by Joel A. Rose

Partners in law firms of all sizes and specialties now realize it is one thing to attract high-quality associates, but an even more difficult challenge to retain them.  Competition for top-quality associates continues to intensify, so effective associate retention is more important than ever.

To evaluate its policies and procedures for associate recruiting and retention, a firm must take stock of its current program, assess it future needs, and set in motion a unified plan that involves all components of the organization.  For all intents and purposes, the plan for recruiting, retaining and utilizing an associate begins before the associate is employed.  The system should be set in place before the associate steps in the firm’s door.

A Sample Case

To illustrate the point, let’s take the case of a law firm that is in a dilemma over its current staffing requirements.  The management functions are performed by a committee of partners with the assistance of the office administrator.  The firm’s practice consists of litigation and transactional client work.  The partners remain uncertain of the volume of future work and are apprehensive about institutionalizing a formal associate recruiting program.

The partner’s have varied opinions concerning the objectives for employing associates.  As a general rule, associates are employed to support individual partners, perform the less profitable work, or the kind of work that partners simply don’t want to do.  A few partners believe the firm should recruit recent law school graduates, or lateral hires with some general experience.  They feel these generalists should be available to work with all of the partners, as required.  Other partners think that newly hired associates should be assigned specific functions and also be available to assist other partners when necessary.  Certain partners feel that newly employed associates should have at least one to two years of experience in designated practice areas.

Most of the partners acknowledge that the firm’s associate recruiting process is lacking.  The interviews are poorly handled.  The “right” questions are not being asked, and some partners pay more attention to the candidate’s personality and ability to relate to the interviewer rather than the ability to perform the work.  All of the partners would readily agree that the firm reacts to, rather than anticipates, the need for additional associates and ultimately recruits out of sheer desperation.

While all of the partners agree that the firm should develop a formal associate training program, few of the partners are willing to devote their time to this activity.  This aspect of the issue recently surfaced in the form of difficulties certain associates have had with clients.  The firm’s inability to adequately train associates in the area of client relations is beginning to hit home.

In addition, there are other factors that “feed” the central problem.  There are no controls over the associates’ workload.  None of the partners know the volume of work to be performed, or the associates’ availability, at any given time.  There is also a marked lack of productivity and commitment by the associates.  Typically, most of the partners are also concerned that most of the associates seem unable or unwilling to commit themselves to achieving the budgeted annual billable hours. 

Several institutional factors also contribute to the problem.  The salaries paid to associates are lower than the salaries being offered by larger law firms, and may, in fact, be below the current market level being offered by firms of comparable size and type.  The associate evaluation process does not appear to carry much weight.  Despite the performance evaluation, there is no meaningful differential between the over-achiever and the average associate.  In addition, the results of the evaluations are not conveyed to the associates, thereby, eliminating an important and useful tool that could be used by the firm to train and guide its younger members.

Communications between partners and associates are inadequate.  With the exception of discussions about new case assignments, all other information about the firm is usually passed on to the associates informally by individual partners.  Consequently, the quality and quantity of information is varied and idiosyncratic.  In attempting to come to terms with the issues, some of the partners are conceding that the firm’s partner compensation system may be a major factor in problems concerning associate productivity.  The system precludes partners from delegating the more profitable work to associates since the plan is heavily weighted toward partner production and profitability.  The partners have no incentive to assign the better quality and more profitable work to associates.  If they were to do so, they would reduce their own production credit and compensation.

Finally, the firm’s overall style and culture is also a culprit.  While one of the partners has been designated to oversee the associates generally, there remains a marked lack of supervision over the associate staff.  This absence is attributed to the prevailing notion that partners and associates should be allowed to perform their work independently without being accountable to anybody.

This firm is caught between its anxieties about the future and a lack of adequate planning.  The issues described are classic examples of the problems encountered by the growth-oriented firm with a litigation and transactional type of practice.  This firm clearly needs to develop and implement a game plan that identifies its objectives, say,  over the next two-to-three years, in order to determine the type and specialty areas of work that require additional staff.

Monitoring Associates

At the beginning of their careers with a law firm, associates’ needs are fairly straightforward.  They need direction and supervision in performing client work.  Although independence is highly prized, an experienced partner who can be relied on for guidance is of equal value.  The associates need to be included in the chain of information about the firm’s plans and procedures, particularly the aspects that affect their work.  They need feedback on their performance.  They need to know how they rate and if they fit in the firm’s future plans.  Ultimately, it is their future and the firm’s that is at stake.

This firm must regroup and redesign its associate program.  It must implement a plan for monitoring the progress and performance of associates, and evaluate the results in light of firm-wide objectives.  The professional personnel function should be performed and coordinated by a designated partner or committee of partners.  This individual/committee should be accountable to the partners for coordinating the associate recruiting, career development, and communication program.  The program must be conducted and implemented on a firm-wide basis.  All ad hoc recruiting activities must cease.  The professional personnel partner/committee should be responsible for providing information to associates on firm matters relating to development and career opportunities and for administering associate evaluations.

