Creativity is something that doesn't come naturally to a lot of [legal] firms because they often operate on very traditional models, or are relatively small. A prestigious annual survey indicates that employers in the legal profession aren't being as proactive — or as imaginative — as they could be, when it comes to recruitment and retention. The employers are possibly missing opportunities to make key positions in their practices more attractive at a time when most firms are planning, or at least hoping, to grow, and demand for good lawyers, managers and administrative staff is high.

Kirsty Spears, director at McLeod Duminy specialist legal recruiters, says that the 2019 ALPMA/McLeod Duminy NZ Legal Industry Salary & HR Issues Survey, which is now in its fifth year, gives an excellent insight into how 100 law firms are doing in the area of human resources across New Zealand.

ALPMA is the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association, a body representing people in legal practice management roles, providing resources and support and acting as an authoritative voice on issues that are relevant to their businesses. These include financial management, strategic management, technology and human resources.

Survey participants provide comprehensive information about salaries, benefits, bonuses, which other firms can use as an industry benchmark when recruiting.

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Spears says it was no surprise that 94 per cent of respondents said that finding good employees can be difficult, but she says there are many tools to use to find the best person for a job and keep them.

She says often those tools are offering extra benefits to potential employees, but sometimes these means aren't immediately apparent.

"It can be simple things, such as regularly researching pay rates across the industry in order to ensure that the remuneration on offer is superior to what's offered by other firms, especially at the moment when salary growth for fee-earners and other legal workers appears to be flat.

"And maybe they shouldn't just be looking at the legal profession, but thinking more laterally and looking beyond it."

Spears says that because firms participate in the survey on a confidential basis it's not possible to review specific feedback, but anecdotally she regularly hears that salaries are an issue that needs more attention, across the board.

"It's easy for law firms to become very insular and when we ran some seminars to help them learn to be more open to change, this is something that came through."

Creativity is something that doesn't come naturally to a lot of firms because they often operate on very traditional models, or are relatively small, but Spears says that there's potential for changing their approach.

"Losing good lawyers to their big OE has traditionally been a regular problem, for example.

"If you look at it another way — as some big international firms in New Zealand have done recently — you can have an employee on the other side of the world, in the United Kingdom, doing work during their day on something that's urgent here. Because it's their natural environment in terms of time, they won't be rushed and you'll get quality results from them which you possibly wouldn't if a local lawyer was working here, bleary-eyed in the night."

Spears says it's been heartening to see the mental health of employees is an area that's been specified as important by firms in the survey. This year, nearly nine out of 10 survey participants reported this as a concern.

"I'm not sure if that's because of direct feedback from their staff or because it's an issue that has become more prevalent in the public eye, but either way it's a good thing."

On the other hand she thinks it's ironic that some things, which were once regarded as benefits, are now the opposite and a company mobile phone, paid connectivity and flexible working hours are now viewed with scepticism by employees who really don't like the idea of being on call 24/7 — potentially putting them at risk of emotional and physical burnout.

Other talking points revealed in the survey results include the fact that 50 per cent of salaried partner roles are held by women, for the first time, and the proportion of female equity partners has also increased, from 16 per cent to 24 per cent.

Spears says thanks to the advancement of gender equality, women are now holding 73 per cent of executive and senior management positions in New Zealand legal firms and 64 per cent of solicitors and lawyers are women.

The survey also showed that staff turnover is high at 16 per cent, but Spears thinks that may be because of a drop in the number of support staff in some legal companies — possibly due to advances in technology.