Best Practices Retaining Top IT Talent in the Legal Industry

Written by Geoff Zodda, Managing Director at Glenmont Group

Of all the major professional industries, the legal industry has one of the highest turnover rates universally. This trend can especially be seen in the Information Technology Groups within many of the top 250, and even mid-sized, law firms around the world. Reasons for such a high incidence of personnel change in Legal IT departments include: aggressive recruitment from competition, the allure of vertical growth opportunities by joining another firm, the marketing of firms known for their organizational stability, the ability to join a consulting group or even open their own IT consulting firm, and the appeal of moving to firms who are forward-thinking with their technology. In the relentless pursuit of acquiring the best candidates in the market, new opportunities are dangled in front of top talent on a weekly basis, which begs the question: Why would an individual pass up on an exciting, new opportunity to stay in their current role?

In response to the recent fluctuations in the global job market, several firms of varying sizes have made concerted efforts to retain their top employees. Many top executives and HR professionals believe the key to improving retention rates is establishing stability throughout the organization. This mentality has resonated throughout the Legal IT community, as CIO’s and HR groups have been working in unison to analyze, modify, and implement best practices for keeping their top IT talent, while maintaining the firm’s core values and initiatives. Longevity, career management, and consistency generate a sense of organizational strength from top to bottom, thus creating an environment where the best employees want to stay, and other firms’ top professionals want to come to.

While stability is the broad foundation for improving retention, for Legal IT Departments, there are several other methods and strategies which play an equally integral part in attracting and keeping the best people. One strategy being implemented by law firms is their return to investing in, and working with, innovative technologies. Recognizing the need to stay on pace with the evolution of Legal Technologies creates a challenging and engaging atmosphere for top IT gurus who are always looking to stay on the cutting edge of their field. In turn, this makes these coveted individuals less likely to consider new opportunities from a recruiter. This holds particularly true for firms employing SharePoint 2010, Microsoft Office 2010, Cloud Computing and new Virtualization tools, the newest versions of Financial Systems (i.e. Thomson Elite 3E, Aderant) and SQL 2008.

In an article by Richard Hadden, published in the Jacksonville Business Journal, he suggests, “Promoting from within helps build strong foundations.” This is especially true in the Legal IT industry as individuals who have seen colleagues advance within their organization, or have been promoted themselves, are much less likely to jump at a new outside opportunity promising advancement or growth, when the same opportunities already exist in-house. Nelson, Mullins, Riley & Scarborough LLP is a well-known Southeast law firm with a notable reputation for creating such an environment. Their CIO, David Worth, corroborates Hadden’s position, noting, “The one thing we [do well] is promote people internally.” Citing the firm’s approach to grooming future stars in-house, and the value of retaining top IT employees in particular, Worth commented, “On many occasions, these people have risen substantially from where they came from. This gives us talented people who know the organization/culture and can leverage that knowledge in creation of information systems.”

Paired with establishing clear-cut, internal career paths for employees, an emerging trend, which is gaining traction and favor amongst leading Legal IT Professionals, is the opportunity to telecommute. Whether it is just one or two days a week, or even full-time, a growing number of firms have made this option available to their IT staff as a means of improving work/life balance as well as productivity. These law firms, particularly those whose offices are located in major metro areas, are not only cognizant of the financial burden on their IT employees with longer commutes but also, and even more importantly, the toll it takes on their work once they reach the office. Don Jaycox, US CIO of international firm DLA Piper LLP, embraces this approach, stating, “I expect people to get the job done well. Where they get the job done is less important. Depending upon the position, telecommuting or being flexible with location is more or less possible.” With many technologies used in Legal IT Departments available for remote access and control, negotiating this arrangement keeps employees happy by reducing the drain from their commute, eliminating potential distractions at the office, and ultimately lowering their chance of burning out. In turn, there is a lower incidence of turnover, as employees are made to feel valued both personally and professionally.

Strong communication and a positive team environment within a law firm IT department are both essential to keeping your group stable, as there can be many high-stress projects and concurrent processes going on. Henry Chace, CIO at Burns & Levinson LLP, believes that these are the most important aspects of retaining top employees. He offers, “Make your employees part of the solution, treat them like professionals, make decisions as a group, as each one’s roles and decisions affects everyone else.” Chase adds, “Professional respect, keeping things loose and working to have a personal life are also essential to keeping a happy department.”

IT professionals are well aware that in order to continue improving one’s skills set, advanced technical training is typically needed; this is no different in the legal industry. Firms who pay for, and endorse, advanced training will have a leg up on retaining their teams, than those who have made it less of a priority. For an IT professional, next-level training sits high on their list of reasons to join and stay at a firm. Chris Romano, CIO at Ward & Smith P.C., confirms, “We have an ongoing commitment to training. It’s a way to retain our employees, keep them motivated and happy.” Roman further suggests such an investment has both logical and strategic rewards for firms of all sizes, offering, “It’s the type of thing the firms can do, even in a recession. It will pay off on both sides, as the individual will be trained on technology the firm is using and the firm can leverage their training.”

With great efforts being put forth to retain top talent, any one of these strategies, or a combination thereof, can create continuity and strength in IT groups in your firm for years to come.

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Glenmont Group is a boutique search firm that concentrates on Professional Services, with a focus in the Legal & Content space. Because we are a highly focused boutique firm, we offer expertise in the industry that other search firms cannot. Our staff has been trained on, employed in or consulted for these industries so there is no learning curve. This means that you will not see resumes off of "job boards" that seem to have little or no connection to the position you are trying to fill. In fact, just the opposite is true. Our process includes a competitive analysis that identifies the top candidates in your given field. At Glenmont Group, we strive to develop and maintain long-term professional relationships with our clients. We believe in a business relationship based on hard work, cooperation, integrity, trust and a sense of humor. We are also active members in our industries by working on or with the Executive board of our industry trade organizations such as; IQPC, EDRM, LMA, PMA, ALSM, ALA, AIIM, ARMA. This assures constant access to a network of those highest quality candidates who are involved in these organizations.

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