Would you do a tour of duty?

19th Oct 2020

Aligning the employee’s aims with the firm’s can lead to stronger alliances.

People walking up the stairs

When I first proposed this article, the intention was that it would focus on the new paradigm of work, and on the idea of adopting the principle of “tours of duty” to enable firms and individuals to create more fulfilling workplaces.

Since then, the curveball of the global pandemic has added an extra layer of importance to getting the strategy right when it comes to our career options, with a view to not only surviving but also thriving.

The problem of employee disengagement and how to incentivise and motivate employees (and how to find motivating employment that fulfils your own needs) has been around for many years. As long ago as 2013, Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, proposed the idea of “tours of duty” in his article “Tours of Duty: The new employer-employee compact”, co-written with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh. Hoffman argued that businesses need to be agile and entrepreneurial, and that the old concept of a job for life (where employers offered security in exchange for loyalty and more moderate salary demands) is now outdated. Instead of a bond of loyalty, he suggested that the bond needed to be thought of as one of alliance.

This bond of affiliation may seem a slightly strange concept – both to the employer faced with falling levels of loyalty and rising salary expectations (together with the eye-watering one-off costs of recruitment), and to the employee seeing ever-increasing billing targets and a lack of loyalty to staff when times are tough. While far from perfect, the concept of a tour of duty can help to focus the mind on growth, for both the business and the individual. 

Growth target

The concept is simple. Instead of an open-ended contract with limited “targets”, the employer and employee agree on a two- to four-year growth target. At the end of that period, a new “tour” is decided upon. Perhaps the employee will continue on the same path. Equally, a new path could be chosen, or the employee might depart for pastures new. As part of each tour, however, the employee and the employer undertake to achieve certain targets and perform certain tasks in the pursuit of the overall benefit to both sides.

A very simple and common example is the training contract in law firms. Here, the firm commits to train and develop a trainee for a period of time, and the trainee promises to stay for that period and put the work in. Each party knows that the trainee won’t be retained at the end of the period if they have not reached the expected level. If the firm does not have a place for them in the department they want then they can either stay in a different department or move on. 

In this format, everyone knows what is expected, and trainees generally work hard to ensure they are kept on. It is true that it can be a stressful time, but with regular feedback and information there should be no surprises. Those who have trained as Trade Mark Attorneys without such a training contract will know that life was no less stressful for them. If anything, it can be more stressful, since their employment can theoretically be ended at any point.

Tricky transition

Post-qualification, things get all the more difficult for attorneys. What do we need to learn in order to develop, and what do we need to develop in order to progress? Some firms have grasped the nettle by setting out clear expectations for the ongoing development of attorneys and by offering a suite of training and development opportunities. But this approach is far from universal. For some, development will be presented as an increasing level of autonomy in legal work, or perhaps being handed responsibility for increasingly large and important clients, but it is usual for this to occur in only a piecemeal way.

In order to assist with this, CITMA has produced the Advanced Competency Framework. This focuses on the legal and management skills that attorneys may want to learn, and it can be viewed on the CITMA website. CITMA is also working to help firms and attorneys bridge the knowledge gap. Beyond that though, each firm will still have to plan for its own future growth and development.

One difficult aspect of tours of duty, however, is the need for the business to have clarity and openness about the firm it is and the firm it wants to be. Take the example of IP litigation. For some firms, it is a strategic thrust leading to investment. For others, it is a potential source of work but for which there are no particular plans. And for others again, it is something they will never do (in part to retain reciprocity or to honour formal tie-ups with law firms). For the sake of the business and the individuals within it, providing transparency as to the approach is important.

Firms may also need to be open about the characteristics, skills and financials/client base required to progress, and then develop a plan to engender that in attorneys. A common issue I have experienced and observed is a situation in which an associate or senior associate is not progressing because something is missing, yet the employer will not address the issue for fear of driving the employee away. This means the employee is left to stagnate. The alternative to this is the hastily organised training programme intended to get an associate “ready” for partnership, solely because if they don’t get it they will leave, taking with them a significant case load.

Network investment

Beyond the tour of duty, Hoffman recommends two further practices. The first is investing in the development of external networks for the employee, and the second is developing an alumni network. The investment in external networks can be as simple as permitting employees to develop a social profile during work time and to be seen as a figurehead for certain work, while the second is aimed at retaining bonds of affiliation with those who leave. If employees are dealt with appropriately, leaving doesn’t have to be a negative experience and they may serve as a source of clients, employees and referrals in the future.

There is sometimes resistance to allowing employees to develop their personal networks so that it includes other lawyers. The fear is that they will simply use it to get a new job. But, of course, knowledge of the market generally can be brought back to improve the business and lead to innovation. The key is being open about it and expecting people to bring the information back to benefit the firm.

For those interested in developing tours of duty, the next step is to establish the current skill level of your employees and the long- and medium-term aims of the business and the employees, making it clear that this is not about establishing who will or will not be retained, and instead about trying to ensure that employees are satisfied in their work. Hopefully, these aims will align, but if not this will help to establish any issues that may arise in future.

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Would you do a tour of duty?

Aligning the employee’s aims with the firm’s can lead to stronger alliances.

19th Oct 2020
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