Deborah Atkins explains how streamlining back office processes through new technology can free up time for HR staff to focus on attraction and retention, developing fee-earners’ skills and improving client satisfaction

Brethertons is over 200 years old, and has grown over those years to become a full-service law firm with both private and corporate clients, and offices in Rugby, Banbury and Bicester. As a result, our team has continued to grow – by 20% in 2011 and a further 19% in 2012 – taking the headcount to 215. A similar sustained level of expansion is also anticipated for the next 12 months.

HR has long struggled to demonstrate its value within the modern business environment, largely because of the often unjust opinion that it is simply an administrative function

This presents a number of new management challenges. It is difficult to recruit the right talent for newly created roles, and then to engage, develop and retain those individuals. We hold Investors in People Gold status and need to ensure we retain that status through supporting the wellbeing, involvement and progression of our staff. Finally, if employees were to fail to receive the level of HR provision required to help them succeed, the firm’s customer service quality would undoubtedly falter.

We therefore decided to undertake an HR audit, through which we realised that there was room for improvement in our HR and payroll procedures. The theory was that if best practice processes could be devised and departmental efficiencies heightened, this would free up time for these professionals to concentrate on the more valuable, strategic elements of their role, such as manager empowerment, employee reward, continuing professional development, and recruitment.

The first step in implementing these new processes was to clearly define our goals and objectives, so that we could identify gaps in knowledge and resource. We then worked with our management team to secure their buy-in for the project. This was a relatively straightforward process because the firm prioritises remaining one step ahead of competitors and technological advances, but we also backed up our suggestions with extensive research and evidence.

Our HR and payroll technology provision quickly stood out as lacking in quality and functionality, in comparison with the systems elsewhere in the business. From an early stage, the priority was therefore to find a technology solution that would help us to not only develop processes, heighten procedural efficiencies and ensure best use of the HR team, but also provide controlled self-service functionality, so staff could carry out their own HR and payroll tasks where appropriate.

Technology will obviously not be a priority for all legal practices, but it is clearly increasingly important in the sector as a whole, with the influx of new market entrants forcing firms to find ways to be flexible and equipped to manage change internally and externally. Firms may be put off making changes in this area because of perceived high costs, but many software packages allow firms to pick and choose modules and functionality, and to pay in ways that suit, such as annual subscriptions that allow firms to spread the cost.

We undertook extensive research into potential software providers, and sought advice from peers so that we could learn from the successes and difficulties of others. From that information, we then built a plan which was specific to the needs and culture of our firm. Following a rigorous selection and shortlisting process, we invested in a fully-integrated HR and payroll solution from one provider – Leeds-based Cascade HR. Our choice was based on the software’s flexibility to meet our needs, and its ease of use. As part of this, we outsourced our payroll processes to Cascade’s payroll bureau service, staffed by experts in this area.

The change has helped us to achieve all the goals we originally set out: of more efficient and effective processes and better use of our HR team. Among other things, it has allowed us to adopt a more intelligent and forward-thinking approach to recruitment, whereby contact with prospective candidates is maintained, even if vacancies are not currently available. This proactive ‘talent bank’ concept enables us to keep strong applicants ‘warm’, so we are better able to recruit talented individuals when we need to, depending on the changing needs of our business. We have also been able to develop our processes and skills in recruiting the non-legal staff essential to keeping our business ahead of the competition, such as account managers, business process managers and IT professionals.

Our HR team can also now spend more time devising tailored engagement, appraisal, and learning and development plans for every employee, helping us to attract and retain talent, as well as develop our lawyers’ skills in dealing with clients and building successful, personable relationships.

HR has long struggled to demonstrate its value within the modern business environment, largely because of the often unjust opinion that it is simply an administrative function. Projects such as this, which rely on strong communication and hard work, help to heighten the profile of HR as a strategic and value-adding profession that certainly has a significant role to play in the legal sector.