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Professional Services HR in 2020 Vision

Sitting browsing, one evening, I came across this article from 2016 focusing on HR in Professional Services sector:

An interesting insight, by Annie Hayes, including the opinions and experiences of some of Oakleaf’s most valued contacts.

I wondered, as I scrolled down, how much would still be accurate, four years on? Much, as it turns out. And in this oddest of years, what would the lens of 2020 add to the discussion?

The key areas that the article explores are:

·      What’s the culture like?

·      Which HR skills does the professional services sector demand?

·      What are the HR challenges in the professional services sector?

·      What do those in the sector say about working there?

So firstly let’s define the parameters. According to Barclays, professional and business services companies, which encompass law, accountancy, real estate, architecture and consultancy firms, make up 25% of UK businesses, adding £190bn to the economy. The sector employs 4.6 million people – 13% of the UK workforce – two-thirds of whose jobs are outside London. It also accounts for 27% of the UK’s services exports worth £66bn to the UK economy. According to Business Wire, the global professional services market is worth $5409.3 billion and despite a Covid driven slow down this year, will reach $6519.9 billion by 2023. That’s a lot of people and a lot of money.

No wonder that HR’s relationships with the fee earning population was seen as key to culture. In the 2016 piece, fee earners are described as bright, ambitious, highly qualified, talented and hungry to succeed. They are the ‘engine room’ of a professional services firm and culture can be said to have previously rested on how HR went about supporting fee earners to meet their professional goals whilst acquiring the right skills to service their clients. Now in 2020, there is undoubtedly more to the picture. As Pelorus Consulting write ‘if you want to learn about a firm’s culture, the best way is to listen to [all of] its ‘stories’. If you want to change the workplace culture, then change those stories’.

Strengthening employee resource groups is one example of how firms have begun to take account of the voices woven through the tapestry that is culture. As Ashleigh Webber wrote this week for PeopleinLaw.co.uk, ‘some (ERGs) have played a major role in altering company policies, culture and views. Eversheds Sutherland’s networks have influenced its policy on domestic abuse and its approach to gender signage in its offices, while its Verve Network, its race and ethnicity champions group, has helped develop recommendations and education in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.’

Next up, have the HR skills demanded by the professional services sector changed? This could be an article in itself. In summary, in 2016, the view was that emotional resilience, an ability to think on your feet and innovation were key. Arguably, this still all holds true, albeit with a bigger picture in mind. 2020 has brought a relentlessness that continues to affect all of us, and so the ability to rapidly adapt to a change in circumstances is what will set apart those firms that thrive. We have observed professional services HR drive the adaption to support remote and flexible working in response to COVID-19 at a phenomenal speed.

But as some of the opinion pieces we have shared on LinkedIn this week have shown, if resilience as a concept just means the ability to withstand anything thrown at you, that can lead to burnout. Innovation, in 2020 terms, has meant dealing with a crisis that twisted and turned as it evolved, keeping employee health and wellbeing as a priority over and above each firm’s profits.

What are the HR challenges in the professional services sector? The main point I took away from the original article was ‘proving HR’s worth’. Viewed through the lens of 2020, it has been said many times that where the last recession was the time of the CFO, this year is the time of the CPO. With individual employee needs, wellbeing, mental health and inclusion all thrown into sharp focus, HR leaders and teams across professional services have had to quickly redefine strategies, tackle brand new concepts such as furlough, re-write protocol and as we emerge into our ‘new normal’, take the opportunity to cement positive developments, such as the step change in flexible working, and actionable, measurable diversity & inclusion initiatives, into each firm’s future. As one esteemed HR Director put it ‘[we were] flying a plane whilst building it’. No further proof needed, in my view.

What do those in the sector say about working there? My team and I speak to HR professionals across the sector every day. I’m confident in saying that the words used to describe fee-earners in 2016 are those I’d definitely choose to describe my HR network in 2020: bright, ambitious, highly qualified, talented and hungry to succeed. We hear about innovation, culture change, progression and pride in the work undertaken. HR teams are often described to us as tight knit, collaborative and supportive units, turning the dial across many areas. Some of the older stereotypes and myths are being busted and the sector provides a platform for many fantastic careers. I’m proud to be a part of it.

If you’d like to discuss any aspect of HR in professional services, please reach out to me on sarahalexander@oakleafpartnership.com or any of my team: Georgia Constantine, Kayleigh Giles and Jenny Dawkins.

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