HR in the Professional Services sector

Written by: Annie Hayes
Published on: 1 Jul 2016


To succeed in HR in the professional services sector you need to enjoy working with talented and bright fee-earners, be good at building relationships and have an understanding of what it is like to service clients. For these reasons HR professionals in the sector report that they are being stretched more than ever to be both more creative and innovative in how they upskill their fee-earners who have to put clients first.

What’s the culture like?

It’s an ambitious culture where highly qualified and talented people are hungry to succeed and move up the career ladder. HR’s role is to support them in this quest and ensure that they meet their professional goals whilst acquiring the right skills to service their clients. Mary DeFraites, Human Capital Leader – Deals at PwC says that they encourage their staff to take ownership of their own development and support them in their journey to achieve this: “We encourage people to be curious. Our coaching conversations help them with this and we ask a lot of open questions. What has perhaps surprised me about working in HR at PwC is that for a competitive environment everyone is very supportive of each other.”

Charlotte Sword, Global HR Director for British-based but international serving architecture practice, Foster and Partners, says relationships with the fee-earners is key. Having a background in other sectors also helps if you are to succeed in HR within the sector. Sword adds: “We are dealing with architects that are incredibly talented and creative and they make a lot of their decisions on emotional grounds about the look and feel of a building. A background in financial services helps me to bring it back to being a commercial decision.”

Which HR skills does the professional services sector demand?

- Emotional resilience and an ability to think on your feet:

to survive in HR in the sector you will need to be fairly thick-skinned and have a natural affinity to communicate effectively with bright, highly qualified and senior staff. At global law firm, DLA Piper there are 600 partners. Carol Ashton, HR Director at DLA Piper says: “I have many bosses and that has perhaps been one of the things that has surprised me the most. As the HR Director part of my job is to be great at building client relationships.” Responding appropriately with excellent communication and written skills is essential. Ashton adds: “You cannot work in HR in a law firm without written communication that is top notch. You have to have respect for the environment you are in. The fee earners spend a great deal of their time drafting written papers and therefore expect the same written standards from you.”

- Being innovative:

Sword says that being innovative is crucial: “You need to understand how the business makes money and that taking them away from the job that does that for learning and development for example has to be thought about. We have come up with some ways for L&D to happen in a way that suits them – so we provide L&D on mobile devices and we have delivered a presentation skills session using virtual reality.”

What are the HR challenges in the professional sector?

- Proving HR’s worth: 

In the professional services sector there are many hoops to jump through before a decision is made. Ashton says: “There is a lot of discussion and consultation before you even get to recommend a decision and because you are working with an organisation full of fee earners they are always going to be more prone to rejecting your suggestions and arguing against them.” For these reasons, Ashton says you need to be ‘on your game all the time’ and, says there is still a view from those in law that HR is the department that ‘does the soft stuff.’ Disproving that can be an uphill struggle.

Sword says that HR at Fosters & Partners has gone on a journey since she joined the organisation: “What surprised me initially was that HR was not a partner in the business it was very much seen as an admin function. I have been here for two and a half years and I have now been appointed to the board. At Fosters the architects hate corporate speak, so explaining things to them in plain English helps them to alleviate any suspicion about HR.”

DeFraites says that for her, having a background in consulting before moving to internal services has really helped her to gain credibility: “I was client facing for 16 years and that has helped a lot. I can demonstrate that I really understand the business and what it’s like to service clients. I’ve been there, done that.” DeFraites adds that sitting at the business table is imperative and something that she values highly to really understand a business that is constantly changing.

- Evaluation:

“At DLA Piper, fee earning is king. It is what you are judged, measured and rewarded on. It’s your levels of utilisation that are the key focus for partners,” says Ashton. As non-fee earners, HR needs to continually prove itself and the value it adds.

At PwC, consultants need to be ahead of the game of other industries in order to deliver their services. They are after all organisational development and organisational change experts so it is this element that HR is evaluated upon: “A key challenge for us is that our auditing clients rotate, so we might have a team that has been working for a client for years and then they need to move to service another client. We need to support them through that and give them the skills to build new relationships, win new work and learn new industry skills. We help them ‘up-skill’.”

- Global mobilisation:

DLA Piper, PwC and Foster and Partners are all global firms. This can present its own unique challenges. “Whilst 90% of our staff are based in London, 89% of our projects are overseas. This brings about questions around how we mobilise our workforce and then bring them home. We are so client-focused here that it is the speed within which we have to react across different time zones and countries,” says Sword. She adds that current challenges are concerns over Brexit and the implications for the European workers and future requirements over visas. The uncertainty that the Brexit brings and the workforce changes it may precipitate is a long-term issue.

- Graduate recruitment and ongoing development:

"Law is based on an apprenticeship model. You take on graduates and you train and promote them. So if you aren’t getting the right calibre of graduates on board or you haven’t got a robust talent mapping and assessment process in place the whole thing will fall apart,” says Ashton.

Any new recruits will need to keep pace with the demands of a high-performance culture too. DeFraites says: “You are dealing with ambitious and talented people. We encourage people to take personal responsibility of their development at PwC. We support that by having regular career conversations with them and helping them to learn on the job.”

What do those in the sector say about working there?

“What has surprised me is that every day is stimulating, it’s not turning the wheel on boring stuff. It’s more fun than you might expect, you are working with bright people and that stretches you and you feel like you are learning all the time.”

Carol Ashton, HR Director, DLA Piper