Global Head of Resourcing;A&O: 2016-present
Global HR Director;A&O: 2005-2011; 2015-present
What kind of people will work in law firms in years to come? What skills and qualities will set A&O’s new breed of lawyers apart? And how will we attract them?
A&O is thinking about the future. The world is changing – perhaps more rapidly and significantly than at any time in the firm’s 88-year history – and A&O is looking for people who can continue this progress and success.
Thinking about the evolving legal landscape is not new to A&O: in fact it was named 2018’s Most Innovative Law Firm in Europe by the Financial Times, winning the title for a record sixth time. Over the past two decades, the firm has launched numerous ground-breaking initiatives: aosphere back in 2001 to provide cross-border legal data; Peerpoint, its platform for consultant lawyers; a specialist legal project management office; tech innovation space Fuse; and in mid-2018, a new Markets Innovation Group to pilot legal technology developed by A&O.
“The ways we deliver legal services are going through profound changes,” says Hong Kong partner Roger Lui. “The law is evolving quickly to keep pace with how we live and work. Old structures are breaking down and the directions in which capital is flowing around the world are changing.
“If we want to stay at the cutting edge of legal services, we need the courage to continuously assess whether our business is fit for purpose. Central to all this are people.”
“We have to ask ourselves how the work will be different in three, five or ten years. What skills will be needed to do that work? How do we identify people with the right potential?”
The lawyer of the future
Roger is part of the team implementing the firm’s Lawyer of the Future project to define the skills and qualities A&O is looking for in its future lawyers, and to frame the recruitment practices that will enable A&O to attract and recruit these people globally.
“Finding the lawyers of the future needs a broad, long-term perspective,” says Roger. “We have to ask ourselves how the work will be different in three, five or ten years. What skills will be needed to do that work? How do we identify people with the right potential? And – importantly – how do we build an environment that offers the continuing opportunities and support needed to retain the best people?”
Roger is clear that in the so-called ‘war for talent’, A&O is no longer just up against other law firms. Myriad legal services providers exist in the market now, and A&O is also competing with top employers across the professions to make law stand out as an appealing career for a wider pool of graduates – from different academic as well as social and ethnic backgrounds.
“That’s why”, says Roger, “we need a razor-sharp employment proposition.”
A bolder brand and ambition
A&O launched a new employer brand in 2017 to make a bolder statement to the market globally. The aim: to be the top legal employer in all target markets – the law firm that the best people want to come and work for. Key to this is defining exactly what A&O is looking for in its lawyers around the world, now and for the future.
Sasha Hardman, global head of HR, says clients “are increasingly looking for business advisors who just happen to be lawyers, to help them manage the growing volume of regulation and risk”.
At the same time, businesses are under ever greater pressure to reduce legal spend, so people who understand how technology can help solve some of these challenges for clients – as well as helping A&O to innovate and operate more efficiently – are in high demand.
“Our new approaches are based on real-life work scenarios submitted by our own people, so are far more realistic and predictive of performance.”
Recruitment that looks forward
In practical terms, this has seen A&O launch a new approach to recruitment in 2018 to ensure the firm’s ambitions translate to consistent practices around the world.
Tarek Dawas, A&O’s global head of resourcing, explains: “We knew some of the skills needed for the future were different, but we had to define exactly what was changing and what wasn’t.”
To pin down more specifically the skills A&O wants in its lawyers of the future, Tarek worked with the firm’s People & Performance Board to debate (“very passionately,” he says) a long list of attributes, and to decide which skills A&O needs its future lawyers to have and which can be developed once a person joins.
Defining these attributes has enabled A&O to implement new recruitment approaches to attract the right talent and assess candidates in a consistent, structured way. In the process, A&O became the first major law firm to use strength-based interviewing and a situational judgement test.
These methods evaluate how candidates react in a series of realistic scenarios that a new lawyer may encounter. In this way, it’s possible to build a more credible view of candidates’ potential and working styles – how they think and deal with critical incidents. “This helps us make better hiring decisions,” says Tarek, “as well as removing bias in the recruitment process.”
The behavioural-based interviewing approaches used up until now are “backwards-looking”, Tarek explains, so can favour students from more privileged backgrounds who are able to talk about the experiences they have been able to enjoy which may not have been available to others. Those methods have been used for a long time, so candidates are familiar with them, can anticipate the types of questions they’ll get and prepare their responses.
“Our new approaches are based on real-life work scenarios submitted by our own people, so are far more realistic and predictive of performance. And for candidates who might not have had the same opportunities to build up their CVs, these scenarios provide an opportunity to demonstrate how they think and how they would deal with certain situations,” Tarek says.
Says Sasha: “We won’t evolve and progress if we hire the same types of people from the same backgrounds. It’s a key part of our employer brand – that wherever you look at A&O you see different people and different perspectives being valued.”
