Rare Breed

June 30, 1998

The metamorphosis of British law firms from tradition-bound, computer-shy caterpillars to innovative, technical butterflies has created a plethora of difficulties from the HR standpoint, particularly that of staffing the IT department. With firms now awakening to the realisation that competitive strategy (be it global or local) pivots on technology, IT recruitment is now becoming of as much concern as its equivalent fee earner. Indeed a perusal of corporate literature suggests that a sound technology strategy is sometimes as much of a marketing tool as the legal expertise offered.

As with all innovative measures (and in this instance the legal environment is playing ‘catch up’ with other professions), certain difficulties are unavoidable. Once the strategy is implemented, budgets approved and the programme implemented, the problem lies in selecting and then retaining high-calibre professionals to ensure success.

Specialising in the recruitment of IT professionals within the legal environment has given me a view from both sides of the fence. Indeed, the fact that I work solely in this market, in conjunction with my colleagues in our legal recruitment arm, Reuter Simkin, is a good indication of the buoyancy of this sector. When researching this article I drew upon a number of sources, both employers and candidates, to provide a complete analysis of the market.

Shortages and Recruitment Strategy

Burdened with an image that owes something to both LA Law and Rumpole of the Bailey, it is not surprising that the majority of non-legal professionals have little or no comprehension of the dynamism of modern legal practice and view the phenomenon with scepticism. Although there is understanding that the sector has moved on from dependence upon the quill and inkpot, there remains a general reluctance to believe that the law can offer a high-tech and demanding environment. Therein lies the problem: often it is not a matter of the firm’s culture, salary levels, location etc but that the legal environment in general is seen to be limiting and the job-content undemanding.

An undeniable feature of today’s market is the extreme shortage of high-calibre candidates with the requisite skills. Legal employers are not just competing within their vertical market but across all sectors, all of which are facing the same predicament. In a ‘candidate driven’ market, competition for candidates is inevitable whether HR departments undertake the recruitment or enlist the services of a solution-provider such as PSD. A cursory read through the pages of the computing trade press will show that good candidates are not short of opportunities and that the market will bear high salaries. A typical recruitment scenario will have a candidate under a number of offers, the outcome dependent in part upon how well the prospective employer has marketed the company and the package it is prepared to offer.

It has been widely commented that there is also a particular shortage of good managers, both project and general, with trainers and documenters, a fact born out by the recent increase in advertising for such positions in the computer publications. A recent report by the service company Delphi indicated that 75% of IT directors reported skill shortages with an equal percentage concerned by employee turnover. Given that there is a problem, how can it best be addressed?

At this point I would like to discuss an issue that so far is not widely used within legal firms – contracting. Unlike their counterparts in the accounting and management-consulting practices, solicitors appear to be reluctant to go down this route. Particularly useful for finite projects such as Year 2000, good contractors offer the requisite skill sets without the administrative burdens or costs such as sick pay, pensions or severance packages. If a firm does experience difficulties in filling a permanent position then a contractor could be an interim solution.

Returning to permanent appointments: candidates face the unenviable task of constantly acquiring and updating skill sets; personnel managers indicate that they encounter an unwillingness among candidates to shift skill sets. Candidates report that firms are unwilling to look at similar skill sets and personnel confess to being blinded by the IT jargon emblazoned over a CV and not knowing which languages/systems are interchangeable. Lateral thinking is called for on all parts!

The rush to employ professionals with the required skills has led to further problems. In many cases so much emphasis is placed upon technical ability that issues such as interpersonal skills are overlooked. Somehow more consideration needs to be given to the culture of the workplace and relationships with it. However, when there is such a shortage of candidates it is not surprising that personality considerations are frequently neglected.

Retaining Staff

Assuming that you have recruited an employee you value and wish to retain, how do you achieve this? Employee retention should be one of the highest priorities of any firm and not just with regards to fee-earners. With market conditions very much in their favour, even junior employees are aware of their market value and will not remain in a position where they feel undervalued.

