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It’s a challenge faced by any small or midsize law firm: identifying, recruiting and retaining quality personnel. With large firms aggressively competing for the same talent pool, what is a small or midsize firm-one with 100 attorneys or fewer-to do? A survey by the National Association for Law Placement measured the primary factors influencing job changes of lateral associates. Directory of Legal Employers, 2004-2005. The findings indicate that position changes are a result of the quality of work offered, area of practice, compensation and culture. Smaller firms must address those four areas, of course, but to successfully attract associates, these firms can offer some special enticements that larger firms are hard-pressed to match. Most significantly, smaller and midsize firms can offer incoming attorneys a higher level of substantive work assignments, involvement with senior attorneys and direct client interaction at a much faster pace than at larger firms. Associates at small and midsize firms often are able, for example, to conduct expert depositions and become actively involved in challenging assignments and case management. Associates may be afforded the opportunity to argue in court years earlier than at larger firms, allowing them to practice, develop and grow at a faster pace. And because firms with fewer attorneys often allow associates to participate in the strategic planning process for clients, associates benefit from a chance to understand how cases are managed and tried. Law firm culture is another area where the law firms that are not behemoths can show significant advantages over larger firms. A 2005 survey conducted by International Survey Research LLC, a Chicago employee research and consulting firm, showed that 34% of employees surveyed reported that the demands of their jobs seriously interfere with their private lives. See press release, “Numbers Suggest Job Security Improving for U.S. Workers, but Work-Life Balance is More Difficult to Achieve,” Aug. 29, 2005, www.isrsurveys.com/pdf/media/ LaborDay%20Release8.29.05.pdf. Firms of a more manageable size often have the flexibility to offer a number of work-life benefit programs, which involve assisting professionals in balancing their work and personal lives, thereby creating a more positive place to work. By creating a balanced and flexible professional environment, flexible firms can effectively keep attorneys motivated, productive, satisfied and loyal without harming the bottom line. According to CCH Inc.’s “15th Annual CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey” (2005), professionals who do not perceive that their firm provides a work-life balance report increased levels of stress and demonstrated higher absenteeism. See press release, “Costly Problem of Unscheduled Absenteeism Continues to Perplex Employers,” Oct. 12, 2005, http://hr.cch.com/ press/releases/ absenteeism/default.asp. One such work-life benefit program is the establishment of an open-door policy, in order to generate a positive work environment. This allows attorneys and staff members to effectively communicate their specific issues or areas of concern to senior personnel, without the fear of repercussions. The upside for the firm: When professionals feel their concerns and priorities are being addressed, they will be further dedicated to their jobs and will be inclined to work more productively. In addition, firm turnover rates will be significantly reduced. One of the greatest advantages these firms have to offer is a more unified, tight-knit work environment that is geared to respond quickly to employee hardships. How a firm assists staff members through difficult times such as during serious illnesses-both personal and family-and during natural disasters can generate company loyalty and assist in the retention of personnel. An example can include providing continued paychecks and food in the aftermath of a hurricane. Benefits and perks Another work-life benefit that small and midsize firms can consider is the creation of a family-friendly work environment. Job sharing, flex time, on-site day care, employee assistance programs, referral services for elder or child care and paid maternity or paternity leave can create an extremely loyal professional who is willing to go the extra mile for the law firm. These firms do not have to provide all of these listed programs. They can offer a rewarding and positive work environment for all professionals without breaking the bank by establishing workplace practices that employees really value. The incorporation of one or two of these program features can help to achieve the overall goal of providing a rewarding and positive environment. An innovative work-life benefit program that has recently come to the forefront is the combination of vacation time with sick days to create one bank of paid time off (PTO). Staff members still have their traditional paid holidays, but are able to earn additional days off as PTO. Individuals may use this time as needed for any number of reasons, including attending a child’s school play, taking off to run errands and so forth-as long as they schedule PTO in advance. “Lifestyle” perks are other means smaller firms can use to attract and retain employees. These can include business equipment for associates and partners to work from home-laptop computers and personal digital assistants, for example. Other perks can include an on-site fitness center, casual dress policies, support of community volunteerism, tuition reimbursement, retirement plans, career advancement programs and specialized training. While noting the importance of corporate culture and work-life balance, small and midsize firms also must provide prospective attorneys with compensation and benefits packages that are comparable to those at larger firms. This includes competitive salaries, matching 401(k) plans, comprehensive medical coverage, parking subsidies, employee assistance programs, annual bonuses and car or mileage allowances. Additionally, support for professional development through training should be a cornerstone of small and midsize law firms. Employees are more likely to look for a new job when their career advancement and training needs are not being met, according to The Hudson Employment Index’s “Hudson Survey of 10,000 Workers Examines Retention Tactics and Employee Tenure,” www.hudson-index.com/node.asp?SID=5059&print=1. A well-rounded workload combined with appropriate support and training are essential in assisting professionals in advancing their careers. Small and midsize firms also are more apt to encourage their attorneys to develop leadership capabilities and gain recognition among their peers by seeking leadership positions in state and national law organizations, such as the American Bar Association, the Defense Research Institute or state or international practice-area associations. Challenging, yet balanced Small and midsize firms can attract top-tier talent through focusing on creating a challenging, yet balanced, work environment. The combination of quality work, prestigious clients and family-friendly firm cultures allows smaller, independent firms to compete with-and often beat out-the industry’s larger players when it comes to recruiting and retaining top-notch personnel. These employees will be happier professionals who feel valued by their firms and subsequently will generate better quality work. James Nations is the chief operating officer at Gordon Hargrove & James, a civil litigation firm with 35 attorneys and with its principal office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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