Northwest Legal Search

Northwest Legal Search, Inc.
The Northwest's
Leading Attorney Search
Consulting Firm.

Articles and Resources

Associate Retention A Rocky Road


by Linda Green Pierce, President and Robert F. Shea, Technology Specialist

Big bucks, condos in Maui, firm-sponsored day care and flexible work schedules.

This enticing list is a key reason why law firms are stemming the tide of departing associates to their own clients or to competing law firms. Is it working? The answer is: "Yes" -- in some firms, in some instances. But in other firms, in other instances, the answer is: "We're not so sure."

Many law firms faced with job turnover at record levels are getting innovative and creative with associate perks. In some cases, associates say they can always earn more money somewhere else. They stay where they are in part because their firms have found other ways to take care of them.

Some examples of perks in today's market, adding to job satisfaction, include: casual dress everyday, babysitting reimbursement, flex-time, free lunches, the ability to telecommute several days a week and ergonomic chairs. Some offer more expensive perks like home down payment assistance or a loan guarantee for the purchase of a residence

All firms must wrestle with associate compensation. Never before have starting salaries gotten so much national attention, even outside of the legal community itself. The historic days of base salaries set by New York law firms are gone forever. Many have noted that "name" Silicon Valley firms now set the high watermark. While this is true to a great extent, it is overly simplistic to simply see this as a geographic shift. New York law firms became dominant because New York City was, after the Civil War, the only US financial center able to raise the enormous capital necessary for the key business technology of that age - rail roads (followed later by electricity and the telephone). The key business technology of our time - the Internet - because of its very nature, is developed and financed in a large number of centers. What this means in terms of associate salaries is that competitive pressure to meet a "national standard" comes much more quickly to regional firms that need to service IP and technology clients. Indeed, a major consequence as reported widely in the legal press is that there is a new national pay standard. For firms in the largest cities, and their branch offices, the new standard is $125,000 for a first-year associate billing a minimum number of hours (usually 1,950.)

Associates we interview are interested in that standard and these perks, certainly. But when they tell us their needs and detail the reasons they ignore our headhunter's call, we find there are a combination of factors that keep them in their chairs and billing hours. Despite partner moanings that associates want only top of the market salaries and expensive benefits in order to stay around, not all associates place those goodies at the top of the list.

Associates want to stay financially competitive with their peers at the market rates for their city, but the relationship between money and retention needs to be carefully examined. Money is important and it gets talked about a lot because it is easy to quantify. Other equally important issues are much tougher to deal with. Here's what they tell us:

Appreciate my efforts: Give me an instant thanks which is heartfelt. Put a yellow sticky on my work that says "great effort" if it's warranted. Don't make me wait for the politely written thank you that comes out six months later in a mid-year review. And come see me once in a while to see "what's up."

I'm hungry for feedback: Tell me how I'm doing and, similar to the thank you, don't make me wait. Regular feedback not only guides my daily performance but also is the backbone for developing future skills and characteristics that allow me to progress in the firm.

Help me learn: Keep letting me grow. I arrived with lots of talent and skills and some of them aren't being used. You hired me because I'm bright and creative; that also means I get bored very easily. I get an itch to leave when I'm finding myself doing the same thing day in and out. If I'm asking you for new challenges, don't ignore me. I understand that it may take time to get me the exciting project I want, but be out there trying to get it for me.

Notice me, puhhhhlease. Keep me up to date on what's happening in the firm or my practice group; get me extra training opportunities. Notice what I do - the good and the not so good - and tell me why you've noticed. Flatter me if it's warranted and I'll work all the harder for you. Look past the superficial and find out what worries me, what motivates me. Ask about my spouse, my children and my ailing mother.

Be supportive of my ideas: Be willing to listen to causes I wish to champion. Become an advocate for them if you support me. Don't leave me flat and not knowing whether a cause or idea is being seriously considered. When I see that my memo is languishing in your in-box for weeks, I learn that my idea isn't being considered at all.

Firms faced with their inability to match hot current associate salaries might have to depend upon these tips to hold onto employees. In the face of being paid perceived "second tier" salaries, associates cite the above less-tangible factors at their current jobs as their reasons to stay.

Lawyers also stay on the job for less money when they know they are doing meaningful work, either meaningful to themselves, to their clients or society. "Our people stay on with us because they know we value their opinions and they know their contribution to the community matters," says a Pacific Northwest District Attorney speaking for the lawyers on his legal staff. The challenge to private law firms is to discover what meaningful work means to any individual attorney in their firm.

In summary, there's no easy roadmap for creating an ideal legal job, job satisfaction and keeping associates from leaving. There is no guarantee that any of this brilliant talent will stay. Yet if a firm's managers and partners are not trying at all levels, with all available assets - not all of which are financial - many of those associates will go away.