An interview with Dame Janet Gaymer DBE QC

We met with Dame Janet Gaymer to discuss the changing nature of the legal services market, and the implications for legal sector careers.

Dame Janet Gaymer DBE QC

Janet is an eminent employment lawyer with both private sector and public sector experience. After reading Jurisprudence at Oxford, Janet developed and led the employment law practice at City law firm Simmons & Simmons, serving as the firm’s Senior Partner from 2001-2006. Between 2006 and 2010, Janet was the Commissioner for Public Appointments in England and Wales and a Civil Service Commissioner.

More recently, Janet has been a member of the Advisory Board of Excello Law Limited and is an Advisory Panel member of the Independent Review of Legal Services Regulation.

How do you see the landscape of legal services currently in the UK?

The landscape has changed enormously, in particular over the last five years, and what’s fascinating is just to look at its composition. When I came into the law, ‘partnership’ was the traditional, main model. If you compare that with what the market looks like now you have a very different picture. About 44% of legal service providers in this country are now incorporated companies and only 17% are traditional partnerships, and we have the rise of providers who are ‘Alternative Business Structures’ (ABSs) too.

In all these different structures one important question to consider is who the important person is – it’s a very different model if you have external ‘shareholders’ as opposed to a business where the partners own the enterprise and that’s it – because you’re thinking: ‘Where is your duty?’ To the shareholders, to clients, and in what order?

Also, I’m particularly interested in the recent rise of what I would describe as the ‘self-directed legal career’ – some people call it the ‘Uberisation’ of the legal services market. In other words, the rise of freelancers who want to practise in some sort of entity but, above all, want a different kind of practice life. I want to talk about that more later on, but I think three headline issues which this puts centre stage are: risk management, identity, and the culture of the organisation providing the legal services. It makes you ask yourself a number of questions:

  • What kind of business are we trying to be?
  • How are we managing the client’s risk in this ‘alternative model?'
  • Are we just a group of individuals, or do we want to be part of a larger team? And which is more important in terms of the culture of our organisation?
  • Is the business more important than our being professionals?
The changing model of traditional law firms: delivering efficiency through structural change

You mentioned how there are lots of different legal service providers in the market now, how clients have more choice of provider, so potentially it is a much more fragmented market for service provision. Do you see any gaps in the market looking forwards, perhaps a business model which might be a further evolution of some of the ones we currently see?

That is a really fascinating question and there are four related points here which I think about a lot.

First, if we start by looking at the traditional law firms, and their structure, the model is changing because you've seen them cutting costs by moving both business services teams – and also fee earners – out of expensive locations as they need to deliver ‘more for less’ to their clients. So there is physical dislocation in the models of established firms.

Alternative resourcing models for legal service provision

Also, the model is changing in terms of who provides the service. In other words, outsourcing the providers of the service because, to be honest, the client doesn’t care how they receive their advice, either from an employed solicitor or from a consultant who happens to work for that organisation.

Alongside all that, we’re seeing a rise of new types of practitioners. And I use the word ‘practitioners’ because these might be people who bring different skill-sets, for example a skill in technology, to help the firm make the most of new technology – and everyone is trying this in different ways.

And lastly, mixed into this, you also have the generational change issue. There’s the generation where they just worked through, often with one or two employers and, at the other end of the market, people who are wanting a different employment relationship or wanting to work more flexibly, including at home.

With all these changes and different models, there are lots of interesting challenges, especially as legal businesses are essentially knowledge businesses. For example, how do you maintain communication and share knowledge between all the people in the organisation if some team members are working somewhere else for a defined period of time, or are short-term contractors? In that sense, there is some dislocation in the team.

Also, there is then the practical question of what you do if a client wants to see the lawyer with whom they are working, and how that impacts on new business models. At the moment, the client usually expects to go to an office and meet their lawyer at some point in the matter. That’s an immediate challenge to the new models where the aim is to save costs by having remote workers, and either no office or a smaller office.

It’s a big question whether there is anything in between those two models, a sort of ‘middle way’, and what that might look like: somewhere between the huge traditional law firm – and many are getting bigger with consolidation continuing in the sector – and one with the lawyers working at home, because that is where they want to work.

I'm not sure I know the answer to what will come in between, but I am absolutely sure that the market will drive the solution, because I think the market, and clients in particular, are now getting much more used to using professionals from different sources. Even though for certain, complex matters clients do automatically default to the large law firm from a risk perspective, they seem to me to be remarkably more flexible than they were in terms of using different professionals in different ways.

