Tag Archives: retention

Your Firm Could be a “Go Firm”. Make it a “Stay Firm”

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.[1]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.[2]  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.
  1. 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/
  2. 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.[2]

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?

[1] 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, Thomson Reuters Institute, p. 20

[2]  https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2021/08/23/the-2021-midlevel-associates-survey-the-national-rankings/
60% surveyed associates also said that they have considered leaving for better work-life balance.

Edge Principal  advises firms on growth strategies and lateral integration programs. In addition to being a lawyer with a master’s from Harvard Law School and an LLB from the University of Western Ontario, he is a trained mediator who has taught at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine Law School. He frequently trains partners and associates on management skills like delegation, feedback, managing up and career development.  His interactive courses are now online.

Talent Retention: A Big Conundrum

With the rise of the new East, emerging economies of Asia are undergoing a tremendous transformation. With the continued inflow of foreign direct investment and major policy changes, businesses are flocking to capture the opportunities presented by increased customer base.

This is intensifying the competition for talent and leadership – a trend that is cutting across all sectors including legal.

With shorter career progressions (associates getting promoted to partnership in just six to seven years), expectations are growing higher. This coupled with unclear growth path for seniors – post becoming partners – is making it increasingly difficult for the mid-sized and small law firms to retain their performing assets (lawyers). The buoyant legal-talent market is just adding to it. All these factors are seriously affecting the competitiveness, sustainability and growth of the mid-sized and smaller law firms in India.

While almost every firm identifies retention as a major challenge for them, only a few have started addressing this issue. There is a huge gap in managing expectations and aligning them towards the interest of the firm.

Realizing this gap, some firms have started engaging professionals to coach their lawyers and partners in a bid to retain their talent pool by helping them realize their progression and role in the growth of the firm. However, the focus is more on pressing and tactical priorities – immediate talent retention – and much less on long-term solutions.

Pinpointing a problem is only the first step to finding solutions. Some firms have started taking steps including reduced-hour schedules, alternative work arrangements, mentorship programs, steering committees, etc.  However, most firms that have implemented such programmes feel that changing the firm’s culture has yielded better results than changing business models or billing requirements.

Respect, transparency, and a fair playing field are important in any organization. With lawyers increasingly having options to practice law in a way that fits into their lives (whether in a traditional firm or in an alternative practice model), it is all the more important to ensure that they feel valued and are appreciated for their contribution and good work.

Talent management and leadership development have been pretty low on the priority list of executive committees at law firms. With the Indian legal market going through an important phase (as the talks of liberalisation gain grounds every passing day), the key to growth will be managing the turbulent tides of talent scarcity, employee expectations and leadership shortage. Hence, more than ever before, law firms of all sizes need strong, guiding hands to steer them through rolling waves of change.