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In today’s competitive market, firms sink a lot of time and money into recruiting candidates with just the right mix of grades, gumption and personality. But what happens after getting those top recruits in the door? A lot of them leave, and replacement costs are high. According to a recently-released study of attrition rates in 1999 by the National Association for Law Placement, about 8 percent of associates left during their first year of employment. Cumulative losses reach 38 percent by the third year, nearly 60 percent by the fifth year. This spring, after the huge raises many firms gave their young lawyers, there’s even more motivation for trying to keep associates from heading for the door. For each one that leaves, the price tag may exceed $250,000 at large firms in metropolitan areas, according to a Hildebrandt International study released this summer. A. Summey Orr III, executive partner of Tampa, Fla.-based Holland & Knight’s Atlanta office, says it’s difficult to estimate how much attrition costs. But when an integral part of a practice group needs to be replaced, the cost can climb into the tens of thousands, he says. HOW TO KEEP THEM Paying associates competitive salaries is important, but it’s not enough. Some of the best ways to keep the keepers are training, mentoring, feedback and good treatment by partners. Some firms have flirted with special perks such as in-office massages and concierge services, but they are only patch jobs, according to David H. Maister, a professional services firm consultant and author in Boston. “All of those avoid the central issue, which is, if you are a young person, what you absolutely must have is a fast-development career,” he says. To help people develop quickly, he adds, law firms need to overcome practices embedded in the day-to-day practice of law. One is improving how partners supervise assignments. This includes delegating significant responsibilities, giving constructive feedback on assignments and communicating an understanding of where the assignment fits in the overall project. “Law firms are uniformly pathetic at that,” Maister says. He advocates delegating responsibility, and that requires partners to pass billable hours to junior associates. “This is terrifying for two reasons,” he says. “First it requires the partner to supervise. � Secondly, since partners are measured by their own billable hours, there is an insuperable fear that they will look bad on the firm’s score card if they do the right thing and delegate.” Hildebrandt’s associate retention study lays out a wish list of qualities that motivate associates to stay with a firm. Defining the associate’s role, respecting and valuing that role, and providing the opportunity to do high-quality and interesting work top the list. Working with the best and brightest and making a competitive salary also are on the list, along with commitment to pro bono work, balancing work and personal life, and establishing great credentials. Firms are trying a variety of techniques to keep their best and brightest. FOCUS ON FEEDBACK Kilpatrick Stockton is focusing on feedback. The Atlanta firm acted on associate input to develop its online feedback system, according to Evelyn H. Coats, deputy managing partner for attorney resources. The firm uses its intranet to gather day-to-day spontaneous feedback, to conduct more formal reviews twice a year and to conduct client satisfaction surveys. Additionally, every lawyer now meets with a coach and plans professional and practice development efforts for the year. Then, lawyers get feedback on what they propose. The firm began posting the plans on the intranet last summer, and attorneys can view local practice group and firmwide plans as well. “It’s a tool for people to plan individual growth and see how it fits into the firm as a whole,” Coats says. In an interesting twist, the firm also asks its young lawyers to evaluate their supervisors through online management supervision reviews (MSRs). “The MSRs are a great feedback tool. It’s really a departure from what we’ve done in the past,” Coats says. Every six months, the lawyers get an online review form asking them to review their supervisor for the matters on which they spent the most time, such as a piece of litigation or a business transaction. The forms examine supervision techniques, and include questions such as, “Did you understand how your part of the matter fit into the overall transaction or litigation?” or “Did you have an opportunity to learn something new as you worked through the matter?” “I think we offer a real opportunity to both grow individually as a professional and also develop that team-mindedness � we believe is important for people looking at the practice in the long term,” Coats says. KING & SPALDING U. At other Atlanta-area firms, training takes top billing. King & Spalding, for example, established K & S University nearly 10 years ago “to help all our people become better lawyers, keep up with legal developments and have the benefit of our own very strong experiences,” says managing partner Walter W. Driver Jr. The