对于执业于中国大陆地区的律师事务所来说，“管理的艺术“从未像过去12个月中一样被如此强调。一方面，律所需要在宏观经济的U型曲线中调整机构的生存策略；另一方面，律所也需要应对疫情影响下，员工对于管理手段和律所文化更为“挑剔”的评价。今年登上2021 ALB China 年度雇主榜单的律所无疑是在两种张力下寻找到平衡之道的佼佼者。
AllBright Law Offices
Chang Tsi & Partners
CMS, China CMS
Han Kun Law Offices
Jilin GongCheng Law Firm
Jingtian & Gongcheng
Merits & Tree Law Offices
Solton & Partners
Tahota Law Firm
Wang Jing & GH Law Firm
Zhong Lun Law Firm
多份报告显示，受疫情影响，被困家中的员工开始更加关注生活工作平衡。但在回复ALB的相关问题时，被调研律师却流露出矛盾的心情。一方面，律师们认为“律所是不可能工作生活保持平衡的”“ 不忙的律所不是好律所”“ 要多劳多得，就需要付出更多时间，个人认为这样很公平”；另一方面，他们也对律所“对请假的容忍度很高”“ 极少打扰员工生活”“ 举办团建活动”等举动表示认可。
“我们向来推崇‘拼命工作拼命玩’（work hard, play hard）的文化。”广悦的黄山主任告诉ALB，“疫情之后，合伙人和年轻律师对健康的重视程度确实高于以往，一方面我们组织并强化了定期体检；另一方面，律所通过瑜伽、插花、茶艺、香道课程，以及旅游活动，鼓励律师不要忘记享受生活的乐趣。”
2021 ALB China Employer of Choice
The "art of management" has never taken centre stage among law firms in China as it has in the past 12 months. On one hand, firms need to adjust their survival strategies in line with the U-shaped macroeconomic curve; on the other hand, firms find their employees are increasingly discerning when it comes to law firm management and culture against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Firms that made the 2021 ALB China Employer of Choice list are the best in finding a balance between the two aspects.
Law firm leaders often use the term "people business" to describe their organisations. They say that a successful firm must have the "right people" (including both lawyers and clients), and meanwhile needs to be good at managing relationships between people. More and more firms operating in mainland China believe that advanced management systems and robust firm culture are the must-have to attract and retain top talents and ultimately achieve business success.
The competition for talent seems to be more intense in the post-COVID market. According to incomplete statistical data, in the first two months of 2021 alone, over 40 lateral hires happened in China. After an extraordinary year of 2020, lawyers seem to be clearer about what they're pursuing in their career, as well as what they want to achieve in their lives. More and more lawyers started to "vote with their feet" and seek opportunities more actively to work with the firms they like.
This year's ALB China Employer of Choice ranking was launched just in this context. We received a total of about 2,600 questionnaire results from partners, lawyers, paralegals, and administrative supporting staff of law firms. They evaluated their firms from the aspects of the support provided by the firm during the pandemic, job satisfaction, career prospects, promotion opportunities and etc.
We find some quite interesting trends in this year's survey results. Most of the surveyed employees who are satisfied with their jobs tend to give positive comments from four aspects: (1) the system of the firm, including appropriate work distribution, performance-based pay strategy, and fair and open work environment; (2) brand of the firm, including access to high-quality cases, and globalization of the firm; (3) positive attitude generated from the work, including whether the firm is a workplace featured encouragement, democracy, open-minded spirit, and teamwork; and (4) enabling employees to grow together with the firm, where employees can achieve their own career development plans, and even better themselves.
How are firms responding to the subtle changes in how employees evaluate their employers? ALB has spoken with some of the ranked firms, and they all point out that good systems are essential for good operations, and also to attract and retain the right people.
Huang Shan, director at Wang Jing & GH Law Firm, tells ALB that the firm’s system has been basically finalized in 2019, and "it has been operating quite well ever since." The stable operation of the system helps to form the firm culture and values, which have become the hidden assets that enable the firm to lure talented people in the industry.
DaHui Lawyers echoes what Huang says. Ma Zhihua, founding partner of DaHui, points out that the system can even sketch the "distinguishing feature" of a firm. Founded in 2013, with partners whose average age is under 40, DaHui is featured as "young and energetic," and advocates "high professionalism and close cooperation," which are all reflected in DaHui's system.
