Tag Archives: work life balance

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.

The Focus Challenge – Part 3: Your Family

1. Fighting Zero

In any given moment, there is a competition for a lawyer’s attention between family and clients. A successful lawyer needs to resolve that competition in favour of clients most of the time – but not all of the time.

From a time-management perspective, this competition is like the “urgent versus important” battle that doesn’t seem to go away.

All family matters are important… but only some are urgent. In most cases, those family matters that are both important and urgent can be dealt with, even if it means pushing the substantive legal work to the side at least temporarily. Sometimes there are irreconcilable conflicts where few options exist. When the legal matter cannot be delegated or moved to the side, an important and urgent family matter may suffer. So to be realistic, the lawyer’s family must occasionally sacrifice for the law practice, but that outcome should not become habitual.

The default pattern for many is to rationalize that if the matter is important to the practice, then the family should simply sacrifice. With this approach, if one kept score as to whether the attention of the lawyer went to clients or to family, at the end of some period of time the score might very well be 100% clients, 0% family.

Obviously, zero percent attention to the family is neither healthy nor sustainable, but I suspect it happens more often than any of us would like to believe.

My assertion to lawyers that zero percent is not adequate frequently results in a defensive reaction:

“You just don’t understand! It’s the substantive practice that sustains my family by allowing me to provide for them. They simply have to understand, or neither my practice nor our lifestyle will be tenable.“

This defensive reaction is, in my view, based on a misconception. I am NOT arguing that the family should get a very significant portion of the lawyer’s business day overall. This is not my point. My point is that the lawyer has to be careful to pick and choose where the family priorities must supersede the pressures of the practice.

To put it in numeric terms, I am not suggesting that a lawyer for whom the scores are 100% clients and 0% family should move to 50-50. But I am suggesting that 0% family is not okay, and that even a slight move from 0% is an infinite improvement.

2. Integrating Family and Your Practice

It’s probably not much of a stretch to convince most lawyers that they should attend their child’s school play, season-final game, graduation, or other significant event.

Here are some other thoughts that might help a lawyer avoid zero percent:

  • If you can’t be home for every workday evening meal with your family, then how about making it sacred to do so once per week?
  • If you can’t attend every parent-teacher interview for your child, what about attending 50% of them (or fewer if you’re lucky enough to have a spouse who has the time available to allow you a smaller percentage).
  • Ensure that your calendar integrates the important family obligations with your work obligations. If you don’t want your professional calendar to reveal the elements or nature of personal commitments, use a code, such as “See Calendar A.” While this article is not about technology, you may be able to integrate both your professional calendar and your personal one on your smart phone without giving access to your personal calendar to those in your office.

3. Impact of Professional Life on Home

The challenges to the well-being of those in the legal profession have become epidemic (see Lawyer Well-Being: An Issue We Must Address Right Now).

If I told you a member of the family who worked at a law firm was suffering from: substance abuse and/or depression, what would you say the impact would likely be on the immediate members of the family?

The first line of attack is prevention. If we are past prevention, then it’s time for professional help (see Five Essential Articles: Depression and Substance Abuse among Lawyers).

On an optimistic note, let’s say that you are living a balanced life, not suffering from the wellness issues referenced earlier and are very close in a meaningful way to your family. My advice is to value what you have – and not to risk losing it by taking it for granted. Ensure that your spouse agrees that the balance is working well; if not, work it through – even if professional assistance is required for that process as well. It will be worth it in the long run.


I’d be happy to discuss any of the component pieces of this series of articles in greater depth as a courtesy to my readers. Contact me at edge.ai or at my blog, gerryriskin.com.

In the first article in this series, I discussed:


In the second article, I discussed:


Gerry Riskin, B. Com, LLB, P. Admin, is an internationally recognized lawyer, author and management consultant and founder of Edge International. He was managing partner of a law firm in Canada and Hong Kong, and is the author of The Successful Lawyer, Creating The Marketing Mindset, Herding Cats and beyond KNOWING. Gerry resides in Anguilla BWI and serves law firm clients globally.

