Employer Profile: Shoosmiths

An out of town law practice must play up to its strengths and use its non-monetary rewards in a very creative way, says Jamin Robertson

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In the lobby of Shoosmiths’ comfortable Northampton offices, there is a sign informing visitors that although Fridays are dress-down days for staff, they can expect the usual standard of service. It’s the first indication that this law firm adopts a slightly more relaxed culture to that of the pinstriped City firms. Louise Hadland, director of human resources and facilities management, is keen to highlight the contrast. “That’s where we differentiate ourselves. I find work-life balance is absolutely imperative to the trainees we attract. They used to come and pay lip service when applying to us, saying they don’t want to work in the City. Now they really don’t want to.”

With offices in locations like Milton Keynes, Basingstoke and Reading, Shoosmiths is well placed to walk the talk. It offers a wide variety of legal services, and is considered unusual in providing high volume services such as conveyancing in addition to corporate legal work. “The industry says it’s difficult to place corporate commercial services with the [high] volume work, and we disagree, we make it work,” says Hadland. Despite daring to be different, Shoosmiths uses the same yardsticks as any other law firm, and has a healthy bottom line. “We’ve been aspiring to be a national law firm, and this year we have been recognised by the legal press as just that. It’s a great feel-good factor for everybody here.”

But while Shoosmiths is quick to distance itself from the culture of the bigger nationals, Hadland admits it needs to be a good employer because it cannot compete on pay alone. “We don’t charge as much as City firms so we can’t pay as much as City firms. Staff find the maths of that very easy to understand. We have a remuneration strategy paying between average and upper quartile ( as measured against market rate), and our benefits package then sits alongside that. I do know that our standard benefits package is very healthy compared with most companies.” Andrew Binns, managing director at Aon Consulting, says pay and benefits are important to newly-qualified staff as they weigh up competing offers, but identifies real retention issues with more experienced employees. “Some appear to be struggling to retain quantities of senior staff in the larger roles.

By this stage, senior lawyers know how much work the job demands, and the initial glamour has rubbed off.” He adds that society’s increasing demand for a better work-life balance cuts across the professional divide. “There’s some interesting challenges fresh to the sector. In these high commitment professional activities, people are looking at work-life issues proactively. In 10 to 15 years’ time, how many people will want to work 70 hours a week, even when the rewards are high? For years and years, lawyers sold their soul to the practice, because utilisation is essential, which tends to drive this big commitment of their people.” Hadland is aware of the danger long hours can bring. “We deal with big things in people’s lives, and that can be very stressful. There was this industry [outlook], if you were a young person looking for a career, the last thing you want do to in a macho environment is to tell your boss you can’t cope.”

“I was talking to a lawyer a while back who said it wasn’t until the late 70s that the long hours culture came in. His interpretation was it was Thatcher’s Britain that encouraged those long hours and good for her, because it gave us a very distinctive place in the market.” To achieve a healthy balance, the Shoosmiths package includes a flexible working policy allowing staff to work from home. And under the terms of its flexible benefits package, staff have the option of trading holiday entitlement, beginning at 23 days with a ceiling of 33 days for experienced staff. Hadland encourages staff to use all their holidays to ensure they stay refreshed. The disparate profile of the workforce, which ranges from support staff to equity partners, makes the organisation’s flexible benefits package indispensable. “In the conveyancing environment, the age of employees is quite young, there is turnover, and salaries are low comparatively. “At the other end of the spectrum are the business-to-business commercial lawyers, with much higher salaries and different [motivations].”

The result then, is a benefits ethos founded on simplicity, choice and fun. “I love giving incentives and benefits that have what I call Friday night kudos. [This is where staff] go to the pub on a Friday night and it’s ‘What happened at work today. Oh you’ll never guess, it’s great, it’s fab’.” One example tabled for next year is a Shoosmiths bond, which like Bonus Bonds will award staff big-ticket prizes. Hadland believes these eye-catching incentives represent a clever benefits spend. “From an employer’s point of view, the cost of three discounted A-class Mercedes is nothing compared to the cost of private medical insurance (PMI) or dental cover. It’s peanuts comparatively, but it has the wow factor.” Other benefits pencilled in for next year include a day’s birthday leave with £50 worth of vouchers. “We [proposed] some wacky ideas, such as buying a racehorse, or a villa somewhere hot and then raffling weeks off to stay there. We change it every year, [and try to] put in something interesting.” Aside from the fun and frivolity, Shoosmiths keeps traditional core benefits fairly stable.

It has a defined contribution pension scheme, the administration of which is outsourced, and PMI that is paid for depending on experience and grade. Dental cover and income protection are also available, again with service or grade-related restrictions. These benefits are popular with professional staff although Hadland is concerned about low pensions take up among younger employees. However, she believes that a good communication scheme can help to increase staff awareness. Among the more serious-minded benefits, Hadland is surprised at the success of a financial advice service that includes mortgage advice for homeowners. “It’s been phenomenal. I think it’s because financial services are so complicated, staff don’t know where to start.”

