How the traditional world of law is embracing entrepreneurial values

The legal profession has always been exactly that – a profession. It has grown within a strict statutory framework, which has been vital for maintaining standards, but it’s perhaps not the easiest environment for flexibility and entrepreneurialism. However, that doesn’t mean law firms can ignore this growing trend.

After all, the legal profession vies for talent in an intensely competitive marketplace. Even employees in traditional professions are demanding more. In a startup, dynamic and challenging work comes as standard, but in more established businesses like ours we need to make a determined effort to ensure we provide the right environment, embedding the right processes that shape the broad culture of the firm.

This hasn’t always been a priority in the legal profession. The post-war legacy, where people wanted a job for life, has had a huge influence over us all. But this edifice is nearly extinct. Today’s trainees increasingly care about the values of their employers, the lifestyle their job affords them beyond their pay packet and, if we’re honest, how much fun they have at work.

In 2000, we codified our values. Some lawyers were sceptical – not least because partners were then expected to reinvest more profits into the business. But after the few lawyers only interested in making money had left, the firm has embraced this new approach. And it’s proved to be the right platform for attracting and retaining talent.

Technology is revolutionising the way we all work. We need to keep the job exciting, and a key way we do this is by liberating our lawyers’ time from bulk work. We outsource a lot of processes so that they can spend more time on the brainwork. And like an increasing number of companies, we are no longer interested in a clock-in, clock-out way of working. But it’s not just flexibility in the working day that people value; work needs to fit around life events, such as caring for a child or elderly relative. And young people increasingly want parallel careers – large businesses are well placed to help employees explore and achieve their aims outside of their job.

To appeal to the entrepreneurial Generation Y, all companies have to create the right environment, and this demand will only intensify as Generation Z hits the workforce. We do this through a variety of programmes: from bringing in outside experts to talk to our lawyers about philosophy and politics, to guiding them in genuine client care.

We don’t maintain this culture just because it’s a nice thing to do. It also makes business sense, as it’s the best way of holding onto talent. Over half of trainees joining law firms are women, but historically the profession hasn’t been good at transitioning them to partner. Given that it costs somewhere in the region of £200,000 for the first five years of training, if we are going to recoup our investment we need to offer them flexibility in their careers so they can have a family and still make partner.

The challenges we face are faced by all businesses when they reach a certain size. We’ve found that codifying our values has helped maintain an entrepreneurial culture, where the growth of the individual as well as the business takes centre stage.

Kevin Gold is the Managing Partner at Mishcon de Reya.

This article first appeared in City A.M. on 27 July 2015. You can view the full City AM article here.