In speaking with a number of general counsel about their hiring, retention, and talent management plans for 2014, I recognize an opportunity for law departments that want to attract great attorneys regardless of compensation level.
We are in an unprecedented era of job hopping. If companies are in frequent flux via mergers, if they won’t provide quality health benefits or defined benefit pension plans, then why should an individual tie oneself to any particular institution? Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, provides a roadmap for how professionals should navigate their careers as free agents in his superb May 2013 Harvard Business Review article titled, “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact.”
But here’s the thing. Attorneys tend to crave one thing career-wise above all else: job security! Inside counsel are smart, and they intellectually understand the era of free agency. They know it makes sense to continually build a dynamic skill set, network outside the four walls of their company, and stay open to new opportunities. But psychologically, in their bones, the vast majority of lawyers want to simply be happy in one place. The prospect of continual networking and job searching is very, very unappealing to lawyers.
In discussing 2014 with clients and other general counsel who have kindly participated in this column, I am hearing a good deal of optimism. Growth in corporate earnings, international expansion, a robust stock market and more are leading to talk of increasing headcount. The discussion is cautious, and words like incremental and strategic are sprinkled into it. Nonetheless, after writing about static headcount for the past several years, I find the new tone downright exhilarating.
Interestingly, you will be competing with each other for a shrinking pool of candidates who you deem “on-point.” You want the fourth through tenth year attorneys who will enter the company towards the bottom of your law department pyramid but who can hit the ground running. You will want folks who cut their teeth in the corporate section of brand name law firms, but who ideally have a little in-house experience under their belts already.
Now, think about hiring trends, both at big law firms and in corporate law departments, during the recession. Think about the vastly reduced number of attorneys who got the kind of “training” you want to see on a resume. At least four of you told me that you filled or tried to fill positions in 2013 via postings put out by your human resources folks. All of you told me that you were struck by how few resumes appealed to you, even though the sheer number of responses is consistently large.
I believe there will be competition for the best talent in 2014, and here is the way to land great candidates consistently. Appeal to the enormous craving for job security. I hear you saying, “But I don’t want to overpromise. Changes are constant. I can’t predict the future.” All correct, and I don’t want you saying anything outside your comfort zone.
You sell job security with facts. Talk about how long your longest serving attorneys have been on your team; I bet some have been there longer than you. When did that become a bad thing? It’s not. Give examples of promotions from within when there has been turnover. Simply state an expectation: “I want you to be here for many years.” Of course you cannot promise that outcome. In this era of free agency, putting it out there as a worthwhile goal is powerful enough.
Taking this train of thought to the next level, there is one thing great companies do to reinforce job security, and you can only sell this if your company really does it. That is training, and eventually, leadership training. The best candidates understand that exposure to training programs will make them more marketable both internally and, if necessary, externally. So, you are sending the message that you care about the individual’s long-term success.
Is this an old school, outdated message? I don’t think so. Some giants like General Electric devote enormous resources to training. But a growing enterprise of leadership training via third party providers is thriving to serve the large demand from companies that don’t offer internal programs. And I’m talking about training that is designed specifically for in-house counsel. Next month, I will write about the new MaryAnn Hynes Leadership Institute, created by InsideCounsel with this need in mind. Events like InsideCounsel’s upcoming Superconference, programs via the Association of Corporate Counsel, and regional options are growing more and more robust. There are many opportunities to invest in your attorneys, and these are often quite inexpensive.
Let’s start talking about job security and training. Many general counsel tend to shy away from these topics when interviewing to fill openings. If you choose to embrace job security as a goal, however, then everyone will want to work for you.