount of money developing their intellectual capital, want to work for that type of firm?

In fact, I have come to believe there is a one-dimensional acid test for any organization, when it comes to retaining and attracting talent.

Would you want your son or daughter to work there?

For law firms, it seems, to ask this question is to answer it. That’s sad.

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