She cites this as another example of a low-cost benefit with high appeal. “There was no discount, just the convenience of a workplace visit. It’s interesting to see the value staff place on that compared to the things you spend a lot of money on that are taken for granted.” In the past, Hadland has criticised the attitude of workers who take a certain number of duvet days as if entitled. This year, to counter any such attitudes in her own firm, and in search of a useful sickness absence scheme, Shoosmiths introduced an occupational health service for three months at its Northampton premises, which it required staff phoning in sick to use. It was abandoned after a survey revealed that 60% of employees were opposed. “They were a very professional [provider] but their raison d’’tre for coming into a firm was to reduce absence. We don’t have a major absence problem and our objective was to provide a better service, as we are always conscious of the presence of stress in the workplace.

There’s a natural cautiousness among lawyers and I wonder to what extent they would have trusted that [service].” Aside from the lifestyle benefits on offer, Shoosmiths also aims to encourage employee development. “[Here] it’s okay to make a mistake, it’s okay to learn. You won’t be taken out at the knees. We could do an award for mistake of the year but working in a legal environment I think that could be very expensive.” Looking forward, Hadland has concerns about the Clementi report on the regulatory framework for legal services, published last year. She is concerned at the suggestion that a law firm ownership could extend beyond partner-only investment in areas such as conveyancing. “If we suddenly had Virgin Law and Tesco Law we wouldn’t know what hit us. If these fantastic employer brands got hold of our talent, well, I think we’re better, but I can’t compete financially,” she says. Currently, Shoosmiths is happy with its retention levels, with its average length of service at 4.2 years. Hadland is confident Shoosmiths’ culture, pay and benefits encourage people to stay. “

To what extent the benefits play a part in that is very complex. We have a benefits table but it’s so much more, it’s the culture you create. It’s one part of the jigsaw you have to get right, alongside freedom, quality of work, and work-life balance. We don’t create an HR policy thinking people will abuse it. If we were dictatorial about our benefits or offered staid benefits, it wouldn’t fit in with the profile we’re trying to project.”

Career profile

Louise Hadland, director of human resources and facilities management at Shoosmiths, has been with the company for six years since joining the law firm from Volkswagen Group UK. She is particularly proud of the introduction of brand values, which foster a team approach, clear business language, responsiveness and initiative. “They are very simple things, and they apply to everyone from equity partners right the way through. If every member of staff takes four simple actions we will be head and shoulders above the competition,” she says. Internal research has since revealed 80% of staff readily recognise these brand values. “I’m very, very proud of [that],” says Hadland.

Shoosmiths at a glance

The legal firm Shoosmiths was founded in 1845, and today employs 1,243 staff at seven regional sites. The company’s mission is to provide exceptional client service. Shoosmiths provides a broad range of legal services including commercial contracts and corporate mergers and acquisitions, property conveyancing, employment disputes, intellectual property and information technology law. This year, industry journal The Lawyer ranked Shoosmiths 34th among national law firms in its annual survey The Lawyer Top 100, with an annual turnover of £60.8m, net profit of £11.6m and margins of 19%.

Staff case study

Vicky Meek, Shoosmiths’ project manager for InterAction, spends perks on her brood. The client database manager works a reduced 30-hour week so values the flexible working policy that enables her to work at the office between school runs, and access the IT system from home. Holiday trading is a personal favourite, and Meek chooses to take the maximum 33 days to spend time with her children in school holidays. “We go and see interesting places and visit grandparents. My son especially likes to go to Legoland Windsor. This allows us to avoid the weekends when it is at its busiest.” She also values the firm’s Busy Bees childcare vouchers, which were made available to higher-bracket taxpayers in April. Meek also appreciates the company-funded private medical insurance policy, having suffered a back injury while arranging furniture last Christmas.

Benefits box

Pension

Defined contribution scheme. Employer contributions of between 4.5% and 6.5% depending on age and minimum employee contributions for staff earning less than £25,000. An executive scheme for higher earners provides employer contributions of between 5.5% and 7.5%.

Conveyancing and legal work

Free residential conveyancing for the sale and purchase of homes. Free will writing service. Some legal discounts of 15% on normal fees.

Private medical insurance

Company funded with a minimum requirement of five years’ service or a salary above £25,000.

Bonus schemes

Christmas bonus of £60 rising to an additional £10 for each year of service in addition to normal performance-related pay. The firm also offers profit sharing and fixed-rate bonuses to some staff. Employee referral bonus, which varies depending on the level of new entrants.

Dental Cover

Company funded depending on earnings or length of service.

Income protection

Restricted to some staff employed before 2005.

Voluntary benefits

Scheme provided by You At Work plus additional local discounts.

Holiday

23 days standard, rising to a maximum of 33 days through flexible benefits.

Parking

Free parking is provided at most sites.

Long service awards Gift vouchers of £200 for five years’ of service and £1,000 for 25 years’ service.