And also there is automation and ‘AI.’ How will that affect the future employment models and opportunities for lawyers? Some Law Society research found that there will be a loss of six to seven thousand legal services jobs from automation – but it also found that by 2038, although the employment of lawyers will be less, there will be escalating demand for legal services. So how is that demand going to be satisfied, and which of the models that we’ve spoken about already will provide that support? My conclusion is that I don't think you'll ever do away with human lawyers – but how you use them, and where you use them, is the question.

My conclusion is that I don't think you'll ever do away with human lawyers – but how you use them, and where you use them, is the question.

It seems that there is a big challenge for leaders of law firms in this environment – in particular to solve the sector’s ongoing, systemic challenge of retaining a broad talent pool and helping people to build long-term careers. Where do leaders need to focus?

I think one ongoing challenge for management is the retention of an expensively trained, and increasingly female, talent pool. That pool is the engine of any law firm, and it's very expensive: you spend a lot of money training your talent pool, nurturing it, and you don't want it to walk out of the door. But unfortunately that's what's happening, particularly in the case of women at a certain stage of their careers.

As a leader, I suppose the first thing to realise is that you're looking at a mixture of generations. And it seems to me that it will be even more of a mixture of generations going forward. At the one end you have a generation coming in who are probably the most socially-networked generation ever, and at the other end you have people being urged to carry on working after retirement, but who probably don't want to carry on working for a long time at the same pace.

And this younger group of people are not so concerned about staying in one place; they are mobile, they listen to what their colleagues say about careers – not necessarily what their employers say – and they are intensely aware of opportunities in the workplace and the importance of employability, wanting to grow and build their skills. I’m not sure that the older generation were particularly focused on this, and that is a major change. And if you then add into that mix the effect of globalisation and the ability to practise law almost ‘without borders’ and practise it virtually, then you've got a very complicated environment to manage!

A potential future legal career pathway: delivering the flexibility and breadth now being sought

So what do you do about it? Well I'm an employment lawyer, so my first instinct is always to look at the basis upon which that person is engaged to deliver their services. To be frank, most firms have contractual arrangements in place, which don’t yet seem to be taking into account what is happening in the marketplace. Many are sticking to very rigid contractual arrangements, and not exploring much flexibility – and I think that we need to be moving much more quickly and looking at things less through the employer‘s eyes, and more through the employee’s eyes; particularly young professional and what they expect from their careers.

So what is important to the new generation? I think they expect three things, and I call them the three T's.

The first is ‘Time.’ There's quite a lot of research which suggests that younger members of workforces now value time above things like gym membership or health insurance and other benefits. And there was one survey on ‘Mumsnet’ which concluded that more than half of the people surveyed value time even over a pay rise. So this is an interesting shift because traditionally it's the employer who controls time, not the employee. So as the employer you really need to think about that different expectation and the basis on which you employ them, especially if you want to be able to retain them.

Now the complicating factor here from a management perspective, is that in relation to time each person will have different views of time as they move through their career. It will change, possibly every year. If they were asked: ‘In this coming 12 months how would you like to spend your time?’, there will be people who will say that they are very happy to be working flat out for the next 12 months: ‘I've got no plans, and am very happy to commit fully in that timeframe.’ But there may be another person who says: ‘Well actually I would like to start a family, or study, so some flexibility will be important to me’, even if there will be a period when they may return to the full commitment later on. So it's a changing perception and firms need to think about how they can have these more nuanced conversations with their team members.

And the second aspect which is important to the new generation I call ‘Task’; the work that they are doing. You could say that this has been true in the legal profession for a very long time: lawyers wanted challenging, interesting work. But what I think has become more discussed now is how the different types of work play into the level of commitment which people are seeking, as we’ve just discussed.

The evolving nature of pre-partner career pathways: offering more choice of ‘Task’

For example, I think people are being more forward in seeking out the types of legal work which are easier to cope with, where they can predict its demands – in this sense, it’s clear to me that the nature of the work, the ‘task’ you’re doing, is going to be an increasingly important issue for people. You can already see that they are very clearly voting with their feet; they’re saying, ‘I don't want to be a ‘normal’, all-hours lawyer if it means a lack of control; I do want to be connected with a practice, but I will do something else,’ and ‘I might consider becoming a knowledge or a technology specialist at a firm.’ As people want to choose their ‘task’ more, this is a conversation which firms need to have with their people regularly over their career.

The third element which is important is ‘Tempo’ and it almost follows on necessarily from what I've been describing in the ‘Time’ and ‘Task’ areas. The point is, throughout a career there's no doubt that people will want to move at different speeds. As I said, there are times when they're prepared to work flat out, and times when they'll find that more difficult.

