It’s time to wave goodbye to the lockstep

SENIOR HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER, OLSWANG

THE legal industry is changing. The traditional lockstep model of career progression – where a lawyer would qualify and then work for several years before hopefully being made a partner, with pay rises reflecting the number of years they had been in the firm – is increasingly viewed as outdated.

In the modern City, and especially now when every firm has to make the most of its assets, that sort of system does not work. The market for bright and talented lawyers is fiercely competitive and a law firm needs to offer a wider package which takes into account long term careers in the industry. As many of the old ways are coming under the microscope – such as the billable hour and the partnership model – so increasingly we are seeing that progressive law firms are looking beyond the lockstep.

Olswang is the latest firm to change the way it treats associates, and to set out a more modern, merit-based career path for them. Under its new scheme, which will come into effect on 1 September, there are three levels for associates, and four bands within those levels. Progression to the next band or level will depend on performance and ability rather than the number of years served.

Associates will have to meet a certain number of criteria before they can rise to the next level, but they can do this at their own pace and in line with their own career aspirations.

The reason for changing to this system was to make sure that we can provide a career path that suits all our associates. People develop at different rates and have different career goals. This way of doing things gives them the opportunities and support to get there. It’s all about flexibility, and giving lawyers a career path that they can understand, and which they feel they have some control over.

This is what lawyers want. When we spoke to associates who worked in the old lockstep system, many of them said they wanted to see clarity about their progress, and wanted to know what they need to do to progress at their own pace.

The impetus for change isn’t just coming from inside law firms however, but from seeing
how the world around us has changed.

This approach of developing people and rewarding them in line with their performance mirrors our clients’ approach and moves law firms toward an operating model more like traditional companies and commercial organisations.

Younger graduates appreciate the new system. For a start, they expect that they will be rewarded in line with what they contribute. But more importantly, we have to recognise that these days not everybody has the same career aims. Honest feedback, development and mentoring are all vital, so that they are empowered to push their careers in the direction that they want to go in.

The move towards a freer, more flexible and merit-based system is inevitable in law firms. The legal industry is slowly coming to understand this and in doing so will improve its chances of attracting and retaining the best talent.