Lockdown recruitment in a risk-averse sector: Tim Skipper interview

Tim Skipper, managing director of Totum Recruiting the right person for the right role is never an easy challe

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Tim Skipper, managing director of Totum

Recruiting the right person for the right role is never an easy challenge. But doing it at a time when no one can physically meet each other becomes exponentially more difficult. Adam McCulloch talks with one recruitment sector leader

Talking to Tim Skipper, managing director of cross-sector talent specialist Totum, you quickly gain a sense of the steep learning curve faced by the recruitment sector since March.

In a normal four-month span the agency would be looking to place more than 50 professionals. When lockdown started, he says, “My immediate fears were that we might not be able to place anyone!” But Totum has now hired a highly creditable 27. Of these, most are for what law firms refer to as “business-critical” roles – many previously open posts have been left unfilled because as of late March they were suddenly seen as luxury appointments.

It’s an achievement Skipper is slightly in awe of: “Law firms can be fairly risk averse, so working with them at this time to make people job offers and onboard them without physically meeting them is quite a feat. People have started their new roles without meeting any of their colleagues. I’m amazed at how smooth it has been and anecdotes from new starters post-lockdown suggest firms have made a good fist of it.”

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Being well embedded with law firms, as Totum clearly is, has helped: “We know many people in the legal industry, which has been an advantage in making placements during Covid as we have got to know many candidates over several years.

“Therefore not physically meeting these people has not been an issue. However, we have also met many new candidates remotely post-lockdown who have featured on shortlists as well. But there is no doubt that things are more challenging the longer social distancing and the presence of the virus goes on.”

Like so much in business these days it all starts with a video meeting. “We use Zoom or Teams calls and shortlist candidates like normal,” but Skipper adds, “we have to appreciate that it’s hard for our clients to truly gain a full picture via this medium.

“Sometimes clients record the meeting and share it with colleagues as a kind of substitute for larger meetings or the post-interview drink where many people across the firm get the chance to meet a candidate.”

Cultural immersion

The loss of personal contact is felt keenly post start date, particularly that “ability to build rapport – the first thing a newly appointed director of HR or marketing or finance wants to do is get round and meet everyone and to start to cultivate those relationships that will be the bedrock of success in their role.”

New ways are having to be found to induct new joiners but without physical proximity there will always be a barrier. “I haven’t really heard any ideal way of immersing people in the culture remotely. People learn by osmosis, overhearing things, seeing how people talk to others, listening to the language,” says Skipper. “The lack of all this could have a lasting effect on those at a certain stage of their career during lockdown.”

This is particularly the case, he adds, when it is considered how lockdown has interfered with the seat system for trainees within many law firms: “Many trainees may never get much opportunity to really meet colleagues on at least one of their seats.” As a result, the cultural immersion so important for new recruits can’t be fully realised, “something law firms are very concerned about”.

I haven’t really heard any ideal way of immersing people in the culture remotely. People learn by osmosis, overhearing things, seeing how people talk to others, listening to the language. The lack of all this could have a lasting effect on those at a certain stage of their career during lockdown” – Tim Skipper

The sudden imposition of these barriers would be highly damaging if it were not for the reflective and collegiate nature of most law firms, which thrives despite their competitive instincts, Skipper says.

“Firms are very collaborative. We are seeing this in the virtual networking meetings we are hosting with business services teams across all of the functions – professionals from across different firms are sharing ideas on how to navigate these challenging times. I think a kind of siege mentality has kicked in with the Covid crisis, taking collaboration within and across firms to another level.”

“Whether it’s in regard to furloughing people, working out how to manage performance remotely or designing an office re-opening policy, the profession has come together,” he says.

Totum’s 18 recruiters manage a pipeline of talent for the law (and wider professional services sectors) but they do not recruit lawyers. The company focuses on the core functions of finance, IT, marketing, business development and HR as well as others in areas such as innovation, transformation, knowledge management, etc. In short, Totum looks to recruit high-calibre business people to support the running of firms and to help them achieve their goals. Demand for this has increased sharply over the past 20 years or so as law firms have realised that specialists were needed rather than partners looking after HR, finance and so on.

“We’ve been seeing a migration of people from other sectors into law … it’s very healthy,” says Skipper. However, there remains a sense that law is a sector like no other; one that’s full of quirks and eccentricities. For starters: “Partnerships are a slightly strange structure that’s not corporate.”

Bringing to bear

Totum encourages law firms to look outside the sector and find business services people in accountancy, financial services and wider industry, but while an outside perspective can bring significant benefits to law firms, the first six months can be a “bit of a shock” for these recruits. This is because, says Skipper, “law firms use a different language and different frames of reference. Talented people can come in from another sector but use the wrong language and lose credibility. But if they can work closely with someone in that initial period to help them avoid the pitfalls and the bumps in the road, they can bring to bear all their beneficial ideas from outside.”

For Skipper, “There’s a lot of great people already in the sector too but we believe it is good to introduce people with different views and perspectives. By providing diversity in sector backgrounds on our shortlists, we can often persuade our clients to think more broadly about the role they are recruiting for.”

Skipper has seen diversity become a business priority: younger candidates now expect firms to have a comprehensive, progressive approach to diversity and inclusion and legal firms’ clients are increasingly introducing diversity into the conversation when it comes to appointing a firm.

But the legal sector needs to recognise that better diversity and inclusion is a long-term goal and not something that firms can improve with a flick of a switch: “It’s not realistic stipulating that the shortlist for a director of IT role must have an equal representation of males and females on it when there are only four female IT directors in the top 100 firms!”

Perhaps the sector may have to allow education and society to deliver the underlying change before it can fully reflect the shift in placements across all functions. “Having said that,” adds Skipper, “firms (and recruiters) can be a strong voice in promoting diversity in education/training and it is a critically important area.”

Flexible efforts

In other ways, the sector is changing rather more rapidly: “The week before lockdown we had a client who only wanted us to submit candidates for a post that did not allow for any flexibility as in working at home at all.” The firm is likely to radically change its mindset post-pandemic.

Skipper sees Covid as accelerating change in the sector but he feels there will be casualties: “The financial situation will not sustain some firms who operate in challenging areas. More mergers may happen but also more niche law firms are likely to be formed via breakaways from larger entities.”

In his spare time, Skipper is lead singer in a rock band, The Ruggs, and he supports Watford FC. The prohibition on live performances and his team’s relegation from the Premier League have both no doubt saddened him, but he is certainly passionate about ensuring the legal recruitment sector, like the gigging scene and his football club, will bounce back strongly.

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