UK law firms fall behind on employee engagement

The legal profession falls short of average engagement levels, with associates the most affected

Only 52% of professionals in the legal sector say they felt engaged, according to research by Aon.

The state of partner and employee engagement in the legal sector covers trends representing nearly 10,000 legal professionals, and is the first research paper to analyse employee and partner engagement in the sector.

Previous research has found that organisations with higher levels of engagement are better performers, which was echoed in Aon’s research. It found that the top 50% most engaged departments had an average of 33% less attrition.

Partners are the most engaged demographic in the legal sector at 66%, while associates are the most disengaged at only 43% engagement. Trainees came in second at 59%, followed by business services and partners at 56%.

The report noted that associates experienced a number of perceived barriers that stopped them feeling they could contribute to their firm's success.

Only 54% of associates felt they were empowered and had autonomy at work, compared to 81% of partners. Just 40% felt they had been provided with strong career opportunities, in comparison to 65% of partners. Additionally, only 32% said they had experienced firm leadership in contrast to 53% of partners.

Giving associates a stronger voice within the firm, strengthening their accountability in client relationships, and genuine investments into their firm – regardless of if they become partner – would help to bridge the engagement gap in the sector, the report suggested.

Hugh Hawthorne, head of UK talent consulting in the legal sector at Aon, said that the research made a clear case for boosting engagement in the profession.

“The incentive to improve engagement within the legal sector is clear; organisations with high levels of employee engagement are more likely to perform better on key performance indicators such as talent retention, operational efficiency, client satisfaction and financial performance,” he said.

Jeff Fox, a principal in Aon’s UK employee benefits consultancy, said that while the legal sector offers impressive benefits these often go unnoticed because of low engagement.

“What’s interesting about these results is that on our strategic benefits benchmarking tool [which measures the choice of benefits, market competitiveness, cost effectiveness and fit with business strategy], law firms have the second-highest average score of all sectors at 65 out of 100. It seems that while benefits in the legal sector tend to be excellent, low employee engagement may undermine employees’ perceptions of just how good they are," he said.