program operates year-round and offers training in substantive areas and lawyer skills. Each September, new associates and laterals go through a weeklong attorney training program. Founding K&S University, however, had nothing to do with associate retention, Driver says. “I believe each individual looks for things important to him or her in making all career decisions, from summer associate to retirement. I think it would be very simplistic to suggest that such a large and diverse group of people want the same thing from a law firm. They each have professional aspirations, which we try to meet.” The firm does offer perks to retain associates, but Driver declined to comment on whether a $40,000 bonus for associates who stay four years has improved retention. He said he didn’t want to reveal statistics to competing firms. HOLLAND & KNIGHT INSTITUTE Holland & Knight also has an in-house university, called Holland & Knight Institute. The program covers substantive areas as well as using technology, people and communication skills, management skills, client development, and firm policies and procedures. Holland & Knight’s Orr says the training program fits into the firm’s overall strategy to retain employees. The firm recognizes three keys to associate retention: competitive salaries, a pleasant work environment and a clear and achievable career path, which includes mentoring. “Your partners really set the tone for what the work environment will be like. � If they’re not happy where they are � the associates think, ‘Why am I going to give up my blood and sweat to get to a point where this guy is, and he’s miserable,’ ” he says. MENTORING SYSTEM At Los Angeles-based Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, Chris D. Molen, recruiting partner and head of the corporate department in Atlanta, says the firm’s mentoring system helps young associates adjust to practicing law and feel like they’re part of a team. The firm includes associates in client development and marketing sessions. “I think young lawyers today understand the road to partnership and success is beyond technically being proficient and just being a good solid lawyer. They understand developing business is important,” he says. Firm management also is mindful of work allocation and its goal of 2,000 billable hours. “We try mightily to balance billable hours in the firm,” Molen says. “We don’t have some people billing 1,500 hours and some billing 2,500. � With everyone pulling their own weight, the burden doesn’t seem so heavy.” WHAT WORKS, WHAT DOESN’T Associates at Atlanta’s two biggest firms know what works — and what doesn’t work — for them. An Alston & Bird associate, who asked not to be named, says her firm has shown it’s responsive to its younger lawyers. For instance, it put together a promotional CD for its new recruits, showing dressed-down associates explaining their roles and the work the firm handles. Also, she says, training is “huge.” During her first few months at the firm, training meetings occurred about every other day. “They give feedback from attorneys who are not partners. They talk to you as associates and give the rundown on important issues, such as what billables really mean,” she says. The associate says she also appreciates the use-your-common-sense dress code, the eventual availability of day care and part-time schedules, and perks like the fitness center. Not that she’s used the fitness center � she’s working 11-hour days. But she expected the long hours, she says. “Knowing there’s support out there, I think I can survive it. It does feel like they’re trying to support you,” she says. A King & Spalding associate offers a more critical wish list of what his firm should do to retain associates. “To me, mentoring is extremely important, and I think it’s lacking here. It’s something that is important to the fulfillment of the lawyer,” he says, adding that associates in other practice areas may receive more mentoring. Driver says his firm does offer mentoring. “We have a formal mentor program called the Link Program that we’ve had for five years,” he says. According to the firm’s Web site, the mentoring initiative pairs each new associate with a mid-level associate. The mid-level is linked with a partner. Also, every new associate and lateral is linked prior to arriving at K&S. Though the associate enjoys some of King & Spalding’s perks, he wishes they didn’t carry a price tag. For example, the firm offers lawyers a choice between a laptop and a wireless e-mail device called a BlackBerry. The associate says the technology would be great if he didn’t feel desk-bound by the amount of “face time” he believes is expected of young associates. The King & Spalding associate isn’t alone in wanting some time away from the office. The NALP study found that in firms offering flexible hours, telecommuting, part-time work and other alternative work schedules, third-year attrition was 37 percent, compared to 44 percent among offices not offering alternatives. As the K&S associate puts it, “I’d like to go home, walk my dogs and do more work from home.”

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