Law Firm Articles

HR in Practice: HR Capability Gaps at Times of Change

As a law firm changes over time through growth, or as it implements a new strategic plan, its Human Resources capabilities may also need adjustment. This is true whether the firm is in a general growth mode, expanding in certain markets or practice areas, or even when it is contracting or refocusing strategically.
Where there is steady but incremental change, the infrastructure (including HR) often does not keep up. It doesn’t react to the gradually increasing heat – like the proverbial frog that fails to leap from water slowly coming to a boil. With more dramatic change in size or direction, a reassessment of existing infrastructure may be delayed because the supporting HR team is so busy handling current needs that there is no time for introspection, or team members are reluctant to ask for help.

The resulting capabilities gaps may involve staff headcount, resources, particular expertise, or all of these. The benefits of the firm’s business initiative may be reduced significantly if HR can’t deliver quality service for integration, team building and even the basic “care and feeding” of new or existing personnel.
Where there is significant growth in the number of lawyers, your support staff and systems also may need to change to maximize the value created by the additional lawyer resources. Most growing firms are inclined to focus initially on obvious priorities such as whether the document management and the financial/billing systems meet their new requirements. The need to review other capabilities, such as human resources, is not as obvious. But ignoring it is obviously unwise.

  • If your firm has added personnel and offices recently, here are some questions to ask:
  • Is your HR team able to handle the new requirements for employee payroll and benefits?
  • Is your management structure (centralized/decentralized) still right for the firm after the changes?
  • Is your HR team able to train lawyers and administrators in the new offices to ensure appropriate consistency with firm policies and procedures, to minimize EEO and other employment law issues, and to promote cultural integration?
  • If you have added offices outside the US, are your HR and financial systems able to handle the currency issues and different cultural and HR regulatory environments?

A single employee relations matter like any of these can be very disruptive, distracting lawyers and administrators and hurting productivity and effectiveness.
It is important to have an HR information system (HRIS) that can meet your data requirements and allow the firm to capitalize on growth. You also will need capable people to utilize the system effectively – not merely to track personnel data but to extract information and generate reports that are useful for managing operations and business development. In addition to personal information, such as compensation, benefits, and office and home address, such a system can store data on lawyers and staff educational institutions, years of experience, bar memberships and other valuable information. With properly trained operators and users, useful information can be easily retrieved for individuals or groups. This can result in better client presentations, more effective staffing of recruiting teams and receptions, succession planning and many other benefits.

Perhaps your firm is trying to recruit different kinds of talent for a new or newly emphasized practice area. If so, do the skills of your recruiting people match these needs? For example, how a firm recruits to develop or expand an IP practice is very different from how it recruits for litigators or securities lawyers. You may need recruiters with different skills and experience, as well as different strategies to succeed.

If you are reorganizing and right-sizing your organization, ask if you have the supporting HR talent to implement those changes effectively and efficiently. It is not merely a matter of getting through a force adjustment. You should develop plans to ensure that the personnel who remain in your organization are properly motivated and engaged and that the firm’s brand remains strong or is strengthened.

Although a high volume of problems like these (whether benefits, employee relations, missed business opportunities) may lead to an assessment of your HR capabilities, it is always preferable to review capabilities – and fill the gaps – before a crisis develops.

David L. Williams is an adjunct consultant with Altman Weil, Inc. He combines broad experience as a general counsel and in-house specialist in labor and employment law with extensive knowledge of human resource policy and procedures garnered as a law firm HR executive