Somaya Ouazzani: New year, new career?

Somaya Ouazzani, CEO and founder of Mimoza Fleur, discusses changing roles within the legal sector and hiring new talent, in PCD Magazine.

Integration, marketability, and visibility

The main challenges for those starting off their careers (whether that be junior lawyers, junior partners, or those embracing a new title, e.g. head of team, global head etc.) are integration, marketability and visibility. Onboarding yourself at a new firm or in a new position in this environment takes hard work.

For employers, a focus on pastoral support, a collaborative partnership and strong marketing team are key. Remote working brings benefits, but it does have its disadvantages when it is long term and conducted without proper adaptation. It’s hard to get to know internal colleagues, stay front of mind, and knowing enough about your colleagues in other areas. That said, I’ve successfully lateralled some excellent senior lawyers ​during the pandemic thanks to clever and dynamic cross selling/internal marketing ​and an ambitious and entrepreneurial outlook.

More often than not, lawyers are valued for their relationships, networks, portability, and ultimately, profitability. This demands relationship building and the easiest way to do that is in person. So many lawyers are struggling with having to do this virtually – it’s much less authentic and building rapport is harder. In such a virtual world, lawyers have to use virtual networking, conferences and seminars etc. to stay relevant, relatable, visible and well positioned.

Build a business case.

Law firms with buying power should be thinking ambitiously and boldly about strategic hires. I’ve engineered some very exciting moves ​in 2020 which happened because firms have made opportunistic, strategically important, market positioning moves. At a higher-level, law firms are becoming a lot more demanding of candidates’ business cases and wanting more, by way of portability. Immediate profitability is high on law firms’ agendas, and firms are rigorously stress testing the business cases provided.

Employers need to appreciate the degree of nervousness amongst candidates right now. A fear of being “last in first out” leaves many reluctant to move in a pandemic. At partner level, many have had to tolerate deferred bonuses, which can create issues when it comes to the timing of a move. Employers can’t expect candidates, especially partners, to forfeit bonuses – be prepared to wait or factor the candidate’s financial loss into their compensation package.

There’s also a much greater demand for agile working, irrespective of personal circumstances. This pandemic has proved to everyone that this can be effective when managed properly and it’s a benefit that candidates want and value. Firms must be better at offering it as a long-term solution whilst making sure their culture doesn’t become too virtual and dystopian.

Seize the moment.

I firmly believe now is as good a time as any to move. In the private wealth world, we’ve been busier than ever with retained team and partner searches and we’ve placed many in the associate space too. There are a lot of senior level strategic team and partner hires happening, and the pace of work for most private wealth teams doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Law firms are scrutinising senior lateral hires a lot more, and so if there’s interest in a candidate, there will be very good reasons for it. Candidates should take comfort – the hire will more likely than not be viable and profitable. At associate level, if a firm needs more hands-on-deck, it simply signals how busy they are. There is no need for candidates to unduly worry about job security.

Location. Location. Location.

A lot of law firms are thinking about cutting down on office space, but slashing office costs to improve profitability seems a hasty response and something that could be very damaging to human capital. The very best candidates want to work for a firm with a solid and stable London presence. Visibility is key.

There’s also a massive focus on Asia-Pac at the moment. Most leading private wealth teams are focusing on establishing or enhancing their presence in the region and Singapore seems the jurisdiction of choice for most at the moment. Firms that continue to expand and improve their international profiles and workflows in this region will do well at home and abroad.

I think that many firms will continue to keep an eye out for strategic quality laterals but will continue to take an understandably cautious approach. Law firms want more ‘bang for their buck’ – no bad thing for senior associates. Around 32% of all moves over the summer were non-partners moving into day 1 partner roles. Good senior non-partner candidates should be thinking about elevating their careers, future proofing their practice and raising their profiles as much as possible.

Junior candidates and those starting out in their career need to align themselves with someone important that will give them the support, training and supervision they need and is organised enough to manage doing it remotely. A lot of our senior candidates are struggling to manage their supervisory responsibilities virtually – clever, time smart, and talent focused solutions are needed to master this.

Senior candidates need to stay front of mind. Whether that’s a senior associate waiting for their partner promotion or a junior solicitor proving themselves early on; I can’t emphasise enough the importance of staying visible, relevant and profitable. Being able to demonstrate good billing and good financial hygiene is more important than ever, as is a dynamic marketing strategy and plan – USPs are more important now than ever.

Winners and losers.

The loss of the entire private wealth team at BCLP is a disaster – a really strong full-service private wealth offering very sadly dispersed. But, at the complete opposite end of the spectrum we saw other firms like Howard Kennedy invest in their already established private wealth group, Stewarts adding some heavy weight to their trust disputes group, Taylor Wessing absorbing a number of the BCLP team and, I’ve witnesse​d many of the boutiques hold their own because of how busy the private wealth market has been. A considerable portion of our retained work in 2020 came from the private wealth sector. Smaller firms with the challenger brands such as Raydens (the family law boutique) did a brilliant job of holding their own too, they continued to make a number of hires throughout the pandemic and continued to focus on their strategic growth.

I think a lesson for all of us has been the importance of wellbeing. Every one of us was tested to our limits this year. Juggling more balls than ever before and working and living in ways that we’ve never had to before. At a time when we’re all feeling exhausted, drained, depleted…whatever you want to call it, we have to put our wellbeing first. This means putting firm boundaries in place. When candidates are concerned about financial performance and job security it’s easy to fall in the trap of overworking. Overworking is also a lot easier when there’s no clear start or end to your day, which happens for us all working from home. Private wealth lawyers (and in particular family lawyers) are very prone to burn out. Proper support, work capacity monitoring and utilisation are vital to ensure healthy, well-functioning, and strong teams. Law firms shouldn’t underestimate the importance of this.

True grit.

First and foremost, looking after our health is critical. Getting enough sleep. Exercising. Eating well and as hard as it can be prioritising health before wealth. Wellbeing has been critical to survival in 2020 and I hope we don’t all abandon our focus on it once things (if things?) return to ‘normal’.

On a more business level, I’ve also seen how hard work, grit and building loyal relationships from the very start really does pay. It’s been a tough market for everyone, but resilience, honesty and creativity rarely get in the way of success regardless of how challenging a market might be. Those of my clients that performed the best in this pandemic were those that responded quickly and differently; those that were the most client service focused. Mimoza Fleur’s approach was exactly the same. We tried to adapt quickly. We remained client and candidate focused throughout, and we never compromised on our values, which was remaining true to our specialisms and being selective about who we work with.

Somaya’s article was published in PCD Magazine , 5 February 2021, and can be found here.

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