In the traditional top-down hierarchy of a law firm, early career lawyers are there to learn and listen, acquire technical skills, and be guided by senior legal practitioners in both the craft and business of law. However, as the pressure to innovate mounts, firms are looking for previously unexplored avenues which may provide competitive advantage.
We spoke to Sue-Ella Prodonovich, a leading specialist in business development and principal of Prodonovich Advisory. Sue-Ella was the former Director of Business Development and Marketing at Baker & McKenzie and has also been inducted into the Asia-Pacific Professional Services Marketing Association (APSMA) Hall of Fame. She presents on business strategy and business development in the College’s LPMC program in NSW. We also caught up with Mei Gong, Lawyers Weekly30 Under 30 (Finalist), who regularly posts junior lawyering tips on LinkedIn.
Harnessing the experience of early career talent
According to Sue-Ella, firms are looking at ways to introduce diverse views. This is part of a broader push towards embracing innovation, diversity and inclusion.
“They’re always on the lookout for how to introduce new ways of thinking and challenging traditional approaches to problem solving,” Sue-Ella says. “Nowadays, we find early career talent is gaining so much more experience through universities that they are more than capable of joining conversations around decision-making.”
The value lies in their freshness of thinking.
“They’re not yet going down one track of thinking,” Sue-Ella explains. “They’re not in a creative cul-de-sac. A curious mind at any stage is useful, but imagine if you didn’t involve early career talent in these conversations? What’s the cost of missing out?”
Competition and Consumer lawyer at K&L Gates Mei Gong agrees, adding that involving early career lawyers can improve talent acquisition and retention, as well as firm branding, which in turn helps business development.
“High performing junior lawyers can be very effective and personable advocates, and in some ways, brand ambassadors for their firms, particularly for clerkship, graduate or junior lawyer recruitment initiatives,” Mei says. “Providing opportunities for junior lawyers to contribute to relevant recruitment drives or university partnerships can be a simple way to effect this. Setting up focus groups or internal committees and providing direct avenues for junior lawyers to share ideas with senior leadership is another.”
Upending the traditional ‘top down’ approach to management
The legal workforce has become far more fluid, particularly through Covid.
“One of the outcomes of people working from home was the breakdown of hierarchies,” Sue-Ella says. “For example, senior partners might have bigger offices while smaller offices would signify a more junior status. With Covid, this all stopped. In an online meeting, you don’t immediately know how senior people might be. This is why we’re getting a much more fluid interaction. Though I did know of a senior partner who would place all the artifacts of their seniority in the background of their Zoom video!”
Embracing a more fluid workforce means involving early career talent in the business of the firm earlier on.
“First of all, firms can engage early career lawyers in professional development programs from the start. Involve them in business development, leadership development, and understanding the financial mechanics of the firm,” Sue-Ella says. “They don’t need to see inside the profit distribution, but firms can treat them as professionals, so they can see a lot more about what happens in the firm. This takes away that traditional top-down approach to management.”
This approach is all about providing context.
“It’s not about having a say in leadership, but providing an understanding of why things are happening,” Sue-Ella explains. “This makes it much easier for a person to be focused and to understand the ramifications of what they are doing.”
Reverse mentoring, networking and professional development
Firms can engage early career lawyers in a range of ways.
“Some firms have successfully introduced reverse mentoring, where younger lawyers will mentor more senior practitioners in areas like technology or social media,” Sue-Ella says.
Early career lawyers can also participate in pilot projects, or learning groups formed through the College of Law.
“Firms are also introducing early career lawyers in their client planning sessions, such as their Kickoff Meetings. Early career lawyers, often at no charge, will attend initial meetings with clients so they can see what’s happening. They’ll also be involved in their Mid-Point Meetings. This is where the Legal Team and Client Team ask, ‘do we have the right experts on board, have we made the right assumptions, how is everything going?’”
Mei Gong agrees with this approach.
“By bringing junior lawyers to client meetings, giving them opportunities to present within the firm, or involving them on client pitches/proposals, it upskills junior lawyers in their business development skills,” Mei says. “It can also be as simple as cc’ing in a junior lawyer to a client email informing them of recent legal developments, which allows junior lawyers to have a glimpse of how their partners go about business development. This can ultimately help to accelerate their career progression and inspire them to find more ways to add value to the firm.”
Firms might also have networks for young professionals set up to help their early career lawyers network with other disciplines - accounting, finance, banking, for example. Early career lawyers can also deliver professional development, which may involve research, reading, and writing articles.
“One of the firms I work with provides all their young professionals with reading on a Thursday evening, and every Tuesday they run their professional development program. It’s up to the young lawyers to think of scenarios of how this might apply to a client,” Sue-Ella explains.
It can also be worthwhile to encourage early career lawyers to do professional development outside the firm, and even outside traditional legal areas.
Meritas, a global alliance of law firms, runs a lawyer exchange program.
“A young lawyer will exchange places with a lawyer from another office in different countries. Through these exchanges, you get to see how different firms operate, what their culture is like, document automation and document management systems. This can be very valuable,” Sue-Ella says.
One of the benefits of involving the fresh perspectives of early career talent is the potential to develop a product, like Settify, the brainchild of lawyers observing bottlenecks in their practice. This can provide a new revenue stream or career path for law firms and lawyers.
However, it’s important to see engaging early career lawyers as an opportunity for their growth, rather than demand for more remuneration.
“At the end of the day, the law is still a fairly old-fashioned business. The assets you bring to a firm are the relationships you have - internal and client relationships - your technical expertise, and your reputation in the market. This takes time to develop,” Sue-Ella observes. “By their nature, most lawyers are insecure perfectionists. They get quite fixed into their roles.”
By involving early career lawyers in broader business, planning and strategic conversations, law firms are tapping into people still willing to make mistakes and adapt.