Realm Talks To... Toby Harper

Posted on 13/4/2022 by Katherine Memery

In Realm Recruit’s 2021 market research, we found that flexible working had overtaken pay as the top priority for lawyers looking for a new role. In this edition of Realm Talks To... we speak with Toby Harper, Founder and CEO of Harper James, a firm that is meeting market demand and putting flexible working front and centre of its employer proposition.  

In the interview, Toby explains how and why Harper James adopted a hybrid working model from the outset, other ways in which the firm is working to position itself as an employer of choice and the current “war for talent”. 

One of the key findings of our report was that 83% of respondents said flexible working would be important or very important to them when looking for a new job - tell us what your approach is to giving employees flexibility? 

When establishing the business in 2014, I didn’t set it up in a traditional way at all – I needed our lawyers to work flexibly so that our subscription model would be viable and this has been the bedrock in the foundations of Harper James. Hybrid and flexible working practices were uncommon in legal services then and people would often say ‘good luck with that’ and chuckle at the idea. Even in 2019 and pre-pandemic, we looked at a study of all the legal vacancies in the UK and only 9% offered flexible working. We have every version of flexible working available to almost everyone who works at Harper James and it’s actively used by many people across the business for a variety of purposes. It’s not just parents, there are many other reasons why people want to work flexibly other than family life. It’s been really easy for me to have everyone working on a flexible working basis – then there’s no separation between those that work from home and those that are always in the office.  

How are you overcoming any challenges that come with flexible working? 

It’s really important to be transparent about what the business needs as well as what your people need and to make sure that the two marry well. To create that environment, you need to be having a clear and open dialogue from the outset, which is vital when it comes to flexible working. We, as a business, need to know each person’s availability so that we can support them while setting manageable expectations for both our people and clients. Technology is also key and it’s an area we’re always evolving to ensure we’re ahead of the market and making working as productive and enjoyable as possible. I find that very few people actually want to work remotely in complete isolation and it’s about finding the perfect mix that’s enabled via technology and opportunities to work in the office when people want to. It’s critical that all your team is on board with flexible working - everyone needs to feel equal and part of the team regardless of how they work in the business. If they’re not completely into it, then you’re not going to be able to maintain collaboration. We work very hard to ensure everyone feels part of a team so they can collaborate, share ideas and enjoy each other’s company. We want people to feel that they belong to an ambitious organisation and that their contribution towards our growth is recognised individually and as a team. 

What else are you doing to be an employer of choice? 

Working where and when you want on a full time, part-time or flexible hour basis is clearly a big part of the appeal. We also attract many lawyers because they aren’t getting what they want from their current employer and they’re looking for an alternative and to escape the traditional law firm set-up or join us from in-house roles. 90% of all the work we do is generated from our marketing, sales and client services functions. We’ve set up the business to provide maximum support to our lawyers so that they can be lawyers and enjoy the interesting work and clients they support. Aside from offering remuneration structures, pension, holiday, life insurance and healthcare plans equivalent to much of the UK’s top 100 firms – we also offer career opportunities for all levels of experience to meet the needs of our people and evolve with them as they do, which for some means intellectually stimulating work for interesting and inspiring clients, building and leading a team or, for more junior lawyers, an opportunity to accelerate their career in a role supported by an experienced mentor. 

The other priorities that came out of our research were better pay and promotion opportunities, and an improved focus on wellbeing. Does any of this surprise you? 

That doesn’t surprise me at all and I’m sure the effects of the pandemic and the resulting changes in working practices and many people evaluating their priorities and values play a big part in this. We recognise that opportunities for development and career progression are important for many lawyers and because of our set up, we often also attract lawyers closer to the start of their career who may feel hampered by the confines of a long PQE before they get to work more closely with clients or lead a team. The wellbeing of our people is key to us and while the flexible working opportunities help people maintain a better work-life balance, we have also recently taken steps to introduce healthcare packages and we are doing a virtual sporting fundraiser which 66% of the firm are taking part in throughout April by walking, running, swimming and rowing to help raise funds for the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal. We regularly benchmark our salaries to ensure these are competitive and we also recognise that times are difficult at the moment for many people financially; we introduced a pay increase across the board earlier this month to help towards the increase in living costs.  

It is a very candidate-driven market at present, with only 20% of lawyers describing themselves as active jobseekers, driven in part by job security (83% said they felt secure in their job, up from 33% in 2020). What is your perspective on the market and where are you finding your talent?  

There’s a war for talent in every sector at the moment and we’re also seeing a slowdown in movement in the legal sector as some are naturally more averse to taking risks in leaving current roles due to the current financial climate. From my perspective, it’s crazy for any employer to let good talent go because they don’t want to offer flexibility and we are increasingly attracting many lawyers who are looking for alternatives as they don’t want to return to pre-pandemic practices as more traditional law firms require that people return to the office on a part- or full-time basis. The way in which we find talent hasn't changed, we’re simply building on what we’ve done before. Our Head of Talent, Leah Horwood, works really hard recruiting talent directly through LinkedIn, dedicated job boards and a pool of agencies, particularly those focused on flexible working. 

What’s next for Harper James? 

My mission has always been to build the 'leading national law firm for entrepreneurial businesses' and our strong performance during the pandemic, which saw rising numbers of entrepreneurs turn to us for support in starting and growing their businesses, is testament to this. We are embarking on a recruitment campaign which aims to more than double our number of lawyers, attracting 60 new solicitors by 2025. And we’ve already made a strong start to 2022 - hiring ten new lawyers into our Commercial, Property, Corporate, Data Protection, Employment, IP and Client Services teams since January, with four more due to join by the end of May. We look forward to recruiting many more by the end of the year. The interest we’ve had from candidates so far and those due to join us is a validation that what we do and the way in which we operate truly sets us apart from other legal service providers in the industry. 

About Toby Harper and Harper James 

Toby Harper is the Founder and CEO of Harper James, a national firm designed exclusively to champion entrepreneurial businesses, from start-ups to scale-ups and beyond, enabling them to realise their goals through expert legal advice at an affordable cost. The firm was established in 2014 with a model of remote-working and experienced lawyers, clever use of technology coupled with unique subscription plans. 

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