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What can be done about the visible flight to dot-com companies? There is a way of thinking positively about the freelance mentality. Attorneys as well as business executives are making those moves for, often, greatly reduced compensation, at least in the short term, in search of adventure and the opportunity to build something, which they rarely have in a law firm except as founders and leaders. Even business schools and more traditional companies are offering leaves of absences so that students and employees can spend some time at Internet companies or pursuing individual interests. They’ve seen the handwriting on the wall. Although the attraction of dot-com opportunities has made a big media splash and constitutes what passes for titillating gossip these days, these moves can carry considerable risk. And remember most lawyers tend to be risk averse. Already there is a counter-trend of lawyers returning from dot-coms to law firms because they are uncomfortable with aspects of the culture and lack of support services. If there is a trend toward willingness to take risk (educated risk), that is good news. So how can firms take advantage of the freelance mentality of today’s lawyers (especially young lawyers) for mutual benefit? First, firm management at various levels — firm-wide leaders, practice group heads, local office managers, committee chairs — need to understand the life and career objectives of the younger lawyers. That may not be intuitive or be derived from projecting their own goals and experiences, as there are overall generational differences. These are, perhaps, more distinct than those between generations in the past, especially when related to the workplace. Here are some guidelines: • People are looking for a sense of “community” at work since they spend so much time there and have little or no time for traditional community activities. Encourage and support fun, group activities as a core part of firm culture. Let the young lawyers take charge. Firms that carry on like a collection of fiefdoms with an internally competitive culture will experience large turnover. • Since regular, timely feedback is a high priority for young lawyers, make it a high priority with an appropriate reward system for the more senior attorneys who manage them. Train those attorneys in giving candid, meaningful and effective evaluations. The young attorneys want to learn how to do things and be self-sufficient. If you don’t help them, they’ll go somewhere that they think will. • Self-sufficient, opportunity seekers want recognition based on the merit of their accomplishments, not on a lock-step, delayed gratification system. Spell out the incentive system in advance, giving merit-based bonuses and non-monetary perks such as time and opportunity for training, plum assignments and significant roles in seeking firm cultural change. Be willing to listen to and test their ideas. Many will be unworkable (as is true in any group) but a few good, innovative ideas implemented can propel the firm ahead of the competition. • Many young professionals abhor time-based systems and processes requiring things to be done in a particular place. Focus on managing goals and deadlines, not time. Let them figure out how to get the job done on time, managing their own use of time among work product, business development and non-billable activities, and personal life. They may have a different mental process for reaching work solutions, and it is not necessarily inferior to that of their supervisors. • Even more than the more experienced lawyers, the younger ones tend to be put off by office politics and the sapping of time and emotional energy it takes from other things they consider more important. Be transparent in both official and informal messages. Minimize office politics and coach the young lawyers through the minefields and dynamics of getting things done. • Similar to the attraction of home-based businesses, young professionals have a need and desire to merge their work and personal lives. Rather than sharply differentiating the work and personal selves, build in flexibility for taking care of the responsibilities of both — as long as work is done well and on time and clients are happy. • Young professionals want more opportunity for self-expression and authenticity in their work. Casual dress, using their talents for charitable purposes, not being expected to fit into a mold traditionally defined as “professional” and living up to someone else’s definition of success are all conducive to a desirable work environment and will help to make people stay. Ask for their “fresh” viewpoints on work and work environment and give them a fair hearing. If the core mission of people with a freelance mentality is “to grow my life and a career and serve our client,” what does the firm contract back? Numerous studies including those by human resource and benefits firms Hewitt Associates and Watson Wyatt Worldwide as well as the Hudson Institute and Walker Information have found that trust, care and concern, respect and fair treatment are the essential ingredients for building loyalty and obtaining commitment. Too many firms and individual managers don’t give credence to this “soft” side, and thereby open the door to acceptance of headhunters calls by their colleagues. So first, the more senior attorneys need to infuse the culture with the belief that taking extra time to show care, respect and provide opportunities to build trust is well worth their precious time. Ask how people are doing. Give constructive tips and critiques. Be flexible in times of personal emergencies. Show concern for how people feel. And very importantly, discuss individual attorney’s goals with them and demonstrate how the firm is developing them for the long term. Retention is a complex subject and there may be no perfect solution given personal objectives and varying definitions of “success.” Following the guidelines laid out here will at least extend the time of commitment to the firm, make it a happier place to be and consequently improve productivity and dedicated service to clients. Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, New York-based firm consulting to lawyers on business development and service quality and the author of “The Rainmaking Machine” (West Group). She can be reached at 212-593-1549, or by e-mail: [email protected]

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