Four Steps to Improve Attorney Retention (and Your Firm’s Profits)
As I mentioned in my blog Has the “Great Resignation” Hit the Legal Profession? about law firm turnover, more attorneys are leaving their firms than ever before in 2021. Law firm turnover averages 16.7% among the AMLAW 200 over the past 12 months. That is up 22% over a typical year and over 30% over the prior year. Further, the firms we often think are immune from these issues because they’re large acquirers of talent and often present the most lucrative opportunities have struggled even more in the past 12 months. The top 15 firms as measured by average Profits Per Equity Partner have turnover averaging over 23% with only 2 of the fifteen at or below the AMLAW average.
So, money is not the answer – at least not by itself. Associates are paid more than at any time in history and turnover is up – way up.
This turnover is immensely expensive in terms of opportunity costs, new attorney acquisition costs, and overall firm productivity. In fact, as I mentioned in Has the “Great Resignation” Hit the Legal Profession, there are statistics that suggest you could improve firm profits by five percent (5%) for every one percentage point decrease (1%) in attorney turnover. This situation is exacerbated in what is in many ways one of the most difficult recruiting environments we have seen, especially for Corporate and Real Estate lateral attorneys. The Advocates have developed strategies to increase retention. Here are some tips to help you keep your best people.
Learn what truly matters:
1. Poll your associates: Why do they love working there? What has kept them there? What is not working for them? What type of work are they interested in, what mentoring works for them and what doesn’t? Poll Partners – same thing. These do not need to be long and time consuming. The keys here are anonymity and some sort of feedback mechanism showing the highest levels of the organization heard the feedback. They don’t replace mentor conversations. You will have two distinct benefits: 1) You will learn what makes your folks happy and be able to implement some of those things easily. 2) Even when you cannot implement everything, people will feel more heard and that is always positive: A HBR study published in 2019 showed that on average people who were polled and asked about what they wanted had 20% lower turnover.
2. Exit interviews: Do you know your own turnover and are you conducting exit interviews? I know these have gotten a bad name in recent years and there are studies that show their lack of effectiveness. But if you have them performed by someone with perceived power to change things, or an outside party, and if you share some of the results, I believe they can add to your work environment and provide useful information for an organization to act on. Again – what is the feedback loop? Firms can gain more data to improve attorney satisfaction and reduce turnover from in depth exit interviews. Do you take the answer that is comfortable (for example – “the other firm paid a huge signing bonus, so they had to take it”) or do you dig deeper and ask again if there is anything you could have done to keep them? Do you interview their colleagues and the partners they supported? The paralegals that supported them? These interviews should be short and should focus on only a few questions that come from a place of caring. You can also outsource this task and the polling to get even more accurate answers.
Keep recruiting your star players:
- How much do you know personally about your colleagues and subordinates? Do you ask them about their weekend, spend any time on personal matters? Or do you just spend time working on client matters together?
- Be vulnerable: OK, who is blushing? Who stops here? It’s true, people work for people – they want to know you. Of course, keep it appropriate, but let them know who you are and your personal journey and struggles.
- Be appreciative and show it. Give them praise, let them know specifically what you like.
- Coach them up: My former organization used to do massive annual surveys about how to improve retention: Training and development including mentorship are always top 5, usually top 2 - 3.
- If you can afford it, and you have an exceptional player, give them a bonus unexpectedly for their hard work. It’s less expensive than hiring new folks – (even through us!).
Understand and hire the profile of your star players:
Identify and focus on people’s key personality traits, not just the skills. Skills can be taught and learned, but traits tend to follow people throughout their lives.
1. Develop a profile of the personality traits of your top performers. There are many testing sources available to help you do that. At The Advocates and TLSS, we use our unique client interviews to identify the personality traits of our client’s best folks. We match that to the results of our CBI – Chronological Behavior Based Interview, which identifies the traits of the candidates we submit to clients. Our employees, on average, stay longer and turnover a lot less: 2/3 less than when you don’t use us. Most of your Fortune 500 clients use some form of the tools above and behavior-based interviewing because it works.
- Actively manage out employees who are a consistently negative influence and a bad fit. They will cause more turnover and lower productivity.
- As a manager, don’t ever send a message that infers that someone who left was a person you could afford to lose, even if it’s true. It doesn’t play well – someone still working for your firm liked them and will resent you for it or wonder how you feel about them.
Bottom Line: It is not just about money – get to know your people – the ones who are promoted and who stay. Do you know what traits they commonly share? Do you know what motivates your people? Get to know them through the steps mentioned above and act on it. It is cheaper than losing them and it will directly increase your profitability.
The above work also sets you up for a more successful recruiting strategy. More on that in my next blog.
Opinions? Feedback? Questions? We can help. Feel free to contact me at
Mollig@targetedlegal.com or (303) 825-2600.