Are associates the employee engagement ‘middle child’?

It’ll be no surprise to you that pay within legal professions is considerably higher than the UK average, with the best talent taking home mid-to-high six-figure salaries.

Also, no shock hopefully is the fact that the legal sector is also one of the best when it comes to employee benefits including travel and flexible working on top of the usual employee perks.

However, the sector has a big issue when it comes to employee engagement.

Despite the pay and perks, a large-scale study (10,000+ legal professionals across the globe) by professional services firm AON has found firms and chambers are facing a potential retention and satisfaction crisis, with employee engagement (a key factor in both) falling a considerable way behind similar industries.

With proven links between employee engagement and outputs including performance, commitment, discretionary effort and innovation the finding that only 52% of you are currently engaged at work is certainly cause for concern.

For comparison, IT services has an average engagement level of 68% and accounting hits 60%. Sadly, currently the legal industry is bottom of the league table for professional services.

Not only was engagement relatively low across the industry as a whole but AON also found engagement varied significantly across roles. In particular, the lack of engagement reported by associate staff begs the question, are they the legal sector’s so-called “middle child”?

How law firm engagement varies by job type

The research found that there was a big discrepancy between average engagement across roles:

  • Partners – 66%
  • Trainees – 59%
  • Business support staff – 56%
  • External support teams – 54%
  • Associates – 43%

Partner engagement: It seems to make sense that partners would be the most engaged staff in a firm. Afterall, they spend a long time getting to Partner, they are responsible for the success of the firm, and often reap the greatest rewards.

From a psychological perspective, motivational theories also dictate that ownership and autonomy over something gives us a deeper, emotional attachment to it, which again, makes sense here.

But even among partners, over a third of them were found not to be engaged.

This may be due to the myriad of pressures they can face on a daily basis, as well as the ways that attitudes and approaches to partnership are changing.

While the proportion of disengaged partners is far from a majority, it’s still significant because Aon’s findings show that the firms which exceeded the average level of overall engagement consistently had partner engagement levels over 75%.

Associate engagement: With over two thirds of associates in Aon’s study found to be disengaged, there is very clearly a problem.

The industry already suffers from a relatively high level of employee churn, and left unchecked, poor engagement will only worsen the situation.

In comparison to the higher levels of engagement reported by trainees, it makes us wonder if people moving up the legal track are being forgotten about during the mid-point in their careers. While they can be fee-earners, they don’t bring in as much as partners.

They get less direct attention from their seniors, often they have more pressure and stress to contend with and for many, while they can be fee-earners, they don’t bring in as much as partners.

Perhaps a little ‘Associate TLC’ is in order?

Associate engagement may also be impacted by how engaged the Partners in a firm are. Research from Gallup, shows clearly that management accounts for up to 70% of variance in employee engagement across the ‘typical’ industry.

How can we improve employee engagement across the legal sector?

Aon’s findings strongly suggest that, although partners had the highest average level of engagement in firms, their further improvement is needed in order to better engage everyone. More engaged partners would be able to organically model great engagement and lead all their staff to a more engaged culture.

Giving more attention to associates (without forgetting support staff and trainees) would help give a voice to a potentially ignored (or more likely ‘feeling ignored’ cohort).

A focus on frequent feedback cycles between employees and their direct managers has been found to dramatically improve engagement. Feedback gives employees a voice and high-frequency makes the sharing of open, honest, two-way communication habitual over time.

Recognition schemes, employee visibility and the tracking of high level targets and workloads are useful steps to help build a culture built around engagement and thus greater work.

Moving from the occasional 1:1 meeting or sporadic employee survey to something more akin to an employee check-in is a great way to start.

It’s vital that partners take the proper measures to deal with the impact of the high-pressure job they and their people have.

Staff need access to mental health services, need to be encouraged to take holiday leave, avoid presenteeism and learn to ‘shut off’ when the time comes to switch to a home-focus.

Finally, it’s important to streamline tasks wherever possible using the best tools.

With a little careful planning and great execution, the legal sector can start to become a beacon for great employee engagement and knock those IT service businesses off of their perch!


Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

Today's Conveyancer