The law of attraction and retention: Henry Davis York

by 03 Dec 2003

The war for talent is very much alive in the legal industry, with fierce competition for good lawyers at all levels. Craig Donaldson speaks with Deborah Stonley about the keys to Henry Davis Yorks unique approach to attraction and retention, and what makes the firm an award-winning employer of choice

Henry Davis York is a mid-size commercial law firm, and employs around 350 staff in its sole Sydney office. Five years ago, when human resources manager Deborah Stonley came on board, the firm’s staff numbered just 150 people and its HR practice was largely functional.

In the highly competitive legal market, the firm set out to establish itself as an employer of choice – not an easy task in legal circles, but one which Stonley believes the firm has met with success.

Strategy buy-in

Having won the Employer of Choice category in the 2003 Australian Law Awards in addition to Best Attraction & Retention Strategy at the 2003 Australian HR Awards, HR strategy has been central to driving change with partner buy-in across the firm. “I don’t think you can add value unless you work on a strategic level,” Stonley states.

“One of the key things that our managing partner expects of me is to make a difference to the firm in what I do. So it’s not just about coming in and going through the motions of running a functional HR department. I have to make a contribution – it may mean that I stick my head on the line with some suggestions because they can stretch the boundaries sometimes, but you have to at least be prepared to come up with those ideas, discuss them, and build a case for those in the firm.”

Stonley is regularly involved in group leader meetings across departments, and meets with the firm’s managing partner Stephen Purcell on a weekly basis to discuss business issues from an HR perspective. The firm and its senior managers also run a strategic planning process at the start of each year, where HR goals are mapped out and then aligned to business goals. The process is reviewed halfway through each year, and then refocused again for following years.

Recruitment strategy

A good example of Henry Davis York’s HR strategy coming into play is in its approach to recruitment, where the firm has a tradition of ‘growing its own’.

“Organic growth has been the focus of the growth in this firm, so we haven’t recruited partners from other law firms and bolted their practices onto our practice. In order to achieve that kind of organic growth, you have to understand the direction the firm is heading in,” Stonley explains.

“This firm is very focussed about the areas a lawyer practises in, and we look at building capabilities and strengthening depth and breadth across certain practice areas.”

Stonley says this strategy encompasses all levels of recruitment but starts at the very beginning, and the firm’s HR department has acknowledged this in its graduate recruitment strategy. While Henry Davis York has always run a summer clerk program to recruit graduates, Stonley says a revamped and more focused approach to hiring graduates has met with a number of benefits.

With about ten summer clerks coming through each year, the firm actively works to build its profile on university campuses. “It’s very important for us to develop our brand and become known on university campuses because those are the training grounds for good lawyers of the future,” Stonley says.

“Five or six years ago I don’t think we were too well known on campuses or had any real profile. But we’ve done a lot of work in linking our name and presence to university campuses.”

The strategy has included financial support for young lawyer societies, sponsoring relevant competitions and offering time to students and related societies to assist in areas of need.

“That’s been very rewarding for us, and I think it’s had big benefits for a number of students and the law schools. I’m starting to see the benefits of that because I now have summer clerks that I interviewed and made offers to maybe four or five years ago coming back. They didn’t necessarily accept Henry Davis York and may have gone off to another firm, but they’re approaching us to come and work here. There are three or four of them working for us currently who we’ve met through the summer clerk programs,” Stonley says.

Competing with the top-tier firms

Stonley says Henry Davis York competes very successfully with the national and top-tier firms at the graduate level. While she acknowledges that competition for talent is fierce in the legal industry, the firm enjoys a retention rate of 90 per cent with summer clerks and graduate recruits.

“When you’re at school, you don’t know a huge amount about the legal profession. You know the big firm names and there’s sometimes quite a lot of magic and prestige associated with the top-tier names like Mallesons. We do compete with the mega firms for the best students – I’m talking the top 10 per cent that all the firms are after,” she explains.

Stonley says Henry Davis York competes with the top tiers by offering “something different”. If a potential graduate is looking for quality work but in a more relaxed, friendly, collaborative environment with a strong individual and client focus, then she suggests that Henry Davis York is the firm for them.

