Associates have varying reasons for choosing whether to work for a large or small firm, or whether to start a solo practice. Whatever the reasons for starting at a firm may be, the data shows that younger associates are more willing to leave a firm within the first few years of work than ever before.

The trend in associate attrition works against stereotypes of young lawyers working long hours at the expense of all other interests in order to make partner. This may work against traditional law firm expectations. Firms typically expect an associate to do the work that the senior and other partners do not want to do — often rote tasks that produce overtime and billing time but not much learning time.

In these cases, frustration sets in, pushing associates to look for other, more fulfilling opportunities. Law firm turnover of young attorneys is at an all-time high, and the outgoing tide of talent has not been stemmed.

Statistics show that thanks to turnover, the top 400 law firms lose approximately $9.1 billion a year. Losing attorneys in huge numbers compromises firm morale, disrupts the firm culture, damages a firm’s reputation, upsets clients and means hundreds of hours of training and teaching have gone up in smoke. What is the key to handling attrition in law firms? A number of factors, some of which may not always be what firms expect.

Is it the money?

The answer to abating associate attrition may not lie in the perks. Money is not the only thing young associates are considering. Instead, the roots of attrition may lie in a firm’s existing corporate culture. And that is the conundrum. A firm’s culture has often been developed over time, and through successes, and carries with it a sense of tradition, which can be valuable. Changing this culture, particularly at large firms, should be done strategically and with ample introspection.

However, there does come a time that changing expectations from younger attorneys and from clients, coupled with evolving technology, provide a legitimate need for a firm to re-evaluate its culture. Firms must learn to recognize when attrition points to a legitimate problem that should be addressed with a significant change in the way the firm works internally. Law firms should never wait to catch up to information technology and all the changes that come with it.

Other statistics complied by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in its 2017 Update on Associate Attrition Report, show that 44 percent of associates (entry-level/lateral hires) abandon a firm after only being there for three years. The reasons typically cited are a toxic culture, an overwhelming workload and a lack of work/life balance that affects their health on all levels. This is where the old-school way of doing things using the associate model, which often includes monotonous assignments that seem removed from the case and do not offer a chance for learning, clashes with a realigning of values in younger lawyers.

The result of upping employment perks

While one may surmise that upping benefits, offering better pay and expecting lower billable hours would help retain associates, facts show otherwise. According to the Association of Legal Administrators’ 2017 Compensation and Benefits Survey, despite an increase in perks and benefits, an average salary jump of nine percent, and an average bonus increase of 30 percent, associate turnover still leapt sharply in 2017, with an increase of 28 percent over 2016.

It appears that more benefits are not enough, which lends more credence to the theory that firm culture plays a large role in whether younger attorneys choose to stay or leave. Sometimes money and benefits are not worth staying in what may be perceived as a toxic or stifling culture with no room to grow and learn.

That said, there is definitely a distinction to be made between a firm that is going through positive changes that may be off-putting to some new attorneys, but will help the firm come out the other side in a better place, and a firm that is losing attorneys because changes need to be made. It is sometimes difficult to determine if changes and attitudes are going to improve the workplace or not. The key is to be open to the possibilities.

Retaining young associates

There are a number of things firms may try to increase attorney retention. Some ideas include:

  • Revamp orientation. The orientation process needs to offer detailed information, an introduction to all peers and partners, a complete honest explanation of what the firm expects, details about how the work is monitored, and who the associate can connect with if problems are experienced.
  • Offer detailed training. Have training in a variety of areas of interest and those that are part of the work expectations.
  • Provide an active and involved mentor. Someone willing to take the time to help a new associate.
  • Provide opportunities for enrichment. Let associates trade billable hours for pro bono work, formal legal education in new and different areas of the law, or trial advocacy training.
  • Make associates feel like part of the team. Include associates in client meetings and have them participate in strategy planning as a part of a team.

Keeping associates is good for business

Remember, a law firm is a business. The costs of a culture that is turning associates away must be weighed against the challenges of significant change. In the long term, change for the sake of retention is often the least expensive option.

In many cases, if there is a revolving door with associates at a law firm, one or more things is going on: the firm’s culture does not suit the associate, reasonable compensation is not offered, associate support is virtually non-existent, the firm is technology challenged or resistant, or associates do not feel like an integral part of the firm. In all instances though, no matter how much associates are paid, if the underlying culture of the firm is not changed, they may still head for the door.

About Author

Kerrie Spencer is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine.

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