The talent market for associates is red-hot. We’re seeing record departures and stories of signing bonuses for second-year associates and clerks. Instead of gearing up your recruiting to fill departures, you may want to examine the ways that associates will make your firm a “Stay Firm”, not a “Go Firm”.
A recent Thomson Reuters Report displayed this contrast in turnover rates across large and mid-sized firms.
Stay Firms had relatively low annual associate turnover in 2021. Go Firms had turnover rates as high as 23%. Some surprising additional data from the Thomson study:
- Associates at Stay Firms worked an average of 51 hours per year (1,527 hours) more than at Go Firms (1,476 hours).
- Compensation rates at Stay Firms grew more slowly than at Go Firms (nearly 2% less).
In summary, associates at Stay Firms are not staying for extra money or fewer billable hours. What is the glue that keeps associates at Stay Firms?
Five Talent Retention Practices to Create a Stay Firm
It is not magic dust or glue. Associates stay when there is a binding workplace culture and there are specific talent retention strategies. These practices take partner time and the support of a strong professional development department.
- Ensure that every associate has 1-2 mentoring relationships with a partner. While some firms assign mentors, we suggest that an associate be encouraged to find “natural mentors” – partners who easily take up that role and regularly work with the associate. The professional development team will step in, after 6-8 months, and assign a mentor if an associate has missed the opportunity.
- Train partners and supervising associates in feedback skills and create both upward feedback and supervisory feedback loops. Very few law firms are regarded as having a “feedback culture” – where juniors feel free to give upward feedback and more senior lawyers are skilled at providing constructively critical feedback. In a time when associates are getting regular calls from recruiters, it might take just one or two badly handled feedback sessions (or no feedback at all) for an associate to depart. Lawyers are not naturally skilled in giving feedback, but skill training can build a feedback culture.
- Have a work assignment and workload monitoring system in every practice group. Practice group leaders who study historical work assignment patterns will find that some associates are favored (and soon overloaded) while others are not. Associates are loathe to say “no” to a partner, but they can do so under the cover of a partner-supervised central work assignment system. The professional development team can also help you fairly distribute work to diverse associates and those who are not developing through more challenging work.
These first three practices are supported by data from the AmLaw Mid-levels surveys. Mid-levels are asked if they expect to continue to work in their firm two years from now. Those who say “yes” must believe that they are in Stay Firm. When the survey cross-tabulates those “yes” answers with other questions the data shows that associates stay for these top reasons:
- a strong working relationship with a specific partner
- regular constructive feedback from supervisors
- the assignment of challenging work.
- Tailor your supervision to individual associates. Developing associates seek increasing autonomy. They want you to trust that the work will be done well and on time. At the same time, your concern about client service or a bad past experience with an associate might cause you to micro-manage all associates. To tailor supervision appropriately for associates, start by asking “What do you need from me as a supervisor?” I discussed this approach more fully in https://www.edge.ai/2016/04/tailored-talent-supervision/
- Hold quarterly “stay interviews” and focus on career development and advancement opportunities within the firm. The practice group leader should organize a roster of these interviews, assigning roughly equal associate interviews to all partners and counsel. I suggest quarterly frequency in 2022 because you must assume that “go interviews” are being sought by your competitors every week. The professional development or recruiting department can help with a “stay story” that starts with the annual associate evaluation and helps the associate see that there is potential development in knowledge and skill. It also helps when the firm has a clear path to partnership defined. Finally, partners should open a discussion of ways to achieve work-life balance.
These five practices take partner time, high degrees of communication and firm investment in organization and training. But will you spend any less time and money on lost associate experience, recruitment and new associate development if you are a Go Firm?
 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, Thomson Reuters Institute, p. 20
60% surveyed associates also said that they have considered leaving for better work-life balance.