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Retention Czar

by Linda Green Pierce, President

Several years ago I advised a large Pacific Northwest law firm that what I thought they ought to do to stem the tide of associate attrition was to hire an internal counselor assigned specifically to the task of keeping their newest, expensive talent happy at the firm. The executive committee partner I was talking to didn't exactly laugh in my face, but he was pretty skeptical of my idea happening or the attrition problem ever being "that bad."

This week I read in a weekly legal newspaper that a survey of the nation's 250 largest law firms found that, on average, 18.5% of associates at large firms left last year for other work. National law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, L.L.P. lost 166 associates last year. "That's about one every other day." Another magazine article covering internet brain drain, noted that law firm giant, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, will appoint a "retention czar" to focus on the causes and cures for associate turnover. (Let's hope they spend a few moments to come up with a better title for the position!) The article went on to indicate that the firm will appoint career development partners to make sure associates' assignments are fulfilling, give them $4,000 for home-office equipment, and "stay bonuses" which are awarded in one year and collected several years later. In today's highly competitive employment marketplace firms need to assess both the cost and the causes of this turnover.

Up until this point large law firms have responded to the tremendous attrition out of their ranks of associates into competitive law firms and, most predominantly corporate legal departments, by throwing money at the problem. Associates have often responded: "We don't want more money. We want fewer hours. We want more control over our lives." It's heartening to learn that some firms are beginning to pay attention.

Lost in this shuffle is the lawyer whose firm isn't paying this special attention to him or her, oftentimes at a small to mid-sized firm. As a lawyer recruiter, I get telephone calls from disenchanted associates. Although I can find a talented and qualified attorney another position, there are many lawyers who don't really want to leave the firm where they work - they just want the firm to be responsive to their needs. Absent Weil's "retention czar", it falls to the associate to become his or her own advocate if they really want to give their firm a chance.

If an associate has been thoughtful enough about his career to determine that his current firm is the "right place" long term, here are some suggestions to help define the short term concerns:

  • The way work is assigned at the last minute
  • The supervising attorney is poorly organized and "creates" emergencies.
  • The assigned work is in uninteresting areas
  • Too much work and the firm is not doing anything about it (Remember all firms are having trouble today finding good talent)

Here are some practical steps an associate can take to improve working conditions:

Scout the partners for one who'll have a concerned ear. Select someone who has had hiring committee experience, executive committee or strategic planning experience with the firm if you can. This partner may be in another practice area. This partner may be one with whom you've had very little interaction, but whom you have an intuitive sense may be interested in the plights of associates and have the influence to do something.

Approach a busy partner at the right time, not when he or she is smack in the middle of their own practice or client crises. Make yourself available to the partner's timetable and ask to discuss an issue about THAT partner's experiences with the firm in order to help you with something you're dealing with right now. Indicate that you'll take up just a few minutes of their valuable time. When you meet, be business-like but candid. Express yourself as non-emotionally as possible. Clearly state your job concerns and also communicate why you feel the firm meets your long term career goals. Make certain your "asking for advice" does not come out as an ultimatum. Ask for a commitment from the partner for his assistance or a referral to the person who might be most helpful to you.

If you get a commitment, give the partner some time to work through the communications process at your firm with others on behalf of your cause. If nothing has happened for two weeks, contact the partner again for his feedback. If there is no progress there, move on to a next partner.

The partnering-with-a-partner process should work in some way for you. If it doesn't, the Executive Director or Administrator of a smaller firm is a good resource; ask to have a confidential conversation. Hiring partners in firms are good resources because they are in the current process of attempting to hire more talent and they know how much work it takes to find and hire good people. They will be eager to assist to change circumstances in the firm in order to retain you if they can.

Firms today are making extra efforts to retain associates. Those range from contributing cash to lawyers' down payments for houses, offering flextime and telecommuting, offering earlier client contact and at the same time protecting associates personal time from those demanding clients who want 24-hour access to their lawyers.

Sounds like a lot of work, you say? Comparatively, not as much as searching for another position and dealing with the change, although that's always the final alternative. Approaching your firm about change on your behalf can be eye-opening and save you from a mis-fire move. Carefully think through the reasons you chose the firm in the first place - are they still valid? As one associate we recently interviewed said after having left his firm, gone to another firm and then returned to his original firm: "It wasn't so terrific over there. I had just seen the outside edges when I worked with them on some matters; once I got there I found their politics were just dreadful to deal with. My firm has made some wonderful corrections for me and we all learned from that process."