"We share the same view about how professional consulting agencies like law firms should operate, which is to adopt a unified corporate management system," Ma says. "We believe that it needs to set up a unified management system covering all aspects, from human resources and supporting teams to documents and billable hours. As an entrepreneurial team, DaHui sharpens its competitive edge with advanced management system."
To evaluate whether a system is applicable, in addition to its feasibility and completeness, it also depends on whether the system is flexible enough to give special support for employees when necessary, which was in particular important during the last year.
Linklaters tells ALB that the pandemic last year is in fact one of the best scenarios to test the flexibility of a law firm's system. "After over a year of groundwork aimed at changing the mindset of our people, we launched our global agile working policy in August 2020. Our people can choose when, where and how to get the work done. In the meantime, they are provided strong technical support which could make agile-working efficient and effective. Home-based working facilities and cash allowances for home office equipment were made available by the firm as well," the firm says.
Meanwhile, "health care and medical resources have been one of the hottest topics in the mainland China offices. We have been working with the insurance vendor to provide medical insurance and other value-added services to our people," Linklaters says.
Jingtian & Gongcheng also gave strong supports to their employees during the pandemic. "We formulated a comprehensive protection plan when the pandemic just started, giving the headquarters and branch offices detailed instructions on prevention work to try our best to ensure the safety of our employees," Wang Weiguo, partner and member of the management committee of Jingtian & Gongcheng, tells ALB.
"We've also given supplemental medical insurance to our people in light of the special circumstances last year, adding new types of insurance and increasing insurance coverage, to ensure that our people were well protected in such an extraordinary year," Wang says.
DEMOCRACY AND OWNERSHIP
It’s noteworthy that this year, surveyed employees frequently mentioned the word "democracy" when talking about whether the firm has a fair and open environment, whether employees have the opportunity to participate in decision-making process, and whether the firm has an open channel for employees to communicate with the management team efficiently about issues found during work.
Ma of DaHui believes that "It's actually an issue of 'ownership': Am I just an employee? Or am I also the owner of the firm?" He says that the key to creating a democratic work environment is "whether the partners and teams have positive and effective work relationships and whether they can maintain open communication."
Huang is of the opinion that the democratic atmosphere is rooted in the firm's system and its corresponding firm culture. At Wang Jing & GH, "our system promotes a culture of collaboration ... Taking our income allocation system as an example, according to it, 10 percent of the firm's profits must be allocated to employees and salaried lawyers, so that everyone in the firm can share what has been achieved during the year, which, to a certain extent, ensures that the relationship between partners and employees is not only an employment relationship, but a community of interests. And we launched our 'Everyone is a Partner' program in 2018, which has helped to develop the win-win collaboration culture at the firm," he introduces.
Chang Tsi & Partners agrees with Huang and is also convinced that good systems and communication are of significance to creating a democratic atmosphere. "We have a complete decision-making and management system which is composed of five special committees for the market, risk control, performance, training and corporate culture, enabling us to deal with internal problems and risks in work efficiently," the firm tells ALB. "Our people can approach partners for any issues encountered at work, from the improvement of the office environment and facilities, to the risks and problems found at work. After assessment by management committees, any suggestions that are beneficial to the work and life of employees, helpful to the firm's business, can make management more standardized and scientific, or improve our services will be adopted."
In order to ensure open and efficient communication within the firm, especially to hear from younger generations, Chang Tsi & Partners "regularly holds meetings with younger lawyers and colleagues who have newly joined the firm, at which partners give presentations and share their experiences, while younger lawyers and new employees can speak freely, share their experiences after joining the firm, raise problems encountered at work, and propose to the partners and the management committees the possible solutions."
CONTENTMENT IN DETAILS
Several recent reports show that employees started to pay more attention to life and work balance during the pandemic lockdown. However, the surveyed lawyers have given rather contradictory answers to the questions related to work-life balance. On the one hand, lawyers are of the opinions that "it's impossible for people working with law firms to lead a balanced life," "firms are not good firms if they're not busy," "to gain more you need to spend more time on work, I personally believe that is fair." On the other hand, they agree that firms should "have a high tolerance policy for leave," "rarely disturb the lives of employees," and "hold team building activities."
