Tag Archives: talent

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 Development:  Beyond the Assignment

In BigLaw firms, or in any firm with multiple associates, an assignment of work by a partner or senior associate, is a signifier of many things.  To the management committee, it signifies leverage.  To the partner, it is project management and the choice of competent associate.  To the associate, it can signify repetitive drudgery or an opportunity to learn and impress.  In the worst circumstances, with a tight deadline and insufficient support, it can signify a set-up to fail.

I propose a definition of the typical assignment that all members of a firm might embrace.  An assignment is a career development opportunity.

Thinking of the assignment in this way, what can partners and associates do to ensure that there is a career development benefit for the associate in most assignments?  (I’ll concede that every partner is going to have to assign some drudgery work that is beneath the development level of the available associate.)

Let’s begin with the initial delegation.  As I teach in my management skill courses for partners and senior associates, a complete delegation must:

  • provide a “big picture” context for the work
  • review likely issues and resources known to the delegator
  • be specific as to product, time allocation and deadline
  • wrap up with a summary provided by the recipient.

While most of these steps are the delegator’s responsibility, associates can step up and offer a summary.  This gives the opportunity to clarify and provide tips for the recipient.

To signify career development, a partner can do more at this stage.  During the delegation, ask “Have you done one of these before?”.  A “no” answer means that you’ll need to do some check-ins and coaching along the way.  Each time, you’ll talk about how this work relates to more complex and challenging work that lies ahead for the associate.  When you make the assignment, you can also schedule a time for feedback, even for the more experienced associate.  This signifies that you care about both the work product and the associate’s development.

If you are going to be working with an associate for more than 40-50 hours in a year, you will be asked to evaluate their performance for the year.  For that group of associates, the partner should keep a file of ongoing development notes for each associate.  The assignment is core evidence of development, so you might organize your notes chronologically by assignment.  Given the annual evaluation criteria, what strengths and weaknesses did the associate exhibit on this assignment?  Share that feedback when the assignment is completed, not months later.  Your notes are for a year-end evaluation summary.

In many firms, the partner-associate duo is not the only influence on assignment choices.  Where a practice group has an assigning partner or committee, the partner cannot choose an overworked associate.  However, that assigning body is also supposed to ensure that new assignments help build the associate’s career and that the work can justify the rate being charged to a client.  While it is intimidating to do, associates who believe that neither of these goals is being regularly advanced, should raise their concerns with the assigning body.  In a firm that touts its talent development (as most do in their recruitment pitches), the assigning body should be there for the associate.

Another institutional check on assignments is the diversity promise of law firms.  Are diverse associates getting the same quality of assignments and career development as others?  As partners keep assignment notes and prepare for annual evaluation throughout the year, they need to be conscious of even-handed treatment of diverse associates who are available for work.  A diversity officer or committee can assist if you are unsure about how to handle this aspect of assignments.

Finally, when the assignment has been completed, the partner can “tie the bow” on an assignment by connecting it to career development, in a later conversation that covers four things:

  • tell them how the work product was used in the overall transaction or litigation
  • pass on any expressions of client satisfaction
  • ask the associate what they learned from that assignment
  • ask the associate what kind of future assignment would be a challenging addition to their career trajectory.

Assignments are not just about obtaining a work product.  They are about developing and retaining talent.

David Cruickshank is a Principal at Edge International.  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.


Building Trust: The Inviolable Rule

With all the attention given to the external forces bringing about change and impacting the legal profession, we sometimes forget how much of successful legal services business is still about human relationships and building trust. Trust is the key building block for so many different areas and interactions in law firms: one that impacts just about every aspect of our existence and our success or failure. Look at any successful firm and you will find they have managed to build trust in some or most of the ways highlighted below. Often it is by accident; ideally it is also by design.

Trust is something we can all understand: we know how we feel when we trust an organisation. We will sometimes ‘buy now and ask questions later’. We will assume their product or service, and even what they say about it, is tried and tested and is good. We will refer others to that organisation. We will be loyal to it. We may even suggest to a bright young star that they should apply to work for that organisation. In some respects it becomes an organisation that in our mind doesn’t have many if any substitutes.

There are very few so–called “black and white” or inviolable rules in the areas of leadership and management of a law firm – one, however, is this underpinning, foundational role of trust. As leaders and managers, we ignore it at our peril.

Let’s consider some areas within our professional businesses where trust is this central element:

  • whether leaders will be successful in taking their firm, their colleagues and staff with them;
  • how effectively support service managers will undertake their roles;
  • whether key client relationships will be enduring;
  • whether the firm’s brand is trusted enough to bring in a steady flow of work, and win key projects;
  • whether high calibre personnel will instinctively want to join the firm as employees or partners;
  • whether staff feel truly engaged in the firm – will they want to make their careers at the firm, stay with the firm and go the extra mile for the firm?
  • the impact of trust on staff turnover and the costs associated with that;
  • whether clients will pay bills promptly;
  • Aside from the firm’s brand and pulling power, will partners individually be able to attract work?
  • Will the very best service providers drop everything to do work for the firm?
  • Will clients will do everything they can to appoint individual partners to do their work, or refer others to those same partners?

The challenge in addressing something like trust, particularly as it impacts so many different areas of a firm, is to get this message through to everyone in the firm beyond intellectually, and make it stick. It is important that everyone in the firm understands this. After all, every interaction they have with others, and how they go about their work, impacts trust in one or more of the ways mentioned above.

This will require a convincing argument, and moving people at the firm beyond the usual casual ‘Yeah I get that. It’s obvious, and I will bear it in mind’ attitude. Somehow they need to be moved to actually do something about it. Otherwise it continues to be one of those important things that everyone agrees on, but little gets done about it.

How do you address this from a practical perspective? Some examples:

  • ensure everyone understands concepts like Brand Fusion – ensuring that what you offer and promise is actually delivered – especially important for employment brands;
  • build the concept of trust into your leadership development training and coaching;
  • ensure that trust and its impact are fully understood by all in the firm, and that it is covered in your values or guiding principles;
  • make trust part of your expectations in terms of partner or staff performance criteria and contributions;
  • build principles like responsiveness and reliability into all of the above and make it part of the firm’s DNA;
  • ensure that everyone who has staff reporting to them takes a genuine interest in them and is accountable for building trusted professional and working relationships with them – we do this via our Responsible Partner® program;

The benefits can be immense:

  • trusted leadership and management;
  • high levels of staff engagement with positive impacts on employment brand, staff turnover, recruitment effectiveness;
  • dramatically improved team performance;
  • improved financial results with excellent working capital management;
  • enduring client relationships where key clients become marketing gate-keepers, referring other potential clients to the firm;
  • a brand for which there is deemed to be no substitute – in Marty Neumeier’s words (The Brand Gap) a ‘charismatic brand’;
  • the very best service providers beating a path to your door; and ultimately,
  • lasting differentiation which is difficult for competitors to replicate.

So it is worth discussing all the implications of building trust with partners and staff, building their understanding around this, and getting their active involvement and support. No-one in the firm should ever again under-estimate the central and far-reaching importance of trust.