Q&A: Terri Mottershead – “Lawyers are definitely going to be working in an increasingly multidisciplinary environment.”

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] February 28, 2017

In this Q&A, Terri Mottershead, director of the College of Law’s Centre for Legal Innovation, talks about the importance of talent management in law firms; the new breed of lawyer emerging in a multidisciplinary environment; and why millennials may just have the skills your firm is seeking.

You are general editor of a new book, Innovating Talent Management in Law Firms. What prompted this publication?

“All the contributing authors were very aware of the enormous changes taking place in the legal sector. We felt it was an appropriate time to reflect on those changes and to see how people are managing them from a talent management perspective. We also wanted to do some crystal-ball gazing as to what the legal workforce will look like in the future and how talent will be best managed, recruited, engaged and retained so firms can deliver different legal services and products for their clients.”

Do law firms have their heads around the fact they will need to change in this space?

“Everybody in the legal industry, no matter what their role or country they’re from, recognises the significant changes that are taking place. The hard part is translating that awareness into action – transforming the business and practice of law into something that clients today need and want.”

Could you describe talent management as it applies to law firms?

“It’s a term that can be used in a lot of different ways. We have approached it from the beginning to the end of a career and everything in between. That means starting with how you attract top talent, how you engage employees and support their on-the-job learning all the way through their career development, evaluation, compensation, promotion – through to succession planning when they are looking to exit the firm. There are several trends which are changing the way talent management works in the legal profession.  First, there is the impact of technology and the need for lawyers to be able to use tech tools as part of their practice. We’re really practising quite differently to how we did before. The other big difference is how we build and maintain relationships with clients. Client demands are much more customised and sophisticated because of the amount of information that’s available. We’re building relationships with an expectation that they will be much more collaborative, much more business-partner-like. The other big difference is that we’re looking for capabilities around innovation, creativity, adaptability, flexibility and resilience.   What we’re seeing today in the business and practice of law is going to continue to evolve. So we need those capabilities on board and we need to encourage them within our firms so we can keep up with the blistering pace of change.”

Law firm employees will need to be well rounded if they’re crossing all those skillsets you mentioned, or will there be specialists in each area?

“There’s some basics you have to be able to do. As a lawyer, your technical knowledge is a given, it’s your ticket for entry into the profession, but it’s certainly not the thing that will differentiate you in an increasingly competitive market.  Jordan Furlong, a legal industry consultant in Canada who writes The Law21 blog, differentiates between ‘lawyer work’, the sort of work lawyers will continue to do, and ‘legal work’ which is now being done by LegalTech applications, including artificial intelligence, legal process outsourcers or lawyer substitutes such as paralegals. The focus on LegalTech and efficiency in practice has also given rise to new jobs in operations management, data security, cyber security, privacy and innovation. So it’s not just the work that lawyers do which has changed but where that work has gone and who it is being done by. There’s a whole bunch of new professions within the once singular legal profession that are emerging. What we are finding is that some lawyers combine their legal knowledge, experience and skills with others skillsets, like technology, to change the way they practice, or develop new products for their clients. They may also move into a different career altogether, one that combines their skills into a new, hybrid role; for example, a legal technology consultant. They’ll thrive in that space. Other lawyers will work in a more traditional way, albeit they will still need to have basic tech skills, but they’ll work in partnership with a plethora of these other emerging professions to get the job done. Whichever way we look at it, lawyers are definitely going to be working in an increasingly multidisciplinary environment.”

That’s interesting given the doom and gloom in job markets – and suggests there are exciting new jobs on the way?

“There are. We can see those jobs really starting to emerge. Dentons has a chief innovation officer, Herbert Smith Freehills has a global head of alternative legal services. This is someone who looks at issues such as ‘Do we insource or outsource?’ ‘How do we do work?’ That’s their job. And they are not the only firms with these sorts of new and emerging roles. But if we just look at the substantive law work that lawyers have traditionally done, we’ve got whole new areas of law emerging, which is exciting. Who would have thought we’d have specialists in drone law, or in bitcoin? But we have firms in the US setting up these practices. And cybersecurity has become so big that the Law Council of Australia has its own national initiative in that area. While some jobs are changing, as we would expect with any profession or industry that matures, new jobs are emerging. These jobs will allow those people who have skillsets other than just the knowledge of law or with the interest in embracing these new areas of law, to really push the boundaries. I’m not in the gloom and doom camp. I’m in the excited and passionate camp.”

