City of London law firm SJ Berwin made radical changes to its HR policies after senior managers detected some 'disillusionment' among its 240-odd assistants - qualified lawyers who have yet to reach partner status.
SJ Berwin has grown rapidly since it was founded 18 years ago and has done particularly well in the recent boom, with turnover rising 40% in the last 12 months, according to chief executive Keith Wood.
However, Wood admits: 'In about August 1999, it became evident to myself and some of the partners that some of the younger fee earners were disillusioned. We held a meeting with all the assistants and explained that we wanted to find out what the problem was. And they produced a 'shopping list' of issues...
'They said 'Look, your salaries are out of line with the top firms.' So we brought forward our salary review and made very serious adjustments to salary levels. And we brought in a performance-related bonus scheme for fee earners.
'We introduced a mentoring programme, whereby all the assistants can be mentored by a partner from another part of the firm. They can discuss how to handle problems that occur in dealing with clients, business issues, and their personal aspirations. Assistants sometimes feel unable to do that with the partner who supervises them directly, because they all want to be partners, so they want their supervisor to think highly of them.
'We also brought in a career development manager, whom they can talk to in confidence. That manager also has access to an external career management consultant. They were able to filter back to us what problems and issues were arising - so we began to create an honest dialogue between assistants and partners.
'We've also set up a monthly forum in which 15 or 20 assistants represent all the assistants they meet with me, the head of personnel and some other partners. We've recently been through a benefits review in which we asked, 'What would help to retain you' - it is altogether a much better and more grown-up way of treating our assistants.'
Assistants have also been consulted on the installation of new IT systems - 'they felt (our old systems) were letting them down,' admits Wood - and helped to design a new office layout, replacing the old open-plan system with individual offices and meeting areas.
However, Wood says that long hours and work/life balance - cited by some HR consultants and headhunters as being increasingly important to City of London workers - was never an issue: 'The assistants know that you cannot achieve our level of success and quality of work unless you work very hard.
'I think we addressed the issues and made them feel we were listening. We've done very well in attracting and retaining assistants lately. And if there's one thing that's helped, it's that.'