“The summer clerks or graduates that accept work with us tend to be the ones who truly do know what they’re looking for. They really have thought about it very carefully and are making quite a conscious choice to come to Henry Davis York. They have generally got offers from all the national and mega firms so they are saying, ‘Okay. Mallesons, Minters, Blakes... they all look the same, then I’ve got Henry Davis York’ and they are then making a choice between the top tiers and Henry Davis York. It is a unique position, and I feel very happy with how that niche is now understood in the market and that graduate lawyers can see that,” she says.

Culture difference

Another plank in Henry Davis York’s positive attraction and retention offerings is the firm’s culture. Its organic growth strategy has helped enable and preserve the culture of the firm, as has the strategic decision to remain a single-state based firm.

“When I talk to summer clerks about the possibility of employment, they often ask me to describe the firm or how it’s different to a national or mega firm. Now, I have worked in a top-tier firm, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and it gave me some great experiences,” Stonley says.

“But I say Henry Davis York is different – it’s friendly, supportive and collaborative. The culture is built on a base of trust and mutual respect, and that does stand out quite a lot in this firm. When you’ve got that as the base, building on that makes things so much easier. If you don’t have that solid foundation, you can put all the building blocks in place, but will they stay up?”

Stonley says that as the firm has grown in presence and stature in the market, attracting talented lawyers has also been easier. In her early days at the firm, the process was “quite challenging” and she also had to demonstrate that Henry Davis York could offer the same quality and type of work.

Work/life balance

Stonley says that the quality and type of work is something that does attract lawyers to the firm, but often a stronger incentive is the approach Henry Davis York takes to work/life balance. Law firms are well known for their long hours and demanding work conditions – more so than any other profession.

Stonley acknowledges that this is often par for the course in the legal profession, and the firm recently conducted a work/life balance survey to gauge staff opinions and gather feedback on this.

Management and leadership of the firm received the most positive response, followed by staff motivation and satisfaction ratings. It found that the three top motivators for staff were the chance to earn a good salary, interesting and varied work that provides an intellectual challenge, and working with a team of supportive and interesting people.

However one of the issues that came out of the survey was the balance between workload and client service. “Employees felt that the workloads were quite great, and they were so focused on workload that this then impacted on the next thing, which was work/life balance. There was some conflict in that area, so we’re looking at that now and gradually providing people with more options and support,” Stonley says.

“The partners here do work hard and their hours are long. There’s often no getting away from that, as you need to meet the demands of your clients. But you need to provide an environment that supports them not only in their careers, but in their lives outside of work.”

Stonley says that the firm’s partners do “walk the talk”, and one of Henry Davis York’s recruitment criteria is to hire people who have interests in their life outside of work.

“We’re not looking to recruit the workaholic, who will spend from eight in the morning till eleven every night in the office. When we recruit people who have already got that balance in their lives, they bring that into the culture Henry Davis York and fit in very well.”

The average age of the firm’s partners is 41, and Henry Davis York has developed initiatives to suit the work/life balance needs of that demographic. Offerings include: 12 weeks paid maternity leave for all female staff; childcare information and assistance; a raft of flexible work options such as part-time work, job sharing and telecommuting; discount conveyancing for staff; yoga classes; flu vaccinations; business casual days; sporting activities such as an annual tennis competition day, dragon boat racing, netball and soccer.

The firm also puts on a range of social functions such as end of financial year and practice group parties, group retreats and a variety of lunches through each week that bring different groups of staff together.

Maternity leave

Maternity leave has been a hot topic in many circles of late. Professional services firms often lead the way in this area, frequently with a keener appreciation of talented females and the need to retain them.

“We do quite a lot of work before they go off on maternity leave, ensuring that they are set up in the most effective way while they’re on maternity leave to keep in touch with the firm,” says Stonley. This includes the provision of a mobile phone, a computer at home, access to the firm if they want to do any work during time off and an open-door policy for attending any social or professional development functions.

“So we try and keep them as close to the firm as they want to be during that time. Some want to be very close to the firm, while some want to have that timeout,” she says.

The firm works with female staff a couple of months before they come back to ensure that they’re comfortable with the new arrangement. They usually prefer part-time work, and Stonley says the ability to stagger their start back at the firm is also important.

She says the process involves “treating everybody as an individual” so they can get back to work in the most effective way possible. She acknowledges that it’s not always plain sailing, but by striking a balance between support and giving them the space they need, it’s possible to come up with the right solution.


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