Law, Sasha acknowledges, may not be the obvious career choice for people with STEM backgrounds, and in the market for high-achieving STEM graduates A&O is competing with a much broader range of professions.
“So we’re out on university campuses, bringing colleagues from Fuse (A&O’s tech innovation hub) on tour with us to show how developments in technology and AI are dramatically changing the way we provide legal services. We’re showing STEM students that a career at A&O is not just about law books,” she adds.
“If we want to stay at the cutting edge of legal services, we need to continuously assess whether our business is fit for purpose.”
The legal careers of the future
The third piece of the jigsaw – after defining the attributes of a lawyer of the future and reshaping recruitment methods – is creating an environment that attracts the kind of people A&O wants: being a workplace where a broad, mixed group of people can thrive and progress.
A key element of this, confirmed by a major piece of research by Peerpoint (see panel), lies in providing a wider range of career options within law and making flexible working the norm.
To make it to senior positions within A&O, people still need to accumulate the same levels of experience, but the difference is that lawyers can now do it on their own timescales and with greater flexibility, choices and opportunities along the way.
“There will be a lot more fluidity in the legal careers of the future,” Sasha says. “Graduates aren’t thinking so much about partnership when they join now: they’re more interested in different experiences and opportunities, and that’s a good thing. That’s the mindset we want in our people.
“In return, we have to make sure we provide those opportunities, as well as give people the space to grow, leave and re-engage – at their own pace and in different ways.”
Where the future takes us
Thinking about the future, Roger is sure about one thing: “We have to have the courage to beat our own path in the recruitment market. We’ve never been shy in doing that, but we have big ambitions as a firm so we must have the confidence to articulate the qualities we value and assess people in our own way.
“In some markets, we’re already there – we’re already the top law firm for graduates and have been for many years – but in other parts of the world, in newer markets for us, there’s more work to do.”
So what will focusing on the lawyer of the future help A&O to achieve in the long term? What is the firm’s overall ambition?
Roger is clear: “It’s quite simple. It’s to be fit for purpose and for our people to have a sense of achievement and pride while they are with us, and after.
“We don’t know exactly what the world – or A&O – will look like in ten years, so we need to have the versatility, flexibility and mix of exceptional people to be able to evolve in whatever direction the future takes us.”
The A&O lawyer of the future will be a multi-skilled, multi-talented person who “just happens to be a lawyer”. They will be business advisors, innovators, tech-savvy relationship builders; academically broad-based, linguistically nimble and culturally diverse.
“We’re not looking for ‘fit’, but for talent,” says Sasha Hardman. “What we want are people with the right mindset and potential.”
Tarek Dawas says there will be a greater emphasis on technology awareness, innovation and resilience among tomorrow’s recruits.
“We still need people who think creatively, have strong attention to detail and, above all, are excellent technical lawyers,” he says. “And of course building relationships with clients is top of the list, so people will always need high emotional intelligence, particularly as relationships now are often being built virtually, across borders.”
Expertise relevant to clients’ businesses is important, so A&O is recruiting more lawyers with scientific technology, engineering and maths (STEM) backgrounds who bring different perspectives to a profession dominated by law and humanities. Says Sasha: “Having people from a wider range of academic backgrounds – as well as social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds – brings far greater diversity of thought.”
Around the world, she stresses, it’s not only graduates with pure STEM degrees A&O is interested in. It’s people who’ve studied relevant modules outside their main degree, or who have interests in those areas outside of academic studies.
Language skills never go amiss. Asian languages such as Mandarin are important, Sasha says, as Asia will be a growth area in the future. “But also European languages – and ideally people with a mix of both as they are much harder to come by.”
Peerpoint’s survey of more than 1,000 in-house, private practice and consultant lawyers found that the single most important factor identified for career success was achieving a fulfilling work/life balance. While most lawyers said they still love what they do, many felt there weren’t enough career options available.
A career is a marathon, not a sprint, says Sasha Hardman. A&O is still focused on providing the best training and development for lawyers: indeed, the firm has teamed up with Ulster University in Northern Ireland to introduce modules on legal technology and innovation, and is developing an in-house course on legal technology for lawyers.
“We want to make faster progress on building a culture that supports flexible and agile working across A&O,” she says, “and we’re getting there. I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that we could implement an informal flexible working scheme (iFlex) across every office, but we have. Our new IT system, Verso, will support remote working better too.”
It’s also equally important to show that a career at A&O now looks very different to what it was ten years ago. Sasha says: “Law is no longer about progressing on a linear career path with a fairly inflexible set of options along the way.
“So many other options exist now: aosphere, Peerpoint, project managing large deals, focusing on technology in the Markets Innovation Group – none of these routes were available ten years ago. Our Advanced delivery model can be the entry point for people now, too.
“A&O is now more of an umbrella brand with lots of different career paths.”