Two-Tiered Cultures Have Got to Go

News that a six-person marketing team left Cooley for Fried Frank recently made headlines — and raised eyebrows — because while it is not uncommon for a practice group to move to another firm to improve its platform or market position, it’s rare to see non-lawyer business professionals do the same. The marketers did not speak publicly about their reasons for making the change, but one plausible explanation is that Fried Frank’s culture offered some specific benefits that this team did not enjoy at Cooley.

Despite the progress some law firms have made toward becoming more inclusive workplaces, staff in many places continue to feel like “second-class citizens.” Professionals who are responsible for the operation of the firm through functions like admin, marketing and business development, HR and IT report that some lawyers do not value their contributions to the business and treat them disrespectfully. And many firms maintain this so-called “caste system” through two-tiered policies for benefits like parental leave, vacation time and — most importantly as firms have issued return-to-office plans — flexible work arrangements.

Obviously, more equitable policies may improve firm culture and shore up retention, but “equitable” does not necessarily mean that every employee has the same work arrangement. Rather, it may mean that everyone feels valued, regardless of their position, and is empowered to structure a work arrangement that meets his or her needs. To achieve this, firm leaders first need to understand how professionals spend their work time and how they experience the firm’s culture.

We recently took a deep dive into this issue in “Supporting Staff” on De Novo, and you can read the entire article on the site. Here are some questions you may want to be asking your business pros:

What are staff members’ pain points at work? Interviews can help you understand how things are going. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers a simple template for conducting so-called “stay interviews.” The idea is to identify the kinds of frustrations and inefficiencies that could push someone into quitting their job — what you might hear in an exit interview — before things reach that breaking point. In today’s context, conducting stay interviews with non-attorney staff members would clarify how they spend their work hours, what they might want or hope to do in the future, and what else they could be doing or could learn to do with some training.

What are staff members’ pain points outside work? These interviews may also illuminate the perceived reluctance of support staff to return to full-time office work. Is there a child-care issue or need to look after a sick or elderly loved one? Have the logistics of commuting changed as the pandemic has impacted public transportation services? For all our desire to be “back to normal,” many aspects of workers’ lives are far from normal these days, and continued fallout from the pandemic has created real barriers to their return to a traditional work schedule.

What is the role of your firm’s culture? These interviews might also uncover a need to address dysfunctional dynamics between attorneys and administrative colleagues. If support staff aren’t enthusiastic about returning to the office, is it because the office was a hostile work environment in which their skills and expertise were not valued? If they’re not fully engaged or productive at home, is it because attorneys don’t send them invites to virtual meetings? If they’re feeling burned out, is it because attorneys expect prompt response to emails, regardless of the hour?

What benefits do employees actually want? Ask employees what they’re looking for in other benefits, whether its support for their mental and physical well-being or opportunities to learn new skills. Consider offering personalized options or à la carte benefits so employees have choices: Maybe those who work from home more often receive fewer paid vacation days, or those who work in the office have access to more robust wellness offerings and childcare subsidies.

Skilled business professionals who deliver high-quality work are hard to find. Protect your business professionals — and your firm — from the headaches and costs of turnover.