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One year ago this month, nearly 20,000 new lawyers — with degrees from ABA-accredited law schools in hand and bar exams behind them — started their careers as first-year associates in law firms across the country. Data from the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reveal that somewhat more than 4,000 members of the class of 1999 acquired jobs with large law firms, joining organizations with more than 250 attorneys. Interestingly, twice as many, or nearly 8,000 of their fellow graduates chose jobs with smaller firms, joining organizations of 50 or fewer attorneys, and about 2,200 went to firms somewhere between the large and small. Just as importantly, about 4,200 graduates went to government agencies, 3,500 acquired clerkships, 4,200 joined business and industry. Last but far from least, about 900 graduates of the class of 1999 took jobs with public interest agencies, while about 400 took jobs in academia. This data, from NALP’s annual report titled “Jobs & JD’s: Employment and Salaries of New Law Graduates, Class of 1999,” are interesting to consider in light of what has transpired during these graduates’ first year as bona fide practicing lawyers. For example, little did the graduates-turned-large law firm associates of the class of 1999 expect when they accepted their jobs that some of them would realize 30 percent salary increases during their first six-to-nine months on the job. Consider the graduates who chose a job that paid slightly less than that of name-brand law firms but offered a regime they perceived as more conducive to work-life balance, only to find that their “good salaries” suddenly looked meager against the backdrop of the increases. Fewer graduates still could have expected that they would be faced with pressures to make public their life values as they reconciled the either-or-proposition of fulfilling billable hour expectations and “having a life.” And none of those choosing private practice careers could have reckoned the pressures they would encounter as “career optimization” for lawyers through lateral job change became acceptable. As first year associates, they have seen lateralling elevated to a necessary means to characterize an associate’s value, not to mention the ability to be chic. Who among the class of 1999 could have suggested that being recruited by a fledgling dot-com struggling with management chaos, lacking solid financial footing and rife with risk, would be considered a plum? And who among these graduates reckoned that jobs with accounting firms, investment banking and management consulting firms would realize so much headline space and gain such allure? Furthermore, the not-so-subtle notion of some law firm management teams that hiring new law graduates isn’t a very good deal in light of their contribution to the bottom line, is a stunning realization the newest attorneys in the profession did not see coming. It has been a dizzying ride for last year’s first years, particularly for associates in the largest law firms. But in reality, the fun is just beginning both for associates and for law firm management teams. Statistically speaking, among the 4,000 or so 1999 graduates who acquired jobs in the largest firms, about 350 have already quit. For any of myriad reasons, they did not stay to see the completion of their first year with their first employers. Another 600 or so associates will depart sometime during the year 2000 as second years, and the exodus will likely continue until nearly 40 percent, or roughly 1,600 of the 4,000 associates hired as new grads by the largest law firms have left their firms before completing three years and hitting the “profitability” threshold. ASSOCIATE ATTRITION By today’s standards, given the abundance of job opportunities for legal talent, as well as the new protocol that validates lateral job changes and the fallibility of the job-search-hiring process, it seems that associate attrition is just a fact of life. Law firm management teams made the decision to boost salaries during the past year, and it was assumed that as associates cashed bigger paychecks and settled into the new standard of living the raises would undergird, firms would realize a return on their investment in the form of both loyalty of current associates and improved prowess in recruitment. But not surprisingly, on the heels of the salary adjustments renewed reports of associate restlessness circulated. New data from the September 2000 report from the NALP Foundation for Research and Education, entitled “Beyond the Bidding Wars,” reveals that offices of more than 250 lawyers are posting annual average attrition rates of more than 16 percent, with that figure soaring to about 20 percent for attrition of associates of color. Every study of retention and recruitment in recent years has pointed out the importance of paying competitive market rates when establishing associate salaries. That said, despite unprecedented associate compensation, unwanted attrition continues unabated, lateral movement has become an accepted means of optimizing a legal career, and restlessness among associates is pervasive. Access to higher compensation has yet to affect change in these circumstances as law firms nationwide have extended higher and higher wages to the most junior attorneys in the firm. It would seem according to associates who have participated in NALP Foundation research studies, that the answers to some of the issues surrounding attrition can be found in a cluster of value-driven expectations. What seems to matter most to associates is: � The opportunity to participate fully in the work and life of the firm as a lawyer engaged in challenging, meaningful cases; � The firm’s recognition of their talent and value through extension of competitive salaries and benefits; � The satisfaction that comes from relationships that form between and among lawyers as professional colleagues and between lawyers and staff as members of a team; � The assurance that candid, forthcoming evaluations, performance expectations and skills benchmarks offer lawyers in directing their careers; � The sense of security that fair and equitable policies and practices lend to a lawyer’s perception of his or her opportunity for success in a firm; and � The comfort of working under management practices that sustain the law firm’s stature and stability, ensuring excellent work assignments and top-notch service to clients. What makes a difference in the war for talent? How can law firms distinguish themselves as preferred employers of the top junior lawyers? What strategies will enable a firm to “keep the keepers” that they are so actively pursuing as they hire new talent this fall? If, as the evidence suggests, the answer is not limited to money, then it is time to look carefully at the entire range of values that drive the career decisions of young lawyers. Capitalizing on their interests and needs for recognition, collegiality, candor, stability, inclusiveness and challenge may offer the long-term leverage legal employers want and need in the competition for legal talent. Paula A. Patton is executive director of the National Association for Law Placement. She can be reached at [email protected]

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