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The War for Talent

Stick Around: 4 Ideas to Keep Associates From Leaving Your Law Firm

By Wendy Merrill

What can law firms do to solve the associate retention quandary and make their culture “stickier”? Four employee retention strategies to try.

A few years ago, when I spoke with law firms about the importance of investing in the professional development and satisfaction of their associates, my comments were often met with eye rolls and jokes about work-life balance. Over time, I realized that firms across the country were hesitant to invest in younger attorneys’ development due to fear of an attrition-driven mass exodus of clients. Training and coaching programs were seen as incredibly risky endeavors. After all, what was more dangerous to a firm’s bottom line than a newly confident attorney capable of bringing in and managing clients — on their own?

Firms imagined their empowered associates as pied pipers leading clients out the door to another firm.

Ironically, this aversion to empowering the next generation of attorneys to advocate for themselves — to start thinking like partners before being invited to the table — was a driving factor behind the mass hemorrhaging of U.S. law firm talent over the past few years.

Fast-forward to 2022.

Big Salaries Aren’t a Sustainable Solution

The legal space has survived the pandemic and has shown record profits despite the Chicken Little echo chamber. In fact, most firms have more work than they can handle, hence the current staffing crisis.

On the daily, the legal press reports on how this firm is paying associates huge signing bonuses, and how that firm is footing the bill for luxury vacations for its hardworking attorneys. Younger lawyers who never dreamed of moving to New York City are now earning Manhattan salaries without leaving their Philadelphia apartments. Not only are these financial tactics unsustainable, they do little to make associates feel valued, recognized or part of something personally meaningful to their career.

Sure, the money helps to dig folks out of debt, but absent an inclusive culture or focus on professional development, big salaries are a fleeting solution to a larger staffing problem.

Four Ways to Improve Associate Retention

The 2022 Thomson Reuters State of the Legal Market Report states that the “loyalty lawyers feel to their firms and their willingness to work hard is not simply, or even primarily, driven by compensation.” So, what can a firm do to solve the associate retention quandary and make their culture “stickier”? Here are four employee retention strategies.

1. Invest in People

The best way to engage associates and encourage them to stick around is to invest in their professional development. Law school does not teach leadership, client management or the business of law. Providing workshops, seminars and coaching programs are relatively inexpensive ways to invest in rising leaders. Developing “soft skills” is critical to becoming a successful lawyer, and your firm is in a unique position to provide your associates with the tools to become the firm’s future leaders.

The more confident and adept your people become, the more loyal they will be to the firm investing in them.

2. Buddy Up

In addition to professional development and soft skills training, your millennial and Gen Z associates need an internal champion to support them in their career paths at your firm. A champion is a partner who volunteers time to help the associate understand and identify their personal and professional goals and then supports them in their pursuits. This is a bit different from a mentor program because it is specifically focused on the associate’s path to success within the firm. A successful relationship will help the associate to feel more confident, become more focused and feel more supported within the firm.

If the younger lawyers feel like they have an advocate at the leadership level, they are more likely to feel invested in the firm. The more invested they are in the firm, the more likely they are to bring in clients … and the less likely they are to leave.

3. Encourage Community

Everyone needs their “tribe” and lawyers are no different. Consider the dynamics at a bar association event; members love to mingle over cocktails and spend time with peers. There is a sense of calm that comes from surrounding oneself with others who face similar pressures. Lawyers need to feel this sense of belonging in their firms as well. Hosting regular lunches for staff to break bread with firm leadership, or sponsoring volunteer activities as an opportunity for the firm to bond as they “give back” to the community, are two ways your firm can foster a culture of connection.

One way your firm can do its part to address the high burnout, addiction and suicide rates in the legal profession as a whole is to create a supportive and safe environment in which your professional staff can thrive.

4. Make a Plan

If you ask most attorneys to name their goals, you are likely to be met with a blank stare and a shoulder shrug. Setting personal or professional goals and then designing a plan to reach their mapped-out objectives is a foreign concept to many lawyers. Young lawyers especially are accustomed to their firms dictating their rates, hourly requirements, origination expectations and work styles. The best way for attorneys to take more ownership of their roles as agents of growth within the firm is to define their own expectations and goals. Start by encouraging associates to write down their goals and share them with their supervisors and peers. Garnering support for meeting their own expectations — not just the firm’s — and marking each milestone together helps create connection and can be highly motivating.

Stick With It

The current state of the legal marketplace favors the professional mobility of associate attorneys. When you focus on giving young lawyers what they need to achieve their career goals, you can vastly improve your firm’s associate retention rate — as well as the health and well-being of your lawyers. Earning a reputation as a firm that invests in its lawyers’ development will complement your recruiting efforts as well.

About Affinity Consulting Group 

Affinity Consulting Group inspires, enables, and empowers legal teams of all sizes to work smarter, from anywhere. The company’s holistic approach incorporates people, process, and technology. Affinity’s passionate, well-connected industry experts work hand in hand with you to help you better understand and optimize your business—from software to growth strategy, and everything in between.

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Wendy Merrill Wendy Merrill

Wendy Merrill is Director of Strategic Consulting for Affinity, focusing on helping law firms position themselves for sustainable success in a rapidly changing environment. Before joining Affinity, Wendy served as an Executive Vice President at DRI, the largest bar association for civil defense attorneys. Since 2012, she has worked with thousands of professionals around the world providing strategic planning, professional development programs, leadership development training, marketing strategy, and business development expertise. She is also a published author, internationally known speaker and facilitator, and growth strategy coach. An avid horsewoman, Wendy enjoys cooking and Italian travel as well.

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