Avoiding a Terrible Cost: What Partners Can Learn From Associates
About Retaining Top Quality Associates

by Joel A. Rose

In a recent article in the Charlotte Business Journal, Paula Patton, president of the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, said that a national survey on associate attrition conducted by her organization in 2005 revealed that, among entry-level associates, 40 percent left within three years and 62 percent left within four years.

Today, partners in the more enlightened law firms of all sizes and specialties have come to the realization that it is one thing to attract high-quality associates, but it is an even more difficult challenge to retain them.

Many firms have attempted to meet this retention challenge by increasing associate salaries to meet competitive market rates; offering incentive compensation for extraordinary performance; providing flexible scheduling; encouraging associates to participate in pro bono programs; providing meals and/or transportation services in the evening; providing service personnel to take care of the associates’ basic needs; reducing the waiting time for insurance coverage; and offering tuition reimbursement and child care services.

From an organizational perspective, many law firms have also enhanced personal communications with associates about their career advancement, training, and professional development; assigned associates to partners who serve as mentors; and provided frequent feedback about associates’’ work. However, for all the well-meant energies invested in these retention programs, associates are still job-hopping from one firm to another, with firm loyalty being a secondary consideration. What is a firm to do if, even after implementing some or all of the above retention programs, many of its top quality and experienced associates continue to leave the firm?

Five Crucial Questions

One approach the author implemented with success during a recent engagement with a mid-size law firm that was experiencing low moral and an attrition problem among its associate population called for personal and confidential meetings with all of the associates. These meetings were conducted in small clusters to elicit their perceptions about “what life is like” for associates at the firm. Following these meetings, the author met with the Management Committee to report on our findings. We prepared recommendations for an improved career development program for the firm’’s associates and facilitated an all-attorney meeting with the partners and associates to review the findings, present recommendations, and encourage associates to ask partners questions about the career development program we had drawn up.

Below are examples of the discussion questions the author used to establish an initial dialogue with the associates:

a. To what extent do the associates perceive (the firm’s) stated values about “open communications, and concern for quality of life and professional development” as an accurate representation about how associates are treated, professionally and personally?

b. Do associates believe their opportunities for advancement, professionally, personally and financially, are better than, less than, or about the same as opportunities available to their peers for performing similar kinds of work by other law firms and corporations?

c. Do associates believe their “total” compensation (cash and benefits) is better than, less than, or about the same as the “average” total compensation paid to their peers, for performing similar kinds of work, and demands on their time, by other law firms and corporations?

d. Do associates believe that the partners’ demands about their billable time and expectations of their (the associates) total time is reasonable when compared to other law practices performing similar kinds of work in private firms and corporations?

e. Do associates perceive the present methods followed by some partners for assigning work as being conducive to providing to them (the associates) “stable, diverse and challenging workloads?”

The associates’ responses to these and other questions enabled us to better understand the reasons for the associates’ perceptions about the firm and the partners’ collective attitude about associates. It is important to note that these meetings with associates did not deteriorate into “bitch” sessions about the firm, as some partners feared.

Rather, the associates took these meetings seriously and gladly offered constructive suggestions about what they thought the partners needed to do to establish a better rapport and improve the working and interpersonal relationships among the attorneys. A few associates were impressed that the firm had retained a management consultant to address these issues.

Key Perceptions

Below is a brief composite of the associates’ perceptions about the firm and its partners. Associates felt that:

•• Partners were excellent lawyers and basically “good people,” except for the fact that they did not know how to supervise and develop associates.

•• Partners had their clients’ best interest at heart.

•• If they had to retain outside counsel, they would willingly recommend members of the firm.

•• They would like to become partners in the firm, if only the current partners could “get their acts together.”

•• Partners were not nearly as interested in the professional development of the associates as they claimed to be.

•• During pre-employment interviews, partners misrepresented the type of training the associates would receive.

•• They were not an integral part of the “team” serving the firm’s clients, i.e., they were told only what they had to know to complete the assigned work, rather than being told the rationale for the assignment and the broader scope of the client project.

•• They were among the last to know what the firm’s plans were. For example, a few partners informed those associates with whom they worked closely that the firm was planning to open an office in another city. Mid-level associates likewise learned about mundane upcoming occurrences by chance rather than from the partners. One common complaint echoing these concerns was that the secretaries knew more about what was happening at the firm than they did.

•• They were not making a contribution towards satisfying the client’s objectives.

•• The work at the firm did not provide them with appropriate intellectual and personal challenges.

•• The more experienced associates were not given sufficient independence and responsibility for their work and were instead micro-managed by partners.

•• Partners failed to provide open and honest communications and constructive feedback about the associates’’ work.

•• They were not given adequate opportunities to develop and use their skills and talents in areas in which they excelled.

•• The partners talked about opportunities for partnership, but were unwilling to discuss the criteria for making partner or the length of the partner track that was likely applicable to senior associates.

Solutions Based on Insight

The associates’ responses to our questions provided critical insight to guide strategies and tactics that would need to be implemented to address what had previously been an amorphous discontent among the ranks. Interestingly enough, the meetings with associates revealed that, although there were indeed many problems that had to be addressed, there was also more common ground shared by the associates and partners than had been apparent before.

During this subsequent meeting with members of the firm’s Management Committee, it was recommended that the partners had to make the associates’ professional and personal development a high priority, and that the lines of communication between the partners and associates had to be improved. Partners were advised to reassess the firm’s associate career development program and decide which programs were working, which ones needed to be tweaked, and which ones required major surgery.

Objective and subjective criteria had to be determined to evaluate associates’ professional performance and personal characteristics so that the partners could offer constructive recommendations concerning their performance and career development. Also, it was suggested that the firm employ a professional human resources person who would be able to assist the lawyer-managers, including a newly constituted Associates Career Development Committee, in developing and implementing programs to enhance interpersonal relationships among partners and associates.

We recommended that the partners designate one partner to head a committee of partners to develop a coherent approach for the professional and personal development of the associates. We also assisted the recommended Associates Career Development Committee in developing strategies to address the associates’ concern, including enhancing the quality and frequency of communications. Finally, the firm’s new career development program for associates was presented at the all-attorney retreat. Associates were encouraged to ask questions about the new program and partners responded directly and candidly.

The firm’’s Career Development Program was implemented one year ago. During a recent follow-up meeting with the Career Development Committee, we were pleased to learn that virtually all of the recommended initiatives were implemented, at least to some extent, and that the morale of the associates had improved and associate turnover declined.

Obviously, competition between law firms to recruit and retain top quality associates will intensify. Developing an ongoing and systematic dialogue among associates and partners during retreats and other meetings will enable these attorneys to better understand their respective professional and personal objectives.

In turn, that understanding will improve the professional, interpersonal, and working relationships between associates and partners, and it will enhance the ability of the firms to recruit and retain top-quality attorneys.

©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates