Susan Smith Blakely

Solutions for the Low Retention Rates for Law Firm Associates

The subject of the low retention rates for women lawyers, as published recently on Law.com, was addressed in last week's blog.  What?  You did not read the last blog?   Shame, shame.  I write them so that you will read them and have a "leg up" in making career decisions.  Fortunately, former blogs are so easy to find on my web site.  But to help you out, here is the link to that blog.  I understand how busy you are.

The solutions offered by the Law.com article focus on the needs to run law firms more like traditional businesses to eliminate some of the administrative tasks for junior lawyers, the use of fixed fee billing arrangements to increase the exposure that junior lawyers will have to higher value projects, an increased use of technology, and clear paths to partnership and metrics-based evaluations systems in making partnership decisions.

Those are all good thoughts, and some of them might work.  However, I like to focus more directly on the causes for the high attrition in finding solutions to improve associate retention, which, of course, includes retention of women lawyers.

More training and mentoring for associates.  Although lack of associate training and mentoring has traditionally been a problem, it is even more true today when newbie lawyers come into law firms and are tasked with administrative jobs that require them to be stuck to computers for ten hours a day and bear little resemblance to what they envisioned as practicing law.  The focus is on billable hours, for both associates and partners, and most senior lawyers are not taking much time out to train young lawyers and mentor them.  For young lawyers, who grew up on team efforts, it is hard to feel like a member of a team under those circumstances.  They crave mentoring and feedback on their work and, when they get little of either, they get discouraged and wonder whether they made the right choice of law firm or even of career.  The answer, of course, is to provide the training and the mentoring that will keep the talent around.  Either the training and mentorship must be provided by firm lawyers or the firm is going to have to bring in consultants to take over those responsibilities.  That will mean making a choice to pay those consultants or give "credit" to lawyers who undertake those responsibilities at the firm, and both can be sticky wickets unless the critical need for training and mentorship is understood.  But, it should be worth it to the firms --- especially in the talent war for associates going on these days.

Open up more clear pathways to the top.  This solution is related to PPP (profit per partner) that drives a lot of decisions in law firms.  PPP is determined by how many partners share the profit pie, and it is used by established ranking entities to rate law firms and to publish those ratings.  When profitability stagnates, as it has during the recent recession, and when equity partners are not retiring during these same challenging economic times, law firms are reluctant to make more equity partners to share in the pie.  As a result, the trend has been for law firms to make more classes of non-equity partners and to slow the path to equity partnership and/or to require larger books of business to make it through the equity partnership gate.  So, there are really only two solutions.  Either law firm partners are going to have to become less greedy to retain talent or law firm management is going to have to start forcing top partners out.  If those partners are big rainmakers, you can see that it becomes a real dilemma.  So, this one is not easy either.

Millennials will have to adjust some of their expectations.  Millennials have different expectations about the workplace than prior generations.  Some of those are very admirable --- like the aversion to the workaholic lifestyle of lawyers and the desire for less toxic work environments.  Some of them, however, are not practical in the legal setting.  Yes, law is a business, but it is a business that is highly dependent on nuanced arguments and research that do not lend easily to the rapid responses of technology.  Some of it just takes a lot of tedious and hard work.  However, that work all does not have to be done at the office, and the movement today toward telecommuting for lawyers is a step in the right direction.  It allows for improved work-life balance, and, when done right, it also leaves adequate room for the face time at the office that is critical to issues of advancement.

One way or another, law firms are going to have to address these issues.  I have been focusing on most of these issues for a decade now through the Best Friends at the Bar project, and, admittedly, the solutions are not easy.  However, that is no reason not to put our shoulders to the wheel and find effective and lasting solutions.  The future of the profession depends on it.

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