Vital statistics

Number of employees: 4,200

Turnover: 250 million

HR director: Caroline Wilson

Lawyers and receptive to change are words you would be unlikely to find in the same sentence unless the word not was sandwiched between them. But Caroline Wilson, HR director at legal firm Eversheds since July 2001, says she has been delighted by her colleagues open-minded approach to developing new ways of working.

Seven cultures merged into one

Change has been a way of life at the firm since May 2000, when seven separate firms came together under the Eversheds name to form the biggest legal firm (in terms of staff) in the UK. Seven different sets of terms and conditions, and seven distinct cultures and regional identities somehow had to come together into a cohesive whole. But nearly two years on from the merger, no HR director had been appointed.

I think they had been looking within the legal profession for someone, she says, but in the end I came in, from a financial services background. There was a sense of urgency in the firm to get on with the HR redesign, as partners and other staff had already been working on the merger for some time before Wilson arrived.

I inherited about 40 HR staff around the country, and not having a legal background I couldnt possibly have done this job without their support, she says. We built cross-office projects, and every office had their input into the change process, she adds. This meant that when change came, people felt they really understood it.

The partnership structure was also helpful to the merger process. Unlike a stock-market listed company, which might have been obliged to move faster and more publicly, partners and staff were able to consult widely and thoroughly on the creation of the new firm. With so many highly skilled staff, preserving goodwill was vital in the bid to keep talent on board.

A flexible working lifestyle

The merger also gave Eversheds a chance to address arcane working practices for legal and support staff. Increasingly, new recruits (and some older hands) are not prepared to put up with the occasionally Victorian working practices that the law has in parts clung on to.You just cant work lawyers as hard as you used to, says Wilson. They have different expectations, as do our non-lawyer staff. Roughly half the firms 4,200 employees are non-lawyers, working in business and support services.

The company has developed a Lifestyle scheme to enable flexible working, and offers a wide range of benefits. No other legal firm I know has got anything like it, claims Wilson. Although some people were sceptical at first, it has proved very successful. And although a lot has been achieved in the year and a half since the new Eversheds emerged, there is still more to do.

We have been working with Landor Associates [the people behind Accentures identity change from the old Andersen Consulting, and BPs new corporate image], and we have some exciting work ahead of us, she says. It is great that a law firm would want to include the HR director in that work. As Wilson points out, partners at the firm seem to have accepted the business case for good HR practice, and are serious about including HR in all major decisions that affect the staff.

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