Salaries, although important, are not always the determining factors, particularly as many firms will offer a pay increase if they detect an element of restlessness. The decisive factor is nearly always the issue of personal development. As mentioned before, to remain marketable and to continue to grow within their role, IT professionals will want constantly to increase and develop their knowledge. The velocity of technological advances forces those in the market either to keep up or risk their skills becoming outdated. Those familiar with the cost of solicitors’ education and the personal expense often incurred may be surprised to learn that many IT professionals, if unable to obtain sponsorship from their employers, will pay for training courses of comparable if not greater expense than LPC, in order to keep up to date.

But of course training can be a double edged sword: why pay expensive fees when the recipient may only take those new skills elsewhere? By training staff you will automatically increase their marketability; if you do not train them the likelihood is that they will go elsewhere. Obviously the greater risk is run by ignoring such a fundamental issue. The effect upon the business in the short term may be beneficial, even though some beneficiaries of training may not be there in the long term. Becoming known as a progressive IT-oriented environment that invests in its staff will attract potential applicants and become an effective marketing tool.

HR strategy should confront and tackle the issue of personal development – as any text on organisational theory will confirm, staff needs should be met to ensure the continuing profitability of any profit-making body, solicitors offices and barristers chambers being no exception. Investing in training may at some point encourage staff to move on, however, this will only facilitate rather than incite such a move. If an employee is happy in a role, is receiving training and can see some career-progression, he or she will be far less inclined to move on.

The difficulties experienced and the lessons learned from employing good assistant solicitors need to be applied with equal conviction to support staff. Reviewing packages on a regular basis is the first step, ensuring competitiveness within the market-place for both financial and non-financial benefits. If such reviews are implemented alongside a structured career and personal development plan they will help to limit staff turnover.

Assessing Your Own Position and Value

If you are an IT professional perhaps it is time to take stock of your current situation. Is the company you work for paying you a salary commensurate with your skills and expertise and is it comparable with the market rate? If so, are you happy within your environment and do you feel valued and able to see a clearly-defined career progression for the foreseeable future? If the answers to these questions are affirmative, then you may congratulate yourself on being part of a firm that actively supports your career. If not, then perhaps you should reconsider your future.

If you possess excellent IT skills and a combination of inter-personal and communication/organisation skills, then you are a valuable ‘commodity’ in today’s climate. If your current employer does not recognise this fact, for whatever reason, then perhaps it is time to transfer your skills elsewhere. Obviously, job-hopping is discouraged as this actively works against your credibility. However, ultimately, you are responsible for your career development and to achieve this a suitable environment is required.

In the same way as IT professionals without legal experience can transfer into the legal sector, so too can an individual transfer out of it. For example, solicitors and surveyors, because they have partnership structures, can exchange staff, so IT specialists in the legal profession can develop skills relevant elsewhere.

If you are considering a move, then your first step should be to consult a specialist recruiter who can assess your marketability. Someone who is familiar with the market would be well placed to direct you to companies who may not have advertised vacancies.

Your CV is your equipment and this should be well thought-out and presented in a clear, concise and tidy format. Emphasise your technical skills, preferably in a separate section under the different headings (hardware, software, operation systems, applications), but also highlight any man-management or project-management experience. Include any figures, where applicable (such as budget controls etc) and concentrate upon your achievements.

Discretion is obviously called for and absences for interviews should be well handled. If you contribute positively to the firm, you must expect some resistance to your resignation; it is worth considering if and how your current employer could entice you to stay. My advice on this point is to be rather suspicious of counter-offers. If your employer really valued you, why not promote you or offer you a pay rise or more training prior to your decision to leave? Will you have to resign everytime you feel entitled to a pay rise? These are all factors to bear in mind when looking to move on.


The market today offers exciting opportunities, not just for job seekers but also for the firms they work for. The strategic and competitive repercussions from developments in IT widen not only the impact on business development but also the impact on the careers of those individuals employed within the field. Unless there is a downturn, it will remain a candidate-driven market and this fact should determine personnel strategy within any firm.