The firm should ensure that its associates are adequately informed by instituting monthly or bimonthly associate meetings to cover the basic aspects of client matters, economics, and the firm’s career development program.  Other meeting topics should include administrative matters; workload; assignments and training programs; future plans; logistics of handling various types of cases; billings and collections; firm policy; public relations and marketing opportunities; unusual situations; professional responsibility and ethics; and general developments in the profession.  The meetings should last about one hour with individual partners or other associates assigned to present one or two of the topics to be covered at the meeting.  These meetings should be on set dates and at specific times, and scheduled sufficiently in advance, to enable the associates and designated partner to attend.

From the beginning, associates should understand that it is in their best interest to work for other partners, even though they may be assigned to a specific partner.  The more versatile the associate, the greater the opportunity for advancement to partner status particularly in a boutique-type practice.  The partners should view the role of mentor as a means of establishing the firm’s future.  The responsible partner/committee should be aware of the associate’s complete workload; coordinate all work assigned to the associate; review the associate’s performance; and ensure that the associate is assigned work by other partners.  This is a critical point.  Partners must be encouraged to see the importance of easing the emphasis on individual production and increasing their efforts toward building the firm.  The associates must be adequately trained to relieve the partners in performing the more meaningful and profitable work.  The firm’s partner production syndrome reduces any incentive for assigning work to associates.  The compensation plan must be adjusted to encourage partners to delegate work to others who are competent to perform such work and spend more time on activities that help mold the firm.

One of the best methods of managing associates is to set up a system whereby the associates work closely with several partners and, at the same time, are under the control of a single partner.  In this system, the assigned partner should meet with the associate one or two days a week to review workload, problems, and potential conflicts.  Each client matter should have a recommended due date, and the partner should make sure the associate has a thorough understanding of the issues involved.  The system involves setting up a uniform method for controlling the work assigned to each associate.  This requires the associate to submit a report of their general workload and availability on a weekly basis.  The associate should account for the next 14 workdays by estimating availability, and the number of billable hours to be recorded, for the following two-week intervals.    A copy of the report should be provided to the responsible partner/committee and to the partner coordinating the associates.  This will enable the partner to have a summary of their associates’ current and projected workloads.  In addition, the coordinating partner will be able to assess the availability and productivity of the associates.

The information should be compiled and reviewed to determine how well the associates are doing in producing their targeted number of billable hours.  All write-offs and write-downs of associate time should also be analyzed by the coordinating attorney on a monthly basis to determine the reasons for such action.  If any associate falls short of the estimated hours, the responsible partner/committee and coordinating attorney should discuss the matter with the individual on an informal basis.  Thus, if a partner is writing-off too much time, or an associate is not recording enough hours, the firm will be able to remedy the situation at an early and critical stage.  It will be able to step in and protect its leverage by making certain the associates are gainfully employed, adequately supervised, and assigned enough profitable work to allow them to achieve their targets.

The information provided in these reports and the professional personnel partner’s/committee’s experience in working closely with the associates will enable the former to make recommendations about the associate’s salary progression.  The responsible partner/committee and the other partners should review the associate’s monthly billable hours and conduct whatever discussions are necessary to encourage additional effort.  However, these meetings should not take the place of formal evaluations.  A formal associate evaluation should be conducted at six-month intervals for the first 18 months an associate is employed by the firm, and annually thereafter until the associate becomes a member of the firm.  The overall evaluation process should be coordinated by the designated partner/committee along with the associate’s supervising partner.  The partners should plan to conduct a formal, one-on-one, evaluation with all associates, utilizing a written evaluation form as the basis for these meetings.

Each partner for whom the associate has worked should complete the forms.  The weight accorded each partner’s evaluation depends upon the amount and significance of the work performed for that individual.  The completed reports should be compiled and returned to the coordinating partner for review by all partners.  After these discussions, meetings should be scheduled with the associate, coordinating partner, and evaluating partner to discuss performance, progress, and salary increase or bonus.  Many firms have introduced an interesting wrinkle to this process by having each associate complete a self-evaluation that is also passed along to the partners.  This allows partners to learn how associates perceive themselves.  During the formal evaluation process, each associate gets an opportunity to compare his or her self-evaluation with the partners’ assessment.  Although the results of both evaluations are usually similar, the opportunity for the associate to compare any differences makes the experience worthwhile.

This is an important tool in the management of associates.  If the firm neglects to utilize the information that is readily available through this procedure, it is undermining its own potential profitability.  This is the point at which to begin to build incentives into the system to encourage exemplary performance.  It is also the occasion for reward or remedy, as the evaluation results warrant.  The point of the monitoring process is to arm the firm with tools that will enable it to formulate plans to meet its staffing requirements.


The firm must come to terms with its apprehension and standardize its recruiting policies.  One method is to review the status of all of the current clients on a lawyer-by-lawyer basis to determine the work that is not being done or the matters that should have more lawyer attention.  The partners should also identify client activities that could potentially be assigned to experienced associates.  If a new associate is occupied with billable and collectible client work for three-quarters of his or her time, then the firm can afford that associate.  Once the partners have this information in hand together with the reports of the activities being performed by the present associate complement, they can begin to formulate long-range plans.  The point to be made here is that the partners must be willing to make an investment in the future by becoming more involved in the associates’ early experience at the firm.  By monitoring each associate’s progress, under the auspices of the coordinating partner and the individual partner-mentors, the firm can build toward its future.
©1999-2017 Joel A. Rose & Associates