Q: I am a member of our firm’s hiring committee. We, like all of our competitors, have to grapple with the issue of associate attrition. As we make a big investment in our associates, economically and in terms of time, it is a loss for us when someone leaves, especially if that person was performing at or above expectations.
We do get feedback from some who leave and also receive input from our associates committee about issues that are on the minds of younger lawyers. I am interested in knowing what recruiters hear from lateral associates and suggestions that you may have – as much as this may be against your best interest – to slow down this movement. Thanks.
A: I welcome the question and am happy to provide guidance. Mobility is pronounced these days and can be driven by reasons that are outside of a firm’s control (such as geography, platform, and changes in career ambitions). Thus, offering some suggestions is not likely to be injurious to our firm (or that of other recruiters). There are some areas that you can influence, so I will address them and will close with some recommendations.
The most common reasons that associates cite for wanting to make a move include the following, which are listed in rough order of how often they are mentioned:
Negative atmosphere in the firm. Expectations in this regard differ based on years of experience and age. Younger lawyers, especially those who enter the profession in their mid-20s, tend to be a bit more idealistic about what it means to work in a profession that can be grueling. These attorneys seem to be more disappointed by what the work world is like, particularly after the reality has set in after six months to one year of practice.
More-seasoned associates come to accept that a law firm, like any business, is not nirvana and is replete with challenges. In any event, if the environment in the firm is not good, and an associate is increasingly feeling worn down by the lack of camaraderie (or backbiting, lack of teamwork, etc.), this often is the key trigger for a move.
Unfulfilling work experience. Virtually no associate expects to have a plate full of exciting, challenging, and interesting work. Most recognize that they have to slog their way through some grunt work in their early years, whether that entails digging through boxes of documents in a production or due diligence assignment or having to complete a dry, complex research memo. As time passes, though, they want to get better work. If this type of work is not available in the firm, or is going to others, it often signals to them that it is time to seek it elsewhere.
Lack of training. Even the most confident associate wants and seeks sound training. Although CLE programs and outside workshops are helpful, many associates tell us that they long for comprehensive, hands on training inside of their firm. This is a major commitment for the firm, and for them, as it requires a significant outlay of nonbillable time. Simply handing junior associates a binder or CD with sample forms just does not cut it. A number of younger lawyers have told me that if their firm cannot make such a commitment to them, at such a formative stage of their career, it does not bode well for how they will be treated over the long haul.
No work-life balance. I have yet to meet the young associate who did not enter a law firm fully expecting to work very hard. As I have written countless times, though, the current generation is quite willing to put in the hours, but also seeks to have a better work-life balance. As such, if the sometimes-insatiable thirst for higher profits per partner entails ratcheting up the hours requirements, it frequently has led many an associate to favorably respond to a recruiter’s call about another firm that has lower hour requirements.
Higher pay. The appearance of this factor at the bottom of the list may be a surprise to some. However, it rarely is the overriding factor that leads an associate to consider a lateral move. This normally is an ancillary factor that often is a plus if offered by a firm that does not suffer from some of the other infirmities listed above. In fact, it is much more likely that an associate would even consider a modest decrease in pay if another firm satisfies most of the deficiencies that led him to consider leaving his current firm.
Now, apart from simply avoiding some of the issues cited above, what else can a firm do to stem the tide? Here are a few suggestions:
The little things. It likely is a truism, but the more that one is tied into the fabric of the firm, the harder it is to leave. So, while including associates in official firm events is nice, it is the “off the books” type of activities that also make a difference.
Do you have a new matter that requires you to sit down with a few partners to evaluate and map a strategy? Consider inviting a young associate to attend that meeting, even if it means that you have to allow them to mark down time (which you then will eat). Ditto for an interesting oral argument, negotiation, or client meeting that would be more comfortable for you to do by yourself. Spend the time to bring an associate up to speed and have him attend with you.
Do you need a fourth for a business golf outing and are tempted to bring your buddy who often plays with you? Why not bring that young lawyer who often mentions Annika Sorenstam and her love of the game? These are precisely the type of little things that they will remember forever.
Share successes. Associates aspire for recognition, as it often seems far out of reach. So, when you win that big case or close that major transaction, make it a point to recognize the other team members, especially the junior lawyers, who helped you along the way. This does not simply mean thanking them in an email; rather, it entails taking the time to cite that accomplishment in their annual review, letting their department head know about the great job that they did, and, most importantly, taking the time to offer a heartfelt, face to face, thank you.
Be flexible. Law firms that more readily embrace the flexibility that young lawyers desire are going to be well positioned for future success. This means moving away from the traditional bricks and mortar office space, and face time, paradigms. Laptops and blackberrys are nice, but often can boomerang, as they leave lawyers feeling like they never get a break.
Flexibility means allowing associates to work from a home office several days a week or setting up shop, when needed, in a suburban office. I firmly believe that the firms that can shake the traditions of old in this regard are going to be leaders in the talent wars going forward. Performance is the bottom line; if a young lawyer can demonstrate that, why does it matter if he periodically produces that work product from home?
Keep tabs on morale. The unrelenting demands on the time of partners often leads to a mindset that unless something rises to the level of being an obvious problem, then all must be right in the firm. So, in the area of associate morale (which, again, is a key trigger for lateral movement), firms frequently rely on the input of associate committees and survey results to gauge the current mood in the firm.
When one considers that most associate committee members are the most successful young lawyers in the firm, is it a surprise that they are not inclined to rock the boat by digging into the most vexing issues plaguing their brethren? There often is a chasm that is wider than the Grand Canyon between what partners think is going on with their associates and how those younger lawyers really feel. For us, this surfaces when we sit down with a firm that tells us how great the morale is among their associates and points to rankings in the latest survey on that topic. Little do they know that we, and other recruiters, often have had a stream of calls and meetings with many of their associates who are dying to get out.
What can one do? Your partners should know who the opinion leaders are in the associate ranks (some of whom are not associate committee members). Talk to them frankly and honestly about what is going on with them and other associates. Don’t be defensive about what you hear; rather, listen to the feedback, critically assess it, and, if adjudged to be valid, do something about it. Try to do this periodically, and not once per year, as issues can arise rather quickly in the crucible of a law firm.
As you anticipated, there is no simple answer to this dilemma. As with most things, hard work and keeping your fingers on the pulse of the firm’s environment will go a long way to at least partially ameliorating this problem.
FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm. He is a former partner in an AmLaw 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.