Characteristics of Winning Small Firms

It was my recent pleasure to attend the annual conference of a group of affiliated small firms that I have known for about 25 years. Every now and then they ask me to look at their financial performance and we discuss a range of contemporary issues.

I haven’t attended for about eight years or so, and the 2018 conference fascinated me. This group is made up of 25 regional, suburban and a couple of city firms, all relatively small. Average net profit per partner is $700,000. Average profit margin is 39.77%. I know that many large firm partners wouldn’t be impressed by this, but don’t forget that these people go home at 5:30 pm (if not before) and usually holiday for about six weeks each year.

This is what all of these firms have in common. It has been developed collaboratively, through their network, for 27 years or so. All of these firms do the following:

They value management.

Outside large, national and international firms, where most of the profession live, operational management often takes a back seat. In fact, truth be told many partners don’t see management as ‘real work’, certainly not as important as substantive legal work.

By contrast, all of the successful smaller firms that I encounter have at least one management enthusiast in the partnership. These partners are encouraged to develop their interest, to source and disseminate innovative strategies, and are often delegated the role of managing partner.

I am often asked, “How big do we need to be to afford a general manager or managing partner? Surely we’re too small for that?” I suggest that those asking this question consider the event of a client asking them, “I have this business that turns over a few million and employs 20 of us. Do you think it’s a good idea for it to be managed properly?”

Therefore, if you haven’t yet done so, appoint a partner to the role of managing partner. Note that this is not a promotional position with lofty status. It’s a job. Managing partners should be allocated time to manage without penalty; in a small firm, usually 30% fee relief will do.

Don’t appoint someone to the role because they are the most senior or because their practice has dried up and they have nothing else to do. Pick someone who has an interest in doing the job well – and is actually capable of doing the job well. Invest in their development.

They plan and execute.

Good firms are planning regularly. They have a clear vision, widely understood values and a real sense of purpose.

Partners agree on a direction and a number of annual objectives. They may even commit to a five-year strategy. These objectives effectively form the managing partner’s job description.

I recommend that firms of all shapes and sizes share their plans with all staff, measure progress and celebrate success.

They are open to change.

I’ve met too many law firm partners who operate with the “That won’t work because…” default position. Good firms are full of partners that don’t do this. Instead, they grab hold of ideas, often half-baked, and work out how they can make them work.

They have invested in systems.

Good businesses are organised. Successful firms implement operational systems that are consistently observed throughout the practice: they don’t have individual partners or associates doing things ‘their way’.

Successful small firms invest in centralised precedent and document management, legal project management, integrated client management and billing systems, and workflow optimisation systems. They understand that file velocity (how quickly the job gets done) contributes significantly to profitability and that file volume (number of files per lawyer) does not.

They take away the issue of pay.

Highly successful firms are usually generous with salary and staff conditions. Staff don’t sit around feeling undervalued; they put ‘pay’ out of their minds and concentrate on client outcomes.

They are focussed on the client experience.

Good firms understand the purpose of their existence: constant, incremental improvement to the client experience is at their core. It is central to all that they do.

They pay for advice and listen to it.

(Perhaps a little self-serving but nonetheless significant.) Good firms know when to buy advice. Be it big-picture strategy or day-to-day operational advice, management professionals have the benefit of seeing many firms each year, and they usually know what works when.

They tackle one thing at a time.

One of the things that I have observed over the years is that the best firms that I have worked with achieved what they have through a sedimentary approach, layer upon layer. They have managed change incrementally, not through a radical re-engineering process.

At every conference that you attend, with each new management book that you read or webinar in which you participate, just pick one thing to implement. Don’t try to do it all or it will become too difficult, and you’ll become another firm held back by ‘failure to implement syndrome’.

They share with like-minded peers

The group of firms that I spent two midweek days with (firms this good don’t meet on weekends: they have lives to live) have all helped each other to develop and grow great businesses. Over the years they have also become close friends.

It’s a great model.