Who’s going to manage all this talent?

“Talent management is a specialty, particularly if you look at this comprehensively from the time employees enter a firm until the time they leave. The profile of the typical law firm workforce today is multidisciplinary, multicultural, multigenerational and multitalented. To manage this workforce requires a team of specialists with dedicated expertise. What we are increasingly seeing in the US and Australia is that the talent management role is becoming a C-suite level position. That person is being given a seat at the strategic table. It makes sense because with all of these changes you’ve got to have the right people at the right time doing the right thing at the right price, and that requires expertise ranging from organisational development, capability development, compensation, promotion, data analysis and a lot in between. I see talent management staying as a specialist role at the C-suite level in law firms, but the remit of the role is going to become much bigger, wider and more strategic than it has been in the past. I also see a number of different specialisms emerging within talent management. Some have been around for a while like in recruitment, compensation and promotion, but others are now becoming more important as aspects of talent management have become less relevant, like annual performance reviews in favour of more customised, regular feedback through coaching and mentoring.”

There is criticism around millennials and managing talent. What emerged in your book around how to treat them?

“How millennials want to work and what they want from work is going to be increasingly important. If firms cannot deliver on these expectations, their employer brand will be diminished and it will be hard to attract top talent. And it will impact their business in other ways, too, because millennials are also our clients. It is important for firms to focus on what is driving millennials and there’s a lot of research around this topic. What we characteristically hear is they are more mobile and they’re looking for job flexibility in terms of where they work and how they work. They are looking to work for employers whose values and social conscience is well stated. They’re looking for opportunities to enter into leadership early. They’re also looking to work collaboratively and want to learn from people on the job. We also know they feel their skillset is not being tapped into to the extent that it should be. The way I look at the millennial population is that a lot of the characteristics or markers that have been identified with them, fit really well with the NewLaw business and staffing models. There’s a lot of negative publicity around millennials entering the workforce, but I see the positives – and what they’re bringing to the profession is completely in line with where the profession is seeking to go.”

So how do manage them and recruit them?

“In a very different way. We traditionally recruited people by looking at CVs. One of the big changes is you don’t just submit a CV, but a video. One of the essential skills we’re looking for in millennials is that level of tech-savviness. They’re perfectly able to do that. Another is the issue of mobility – we used to think that we want people to enter a firm and stay there for life. This new focus on mobility is a redefinition of recruitment because people will come to you for a period of time, but they may leave. They may have parental or carer responsibilities or want to take a gap year, but they may also want the opportunity to come back. It’s looking at recruitment and retention quite differently. Retention doesn’t mean a linear career path to partnership – it means people having the opportunity to come to your firm, to go away and to come back. You might think that’s incredibly disruptive. But if firms need to be innovative and creative to be competitive, and they support their employees to go out and work in different industries, different places and do things differently, see things differently and then bring that back, then the firm will benefit from that and entrench a culture of innovation, adaptability, flexibility and creativity. It is a shift in mindset, but it’s a shift that firms are going to need to make, if they’re not already, because by 2025 millennials are going to make up three-quarters of the workforce.”

How does all of this fit into client satisfaction – what do clients really want?

“What they want in many respects is what they’ve always wanted. They want to feel that lawyers understand their business and are invested in it. They want to feel when they’re working with law firms that what they’ve got is a business partner. They want firms to be working efficiently and effectively – what’s been categorised as ‘more for less’. They want to be able to communicate and collaborate through digital platforms. If you look at all those things, it’s not a lot different from what clients have always wanted. It’s just they are more adamant now and that’s not going to change – it’s a buyer’s market for legal services and products today.”