One of the surveyed lawyers wrote sincerely in the response: "it's not easy to achieve work-life balance when there're lots of businesses to deal with. In addition to the efforts of lawyers to achieve a balance, firms can also help their lawyers to find more contentment in details."
"Health and wellbeing has always been one of our priorities, especially under the pandemic environment," LinkLaters tells ALB. "Yoga classes and an active running club have made a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of the people in our offices. In addition, we initiated a mental health webinar series delivered by a psychologist, on topics such as managing uncertain times and building resilience."
"We advocate a 'work hard, play hard' firm culture," Huang of Wang Jing & GH says. "We indeed notice that our partners and lawyers start to pay more attention to health care since the outbreak of COVID-19. The firm organizes regular medical check for our people, and also encourages them to participate in activities organized by the firm, such as Yoga, flower arranging, tea art, as well as outings, to enjoy life."
Huang says that the shared values and system supports are also the key to ensuring the physical and mental health of employees. "For example, last year, when one of the lawyers fell ill and needed to take long days off, he/she can go ahead to take a break because there is a team that gives a strong backing and support for an individual– it's one of the advantages of the corporate management system," Huang says. "And we all believe that life and family are important for everyone, and we respect for their private and family life," he continues.
However, Ma of DaHui points out that legal professionals need to look at the work-life balance issue in the special context of the legal service industry. "Excessive emphasis on work-life balance may be contrary to the professional nature of lawyers," he says. "For lawyers, the work-life balance is probably not achieved according the logic of having that balance every single day; instead, we work intensively, respond quickly to our clients when handling cases, and then take vacations according to the firm's policies to fully relax and rest."
Given that lawyers of DaHui are comparatively young, "it's in fact misleading if the employer overemphasizes work-life balance, especially for younger lawyers," Ma says. In his opinion, in the long run, it's probably more beneficial for younger lawyers by helping them to "gain exposure as much as possible,” giving them opportunities to "work with top business organizations and deal with best cases,” and coaching them to be best professionals; and of course, competitive remuneration is also very important.
FIRMS OR INDIVIDUALS
With social media dominating many aspects of life in China, more and more lawyers have been seeking to build their personal brands in the past two years, aiming to gain more personal business opportunities, which is not such good news for law firms. How could the institutional and personal developments be reconciled? Can law firms really help their lawyers be better versions of themselves?
"Everyone has a plan for personal development. As head of a firm, we think more about the growth of the entire team," Huang tells ALB. "We need to organically combine personal growth with the development of the firm, instead of making the two irrelevant or contradictory. I often say that team management is like running a race, team development and personal growth need to march together to win the race."
Then how to achieve a "win-win" in the race? Almost all the firms interviewed point to the importance of empowering lawyers through technology or online tools.
Wang of Jingtian & Gongcheng tells ALB that coaching employees have always been one of the firm's priorities. After the outbreak of the pandemic, the firm's "management committee made timely adjustments to change training activities from on-site to online using the newly introduced remote office software. In this way, we not only continued training our people, but also enhanced interaction and communication among all our offices," Wang says.
Even "after the pandemic has stabilized, the firm continues to develop the online remote office platform and upgrade all kinds of office processes in order to further improve work efficiency and adapt to the increasing demand for remote office," Wang adds.
Arranging for the application of technical and online tools was also the top priority for Chang Tsi & Partners last year. "We took the opportunity that our business growth was limited during 2020 to vigorously promote the AI application at the firm, and to further optimize the processes and standards by combining office automation and the application of robots," the firm tells ALB.
What Wang Jing & GH learnt last year is using online media platforms smartly, through which the value in employees is given full play. Huang gives two examples: one is that several younger lawyers at its criminal department are very good at managing video accounts, so the firm assigns them to work on the department's videos; the other one is that some younger lawyers have outstanding writing and knowledge management skills, so the firm opens two special columns for them under the firm's WeChat account, "Internet Research Institute" and "Urban Renewal Research Institute,” allowing lawyers specializing in the relevant areas to do the related research work.
The firm is greatly benefited from empowering its people in this way. Huang tells ALB: "On the one hand, in the past, all our lawyers were immersed in cases and had no time to study new business formats and industry trends. Now the lawyers who are good at doing that can continuously provide their study and research results to the front-line departments; on the other hand, in the past, younger lawyers with strong research mindset were in fact difficult to survive in law firms because it's hard to evaluate their performance. But by implementing an integrated corporate management system, we can provide people with jobs and work models that suit their development path."
