A study of the HR practices of 47 leading law firms shows the changing profile of the law profession and the effects of the economic downturn.

Agenda Consulting’s People Count Law 2010, a human resources benchmarking study aimed at medium to large law firms, was compiled through a month long process and compares practices in areas such as their staffing levels, employee diversity, fee earnings per partner, recruitment and retention, performance management and employee relations.

The average number of fee-earning members of staff compared to non-fee earners increased to 1.3 from 1.2 in 2008’s People Count Law and the number of fee earners to secretaries increased over the same period from 2.6 to 3.0, showing that most firms are keeping tight control of their costs.

Firms’ average spending on learning and development per person stands at £674 in the 2010 study, down 9 per cent on the £741 average in 2008. Average spending on employee benefits, including pensions and medical insurance, decreased in real terms by 35 per cent to £1,658 compared to 2007’s study.

External recruitment in 2009-10 fell to 12 per cent of the total firm, significantly lower than 22 per cent in 2008. Sixty three per cent of external staff appointments come through recruiting agencies and headhunters. The survey also shows that 15 per cent of employees left the firm in 2009-10, down from 21 per cent in 2008.On average, the participating firms retained 80 per cent of their trainees. Feedback shows that 15.2 per cent of workers at participating firms are working flexibly, with 27 per cent of secretaries and 12.3 per cent of business services staff using this option.

The survey also shows that around half of firms make a direct link between staff appraisals and pay packages. The median number of formal warnings issued among the participating firms was 6.8 per 1,000 people, compared to 17.6 for the UK as a whole, and the number of grievance cases instigated was 2 per 1,000 compared to a national average of 5.3.

On average, 23 per cent of partners and 59 per cent of non-partner fee-earners are female. The percentage of ethnic minority staff stands at an average of 10 per cent, up from 8.4 per cent in 2008 and this is higher than the UK figure of 9 per cent. For partners, the figure is lower at 2.6 per cent.The average percentage of firm-wide employees with a disability was 0.8 per cent, up from 0.3 per cent in 2008 but lower than the UK average of 2.7 per cent.

Roger Parry, Director of Agenda Consulting says: “This comprehensive and unique look at the HR practices at medium to large law firms will be invaluable in helping them position themselves against their competitors and getting the best out of their employees and HR teams.

“The effect of the economic downturn on some of the UK’s leading law firms is all too clear from this survey; like most businesses they have had to tighten their belts in these tough economic times, concentrate on fee-earning and managing their cost base tightly.”

Bridget Stevenson, Development Manager forHR in Law, the organisationfor HR professionals working within the law sector, said:“In the current economic climate HR departments are under scrutiny and being challenged to ensure efficiency and productivity while limiting costs. This is a challenge and being able to see how your HR department compares with the competition is a significant advantage. People Count Law 2010 delivers just that.”