With the war for talent becoming an ever-real issue for firms, the BDLN investigates how one firm is getting it right…
Thirteen times in a row. That’s how often law firm Mills & Reeve has pushed its way into The Sunday Times’ annual ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list. A professional services record.
As part of the BDLN’s mission to uncover what gives firms in this acclaimed list their edge, we met up with managing partner Claire Clarke. We identified four things her firm does brilliantly.
1) Break down the ‘us and them’ barriers
Inclusivity has played a big part in Mills & Reeve’s regular presence in the Sunday Times list. Tearing down the ‘us and them’ barriers that exist between the strata of every firm is a constant project. They don’t just talk about it, they do it.
“We’ve been looking at our strategy for 2020,” says Claire. “Rather than keeping it at board level, we’ve set up working groups across the whole firm to involve a wide cross section of people. The groups include lawyers, partners, support staff, members of the HR and tech teams, and more. We’ve included people at all levels and as a result the whole firm feels part of the strategy.”
I want everyone to understand that strategy isn’t something that’s done to you
But Mills & Reeve isn’t inclusive just to boost employee relations. There’s hard business logic behind it. “I want everyone to understand that strategy isn’t something that’s done to you,” says Claire. “There are 900 people in this business and we’ll only get to our desired destination if everyone engages.”
2) Create a collaborative culture of mutual respect
Claire is protective of Mills & Reeve’s values and culture. She believes the firm has a distinctive culture, and it is one of its most valuable assets. “When I joined several years ago we did a lot of work on our values,” she says. “At the time we were concerned that expansion would mean losing our collegiate culture, so we did a lot of planning to make sure we kept it. We always try to treat people fairly, with respect, as individuals. That ethos and our relative lack of hierarchy are real strengths.”
At the BDLN we hear lots of firms say they are proud of their values. Some have more reason to be proud than others. But The Sunday Times list proves that Mills & Reeve stands out in this regard, so what makes it different? The answer seems to be twofold. First, the firm is effective at turning its values into behaviours and habits – values are easy to write on white boards in meetings but only become meaningful when they are actioned. Second, Mills & Reeve’s values focus not only on client service but – crucially – on the way the firm’s individuals treat and interact with each other.
Claire says: “Every firm has values but many angle them purely towards client service. They don’t cover how people treat each other internally. We treat everyone with respect, and on the rare occasion when someone doesn’t behave consistently with our values, we are strong enough to pull them up.
“We’re very protective of our culture, we think it’s a differentiator. The clients see it in the way we interact with each other and with them and they value it. We create very strong client teams and networks which leads to a stronger more cohesive service to our clients. We achieve more by all working together.”
Some firms say they want their people to enjoy a good work-life balance but in reality create subtle pressure to ensure that it’s not possible
3) Don’t sweat the assets
Some firms say they want their people to enjoy a good work-life balance but in reality create subtle pressure to ensure that it’s not possible. Claire thinks this is a bad idea. “Sweating the assets doesn’t work for us as a long-term solution,” she says. “We need a situation where people want to stay and develop with us. It gives clients the benefit of consistent, stable teams. Who wants a revolving door? There are times when people need to work hard but, as someone recently said to me, at Mills & Reeve if you’re still at your desk at 7pm you’ll be asked why you’re still here. At other firms if you’re not at your desk at 9pm you’ll be asked why you aren’t there.
4) Lead with energy
Claire’s energy shines through during our chat. It comes naturally to her but as with so many things, it’s not what you’ve got but how you use it.
“I meet everyone who joins the business, no matter what level they are at,” says Claire. “I find it useful and believe they do too. I find out why they joined Mills & Reeve, and almost without exception it’s because they’ve heard about our distinctive culture.”
It’s not what you’ve got but how you use it…
Claire also uses her boundless energy to regularly communicate with the wider firm – partly the result of an employee survey four years ago that revealed people wanted to know more about the business. “We work hard to keep people informed,” she says. “I host quarterly roadshows across all the offices. For the 2020 strategy that involves updating everyone on the themes and getting feedback.”
Appearing in the Sunday Times ‘Best 100 Companies to Work For’ list 13 times in succession is an outstanding achievement. How has Mills & Reeve done it? The short answer is by creating a culture where all team members feel valued and respected. Perhaps more importantly, it has a leadership team that places huge value on maintaining such a culture. Many firms claim to possess and do the same but for most, words do not translate into actions so effectively. Mills & Reeve is less talk and more do and as a result it is armed to the teeth in the war for talent.
Claire Clarke is managing partner of Mills & Reeve.
Written and edited by the BDLN