In addition to technical tools, the interviewed firms also point to the importance of coaching employees, a traditional but very effective way that can benefit individuals as well as firms at the same time.
Chang Tsi & Partners has a well-established training system, and it organized 173 training sessions for employees in 2020 alone, including 18 on-the-job advanced training sessions and 49 business training sessions in the firm. In addition, the firm has a unique system, which provides outstanding employees with interest-free loans for studying abroad, and the employees could enjoy a loan repayment discount or be exempted from repaying the loan in light of situations.
Jingtian & Gongcheng launched the "lawyer training pool program" in 2018, which has continuously promoted the growth of younger lawyers, and meanwhile ensure that younger blood in the firm would be able to take the reins in the future. Wang tells ALB that there're now more than 40 lawyers participating in this training program. "The program trains lawyers on various skills, including among others the business-related, market development, and management skills, to lay a solid theoretical and practical foundation for lawyers to be promoted to partners later."
Linklaters has been focusing on coaching and mentoring female staff. "Our flagship Women’s Leadership Program has been running for over a decade and recently we launched a new coaching programme in Asia, supporting our more junior female colleagues. These programs help our female colleagues to expand their networks, build up confidence and deal with challenges in different stages of their career," the firm tells ALB.
CHALLENGES AND OUTLOOK
It's interesting to notice that when answering the question "what aspects do you think the firm can improve,” most of the lawyers surveyed didn't make proposals related to their own interests. In general, they hope that their firms would "do more in the firm's brand publicity,” "be more globalized, and open more offices,” "achieve professional growth and sharpen competitive edge,” "continuously work on system reform" and "improve administrative services.” On the one hand, it probably shows that employees of law firms know very well about their firms, both strengths and weaknesses; on the other hand, they're eager to grow themselves on more distinguished stages.
Law firms want to hire the best talent, while the best brains are eager to join the top firms. It seems that the status quo of talent recruitment has made many firms concerned. Speaking of the biggest challenge facing law firms, "it's the conflict between the continuously growing demand of law firms and the recruitment of the best talent," Wang of Jingtian & Gongcheng gets admits. "We introduced a series of policies in recent years, including improving the pay of younger lawyers, strengthening cooperation with universities, launching new intern recruitment and retention programs, and strengthening skills training for younger lawyers. Furthermore, we continuously improve the support department service quality to provide lawyers with all-around and practical assistance. In 2021, we will continue to increase investment in the aforesaid areas to lay a solid foundation for the development of the firm."
In order to attract talent, Wang Jing & GH made a special system adjustment in 2021. "This year we will allow independent consultants or independent non-equity partners to join us. For younger lawyers whose performance has not been up to our requirements for partners, we will help them grow to meet the requirements within 1 to 2 years. This system aims to help lawyers grow rapidly, in particular the middle and senior-level lawyers who are struggling to find the right career path or make a personal breakthrough. We should inspire our people and help talent to thrive, instead of following rigid systems, such as before being promoted to a partner, one has to have practiced in the industry for a required number of years, which might stifle talent," Huang tells ALB.
But new concerns arise with more talent joining a firm, as Huang puts it plainly: "We are concerned that given the size of the firm, with the expedited expansion, there is no doubt that a lot of new lawyers will join us. How to integrate different firm cultures effectively? I once visited an international firm and observed that the firm carries out many exchange activities among different tiers. We have asked our operation department to follow the path to break cultural barriers."
At DaHui, leaders are seeking to adopt finer management skills. "We have to admit that lawyers of our generation and younger lawyers grow up in different times and have different needs and views about career development. As leaders, we are adjusting to create a more flexible working environment for our people, such as flexible attendance arrangements. It is hard for firms to retain talent nowadays if we do not change the needs of people. DaHui will continue to work toward a more people-oriented employer," Ma says.
Linklaters agrees and says: "The changing environment, younger generation expectations, as well as our new recruits and our clients are continuously raising new questions for us and pushing us to stretch ourselves and achieve more. We are running a people business. When our people are happy and motivated, they give us their best and our business succeeds."
To contact the editorial team, please email ALBEditor@thomsonreuters.com