Promotion and succession management and associated retention issues in Australian law firms

Hetterich, Elisabeth Anna Maria (2012) Promotion and succession management and associated retention issues in Australian law firms. Professional Doctorate thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


The focus of this research was promotion and succession management in Australian law firms. Two staff retention issues currently faced by the Australian legal industry were identified as suggesting possible failures in this area:

1) Practitioners are leaving law firms early in their careers,

2) Female representation is disproportionally low at partnership level.

The research described current Australian law firm promotion and succession practices and then explained their possible relevance to the two retention issues. The overall aim of the research was to uncover key findings and present practical recommendations to law firm managers and partners ready for incorporation into their future promotion and succession planning practice. In so doing the research aimed to benefit the Australian legal community as a whole.

Four areas of literature relevant to the topic were reviewed, 1) law firm governance concluding that the fundamental values of the P²-Form remained constant (Cooper, Hinings, Greenwood & Brown, 1996; Morris & Pinnington, 1998) with ownership and strategic control of law firms remaining in the hands of partners; 2) the importance of individual practitioners to law firms concluding that the actual and opportunity costs relating to practitioner turnover were significant due to the transient nature of knowledge as a key asset of law firms (Gottschalk & Khandelwal, 2004; Rebitzer & Taylor, 2007); 3) generational differences concluding with support for the work of Finegold, Mohrman and Spreitzer (2002), Davis, Pawlowski and Houston (2006), Kuhnreuther (2003), and Avery, McKay, and Wilson (2007) which indicated that generational cohort differences were of little utility in human resources management practice; and 4) previous research relating to law firm promotion and succession practices indicating that five practices were relevant in law firm promotion outcomes; 1) firm billing requirements (Gorman & Kmec, 2009; Phillips, 2001; Noonan & Corcoran, 2004; Webley & Duff, 2007); 2) mentoring programs (Phillips, 2001; Noonan & Corcoran, 2004); 3) the existence of female partners (Gorman & Kmec, 2009; Beckman & Phillips, 2005); 4) non-partner career paths (Phillips, 2001; Corcoran & Noonan, 2004); and 5) the existence of family friendly policies (Gorman & Kmec, 2009; Phillips, 2001; Noonan & Corcoran, 2004; Webley & Duff, 2007.)

The research was carried out via a sequential mixed method approach. The initial quantitative study was based upon a theoretical framework grounded in the literature and provided baseline information describing Australian law firm promotion and succession practices. The study was carried out via an on-line survey of Australian law firm practitioners. The results of the study provided the basis for the second qualitative study. The qualitative study further explained the statistically generated results and focused specifically on the two identified retention issues. The study was conducted via one-on-one interviews with Australian law firm partners and experienced law firm managers.

The results of both studies were combined within the context of relevant literature resulting in eight key findings:

Key findings 1) Organisational commitment levels across generational cohorts are more homogenous than different.

2) Law firm practitioners are leaving law firms early in their careers due to the heavy time commitment behaviour demanded of them, particularly by clients.

3) Law firm promotion and succession practices reinforce practitioner time commitment behaviour marking it as an indicator of practitioner success.

4) Law firm practitioners believe that they have many career options outside law firms and are considering these options.

5) Female practitioners are considering opting out of law firms due to time commitment demands related to partnership conflicting with family commitment demands.

6) A masculine, high time commitment culture in law firms is related to the decision by female practitioners to leave law firms.

7) The uptake of alternative work arrangements by female practitioners is not fatal to their partnership prospects particularly in firms with supportive policies, processes and organisational culture.

8) Female practitioners are less inclined than their male counterparts to seek partnership as an ultimate goal and are more likely to opt out of law firms exhibiting highly competitive, masculine cultures.

Practical recommendations Further review of the data collected in relation to the key findings provided the basis for nine practical recommendations specifically geared towards implementation by law firm managers and partners. The first recommendation relates to the use of generational differences in practitioner management. The next six relate to recommended actions to reduce the time commitment demands on practitioners. The final two recommendations relate to the practical implementation of these actions both at an individual and organisational level. The recommendations are as follows:

1) "Generationally driven," age based generalisations should not be utilised in law firm promotion and succession management practice.

2) Expected levels of client access to practitioners be negotiated on a client by client basis and be included in client retention agreements.

3) Appropriate alternative working arrangements such as working off-site, flexible working hours or part-time work be offered to practitioners in situations where doing so will not compromise client serviceability.

4) The copying of long working hour behaviours of senior practitioners should be discouraged particularly where information technology can facilitate remote client serviceability.

5) Refocus the use of timesheets from an employer monitoring tool to an employee empowerment tool.

6) Policies and processes relating to the offer of alternative working arrangements be supported and reinforced by law firm organisational culture.

7) Requests for alternative working arrangements be determined without regard to gender.

8) Incentives and employment conditions offered to practitioners to be individualised based on the subjective need of the individual and negotiated as a part of the current employee performance review process.

9) Individually negotiated employment conditions be negotiated within the context of the firm’s overall strategic planning process.

Through the conduct of the descripto-explanatory study, a detailed discussion of current law firm promotion and succession practices was enabled. From this discussion, 7 eight key findings and nine associated recommendations were generated as well as an insight into the future of the profession being given. The key findings and recommendations provide practical advice to law firm managers and partners in relation to their everyday promotion and succession practice. The need to negotiate individual employee workplace conditions and their integration into overall law firm business planning was put forward. By doing so, it was suggested that both the individual employee and the employing law firm would mutually benefit from the arrangement. The study therefore broadened its practical contribution from human resources management to a contribution to the overall management practice of Australian law firms. In so doing, the research has provided an encompassing contribution to the Australian legal industry both in terms of employee welfare as well as firm and industry level success.

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ID Code: 54735
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Professional Doctorate)
Supervisor: Bradley, Lisa M. & Gudmundsson, Amanda
Keywords: law firm promotion and succession, legal firm promotion and succession, law firm staff retention, legal firm staff retention, law firm staff turnover, legal firm staff turnover, professional services, generational cohorts, age cohorts, human resource management, business planning, glass ceiling, flexible work practices, work-life balance
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > QUT Business School
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 12 Nov 2012 03:47
Last Modified: 26 Jun 2017 14:42

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