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Top HR Issues in Law Firms

by Ruth Mayhew, studioD

Law firms often have a different set of human resources challenges than, say, a production business. The structure of law firms, along with the nuances of how a law firm operates, the personalities and roles of partners, associates and paraprofessionals are an enigmatic mix. Law firm HR leaders need more than expertise and knowledge of best practices. To be truly effective, they sometimes benefit from having exposure to the legal services environment to understand issues concerning workforce development, employee relations, performance management and technology.

Recruiting for Diversity

Many of the top law firms sponsor recruiting events at Tier 1 law schools looking to find potential interns and first-year associates at schools such as Yale, Stanford and Columbia. But recruiting from top-tier firms doesn't always yield diverse applicant pools and law firms are just like other businesses whose goals are to attract and serve a diverse client base. One way to do this is by creating a workforce that mirrors the targeted client base. The problem with recruiting strictly from top-tier schools is that students whose financial circumstances prevent them from attending Yale, Stanford or Columbia often are overlooked. Diverse candidates from schools such as Howard University Law School, Thomas M. Cooley Law School and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law aren't among the first ones tapped for coveted internships and associate positions with the major national and international law firms.


Law firms that don't make full use of technology solutions for producing documents, conducting research and filing court documents risk not being as efficient and effective as their competitors. But along with technology come the challenges of determining whether to supply equipment and software applications to employees in certain positions, such as only legal secretaries and paralegals. Or should every employee of the firm be provided with a laptop, tablet and smartphone? And just because a work space is outfitted with a computer doesn't mean that every employee will embrace technology, which is an ever present challenge for HR in law firms. For example, some partners don't believe they need to be technologically proficient. After all, that's why firms hire paralegals and legal secretaries.

Caste System

Law firms are notorious for their hierarchy that creates a pseudo-caste system based on education, credentials and value to the firm. Founding partners and equity partners, also called shareholders, are at the top -- they bring the most money into the firm and, consequently, wield the greatest power. They're also the highest-earning members of the firm. Non-equity partners, are near the top but they don't have nearly the power of the highest-ranking shareholders of the firm. Senior associates and junior associates complete the attorney rolls. At the bottom of the hierarchy are paralegals, legal secretaries and office support staff. One of the issues that HR faces is where administration -- meaning HR and similar departments -- fits in the hierarchy and what level of respect does HR garner when many HR leaders aren't lawyers themselves.

Performance Management

Conducting performance appraisals for first-year associates differs significantly from evaluating a senior associate's or paralegal's job performance. One of the factors that law firms use to evaluate performance actually is similar to production environments -- law firm employees' performance ratings often are based on billable hours because they're directly tied to profitability. Establishing performance standards and appropriately modifying those standards for different classes of employees is a challenge for HR in law firms. A one-size-fits-all performance appraisal is ineffective because, in addition to billable hours requirements, the expectations for a legal secretary are different from those of a paralegal, and the expectations for associates differ from those of a junior partner. Aside from developing a performance management system that works, training lawyers and law firm supervisors in administrative areas, such as how to properly evaluate employee performance, also is a challenge.

About the Author

Ruth Mayhew began writing in 1985. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry" and "Human Resources Managers Appraisal Schemes." Mayhew earned senior professional human resources certification from the Human Resources Certification Institute and holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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