McLeod Duminy Employee Engagement Survey 2021 – Results

The market for talented lawyers has continued to tighten and law firms are finding it increasingly hard to find the right people for their teams. A talent shortage has long been a reality for firms across New Zealand but the effects of the pandemic, particularly the closure of the borders to overseas qualified candidates, has added extra pressure. It has made the need to keep existing employees happy and engaged more important than ever. So, with that in mind, McLeod Duminy decided to test the pulse of our candidates to see what was going to be on their minds as they made decisions about their careers in the next twelve months. 

We had responses from almost 40 candidates, from a wide range of firms and locations. The comments varied, and Remuneration and Quality of Work were high on the list of priorities for people. However, it was very clear that Workplace Culture would be the number one factor for candidates when they make decisions about whether to stay or go over the next year.

Workplace Culture

One of the problems with ‘workplace culture’ is that can often feel intangible and hard to describe.  One of the hardest parts of building and maintaining a good work culture is that it can be taken away in the blink of an eye.  Over the course of the last decade we have seen examples of how the actions of just one person can completely change the overall perception of a workplace and how hard it is to reverse those perceptions. One of our respondents mentioned exactly that scenario within their own firm. The human brain is wired to give preference to (and remember) negative experiences and interactions over positive ones which means, your staff are more likely to share and remember their negative experiences than the positive ones. Importantly, they will be sharing internally and externally.[1]

The survey results showed us the importance of working towards the elusive positive culture, and why it is important to be vigilant, and to identify and quickly stamp out any behaviours that could risk the perception of your office culture. The respondents cited examples of recent negative experiences / scenarios:

  • Inconsistency – For example, not all partners supporting all staff with a great deal of flexibility and others remaining slavish to presenteeism. Not the same rules for all;
  • Lack of direction and mentoring. Everyone being too busy to share knowledge. No clear commitment to development;
  • A lot of lip service around workplace culture, but no action;
  • Racism and sexism;
  • A lack of accountability;
  • A no care attitude or a sense of arrogance towards people leaving the firm, i.e. not perceiving it as a loss. It doesn’t always feel that employees are valued and appreciated by the firm;
  • Limited or no induction when joining the firm;
  • A lack of mental-health awareness and a lack of support in a time of need; and
  • Communication came up a lot. A lack of transparency and openness. Infighting and whispers, with conversations behind closed doors.

One of the questions asked if respondents felt there had been a change for the better in the level of engagement since the start of the pandemic. Unfortunately almost 60% had not seen a change for the better. Despite that, on the positive side of the ledger there were still examples of tangible improvements. Actions that were specifically mentioned included, more checking in on people and more flexibility, much more reporting to staff on how the firm is going, things that had previously been under discussion have moved into action, a more concerted effort by partners to promote wellness initiatives, increased communication and a higher value placed on work life balance and social events.

Elsewhere the results provided further ideas about what the respondents consider to be the building blocks of a good workplace culture, and the good news is most are pretty easy to achieve with some thought and attention. It’s not all beanbags, PS4s and lolly dispensers.

Good Management – Words like respect, supportive, care, approachability, appreciation, trust, courtesy, accessibility and communication came up again and again. There was a particularly interesting comment about a ‘no blame’ culture where missteps were framed as learning opportunities. Another mentioned open-door policies and close working relationships with partners.

Transparency and consistency were other themes that came up often in relation to management.

Social Events – After the negative connotations attached to law firm social functions in recent times it was interesting to see how important this aspect of corporate life remains for people. Interestingly few mentioned grand, extravagant events, but more often morning tea, Friday drinks, team dinners or just a regular coffee with HR.

Team Culture – Another area where it was clear what was of value to people. They mentioned friendly, relaxed, open, collaborative and inclusive. Respondents didn’t enjoy a culture where internal competition is encouraged and individual performance takes precedence.

Rewards – Surprisingly ‘perks’ didn’t really feature as part of creating an enjoyable culture, other than in one comment about celebrating and rewarding success. Again, it speaks to the need to find out what is of genuine value to staff, rather than creating a generic list of the latest on trend perks.

Work/life Balance – This topic came up a lot, primarily in terms of the option to work from home, reasonable hours and the wider need for greater flexibility. Over the last few years it has been interesting to see how flexibility has moved from something that is nice to have to more of an expectation.


Remuneration almost completely fell of the table at the start of the pandemic, but it is making a strong comeback. Recent moves by several big firms to raise the salaries of graduates and junior lawyers will almost certainly have a knock-on effect on more senior level salaries and likely on salaries across all law firms. According to the Aotearoa Legal Worker’s Union, some firms have raised the wages of graduate and junior lawyers by an average of 15%.[2]   Recent offers received through McLeod Duminy Careers confirm that some firms are starting to implement this increase across all levels and some are prepared to go above the 15% increase for highly sought after skills.

Conclusion / Summary

The overall tone of the survey results on law firm culture and engagement since the pandemic is mixed. Although there was a good amount of positive comments, there was also a considerable amount of comments describing negative experiences in some firms. To continue shaping and guarding a positive and supportive culture remains of high importance. Whether firms are able and willing to identify negative behaviours and flaws, and how they respond to these scenarios, seem to be of utmost importance to survive a candidate short market that seems to be tighter than ever before.

Remuneration is back on the radar, but as we’re only at the start of this shift, salary data is still limited and as always, will depend on various factors. As firms are working through their usual salary benchmarks and reviews, we will hopefully have more concrete data to point to over the next few months.

For more information, or to discuss any aspect of the survey, please feel free to contact Kirsty Spears or Christina Kruger.