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How Corporate Legal Departments Can Improve Staff Retention

April 12, 2022

The Great Resignation, that labor market phenomenon in which workers began leaving their jobs in record numbers over the past two years, continues in full swing. Nearly 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in February 2022, CNBC.com reported, as favorable employment conditions offer ample opportunities for workers to take their careers to new employers.

This social trend is playing out with even greater frequency in the business and professional services sector, where professionals have departed at rates higher than the overall U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some legal industry observers theorize that one driver of this turnover may be the increasing emphasis by corporate employers of getting employees back to the office. A recent study found that “66% of in-house lawyers do not want to return to the office full-time,” according to a March 2022 article in Law.com International. The study also found that just 17% of in-house lawyers are currently working under a hybrid model, despite the fact that a majority of respondents said they wanted at least some degree of remote working flexibility.

Moreover, the growing desire for more flexible working arrangements might have something to do with a recent shift in lawyers who historically have preferred the working conditions of in-house roles moving to private law firms.

“In years past, lawyers who were interested in a more regular schedule or sought to avoid billable hours might pursue an in-house role where the primary responsibility was managing outside counsel,” legal recruiter Maura McAnney of McAnney Esposito told ALM's LawJobs.com. “In recent years, however, lawyers in corporations are stepping up and often taking lead roles in deals; and the difference between the hours and responsibilities of law firm work and in-house work has diminished.”

LawJobs.com pointed to moves last year in which in-house counsel for companies such as CME Group, Cognizant, Magellan Midstream Partners, Continuum Energy and OPKO Health all left for law firm roles.

This disconcerting trend has many in-house counsel scratching their heads in search of creative tactics for retaining their key team members. Of course, hanging on to top legal talent has never been easy, but experts advise there are some important steps you can take to improve staff retention.

“Retaining talent is all about early communication,” said Christopher Hurst, managing director of Kingsley Green Recruitment, in a February 2022 interview with Corporate Counsel. “As a leader, you have to proactively ensure your employees are enjoying their jobs. You can’t wait until they resign and then offer to fix the problem. You must get them before they resign, carve out clear job pathways and ensure salaries are fair in the current market.”

Mr. Hurst noted that some of the biggest complaints he hears from someone looking for a new job in the corporate legal space is that they are “working private practice hours for in-house pay,” there is “a lack of career progression” and “a culture” that triggers a desire to move on.

With respect to compensation, even if it’s not possible to match salaries, corporate law departments can seek to differentiate themselves by pointing to other benefits they are able to offer. That might include flexible work/life balance opportunities that tend to be more generous in corporate jobs, and it might include mentoring programs in which your department helps promising young lawyers to develop their careers.

As for career progression, legal HR professionals say one key retention strategy can be to provide training and networking opportunities that give your team members room to grow and develop new skills. For example, if your company has some sort of talent development program for employees, make sure that the corporate legal department is plugged into that program and encourage everyone on your team to participate.

When it comes to culture, it’s incumbent upon in-house department leaders to create a workplace environment that your employees enjoy. That doesn’t mean you need to compete with the Silicon Valley tech ethos, but it could be as simple as simply fostering an atmosphere in which good work is recognized on a regular basis — and where negativity or rudeness in the workplace is not tolerated. Or it might require you to think more carefully about how you solicit and respond to employee feedback so you are aware of how people are feeling about their job responsibilities, department working conditions, growth opportunities, etc.

In-house counsel would be well-advised to stay abreast of changing job market conditions in the corporate legal space, as well as tuned into best practices for improving retention of corporate legal professionals. This valuable content is readily accessible on Lexis+ General Counsel Suite.

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