And I think the ability of firms to manage the ‘tempo’ of their team members will affect fundamentally the culture of the firm – because you get to the interesting question of what types of role models you want at the top of the firm. Is it just the group who work flat out? We know that people will not aspire only to that model, so one question for firms is whether or not they are signalling that it is possible to choose a different career ‘tempo’ and still reach a leadership role.

And to get this ‘tempo’ point right in your organisation, and offer varied options, then another point is the skill-set of the leaders; the practice group heads in particular. Managing these more varied career pathways of the team members is more complicated – and you need to be happy with ambiguity in those conversations with your team members who request a different ‘tempo.’ It also means that practical aspects such as work allocation become more critical, and I don’t think historically that people have developed the skills to manage that element; they just haven’t had the training or needed to manage these different requests from people.

If we look at the more senior members of the firms, the partners, what challenges are you seeing there as the sector evolves?

For those who are the partners, in particular the senior partners, I see a worried group of people because they have been doing the same job for very long time, and they reach a point in their career where they realise that ‘I still want to be working, but I don't know exactly what I want to do.’ Also, often they don't know how to start going about working out what this different type of role could be.

I think it's been very noticeable in the last four years or so how many firms have suddenly woken up to the fact that the senior partners need as much help with career planning as junior members of the firm. So you're seeing many firms bringing in courses to help these senior leaders to make the quite difficult shift from their 24/7 lives over to something which is perhaps not quite so 24/7 – but still is a working life. For example, I meet a number of people who say: ‘Oh I think I might become a non-executive director,’ without any idea what's involved in being a non-executive director.’

An example career transition programme for a senior leadership group

My advice would be that they have to start thinking about this at least two years out, but I think the big difficulty is that many partners don't like to tell their colleagues that they are thinking about it. They're concerned that if they do, other partners will start to tread on their client base, so there is a natural reluctance. I think that is definitely changing and firms are trying to make this a topic which can be openly discussed because, otherwise, the risk is that the person then leaves the firm carrying with them the huge amount of know-how and data, which isn't properly passed on. It’s clear to me, therefore, that as careers become longer, more fluid, and more diversified, any organisation which doesn’t face up to the challenge of helping their generations to manage their transitions is going to have a problem with their talent pool.

In terms of transitioning and the generational change, I think also that there is a tendency, particularly when it comes to leadership succession planning at a senior level, for people to look at human resources strategy in terms of the current managing partner’s term of office. But I think that keeping a much longer-term vision is really critical because the effects of a change in human resource – especially at a senior level – take a long time to feed through, and by the time they happen you can't do much about it, and also it takes a long time to correct it. You see that with firms who might go through phases when they don't take on many trainees; they stop taking trainees and then a few years later they ask: ‘Where are all our mid-level associates?’

Looking ahead, what skill-sets will be key for the ‘lawyers of the future?'

Well I think we need to look through the client lens here. They will continue to want better, more efficient, faster service, and will expect their lawyers to have the skills to embrace these new ways of working, especially because they will be doing it themselves.

In terms of skills, being technologically savvy, must be one for future practitioners, and having that awareness of the possible contribution of technology to practice. It will affect a professional’s ability to function in the marketplace.

Other important skills will be lateral thinking, and being open to change, because you won’t be in the same job throughout your career. So a flexible mind-set and being prepared to re-train and re-skill throughout your career will be key too. If you start off your career as one type of lawyer, you will have to be open to become a different type of lawyer, or perhaps not a lawyer at all, later on! And that ability to shift will be more important also for the senior lawyers to transition at the end of their careers too.

Finally, what do you see as an overriding challenges for leaders of legal service providers to solve?

Well one challenge, bringing this all together, is highlighted from research by one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms very recently. Research suggested that the cost of managing teams and human capital was actually going up, not going down, and all the complex dynamics we’ve covered in this discussion support that perspective, I think. So whatever your teams and your workforce looks like, this whole issue of the cost of maintaining, motivating and retaining that human resource, which is critical for you to deliver your legal services, becomes more critical, more complex and needs much more focus than it has received in the past – and the leaders of firms will need a lot more support and training themselves to do it well.

Also, I think that one critical question for the sector is whether or not we can create a sustainable professional working life because I think in some respects, the jobs of lawyers have become unsustainable. Women have voted with their feet to reconcile a number of competing work-life demands, so I think the challenge for the leaders of firms going forward is: ‘how do you build a sustainable professional career, which is going to be appealing to all the different people?'