In our work as legal recruiters, we talk to candidates every day about job opportunities and what they seek in a new position. Many times we actively solicit attorneys with niche practice areas for specific client needs and there are some firms we call first – because we know that job satisfaction at certain firms is low and highly qualified associates are eager for a new opportunity.
In fact, law firms lost nearly one-quarter of their associates in 2021, according to a report issued by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute. However, there are some firms where the job satisfaction is so high that associates rarely want to leave and won’t even consider a new opportunity, no matter how great it is. To a law firm employer, this is a critical distinction worthy of attention.
A Review of Employee Retention Within Law Firms
Firms make a considerable investment of time and money in their associates, and they are more profitable when they can retain that investment. There are formal surveys in the marketplace with noteworthy information. For instance, a 2013 annual survey revealed higher levels of job satisfaction in almost 10 years from mid-level associates. “Scores ticked up in all 12 of the areas that we use to measure job satisfaction, including the interest level of the work, compensation, training, partner/associate relations, and billable hours.”
Of note is the fact that the 2013 results were sharply divided between men and women, with men ranking higher in satisfaction in almost every area and the likelihood of remaining on partnership track with the firm. But that’s another blog topic in itself. We also offer some insights anecdotally from the numerous conversations we have had with candidates over the years. As one candidate stated:
“For me, it’s been the collaborative work environment and an excellent mentor. I also have flexibility in my work schedule.”
Is your business losing top talent to competitors?
There are a multitude of reasons why a law firm may have a high employee turnover rate. We review some of the more common reasons for a revolving door of associates, which include a lack of growth opportunities, work overload, poor pay, bad management, and no monitoring of employee satisfaction. Below is a closer look at each reason.
Lack of growing opportunities
Attorneys are generally highly ambitious individuals. After all, they did not complete years of education and go through the rigors of law school not to have a thriving career. Subsequently, most attorneys expect growth opportunities when they join a law firm. In some cases, the area itself can be the cause behind stagnating growth. It can be a difficult choice, but sometimes it is worth relocating to a busier city like Austin.
The fact is law firms are often saddled with a lot of work. During busy times, it is not unusual for attorneys to have to put in overtime hours to keep up with the workload. Nevertheless, overworking your employees could certainly lead to high turnover rates. Therefore, be sure to reward employees who do work overtime fairly and try and minimize their obligations to the office if they are working too much.
Poor pay causes high staff turnover
Employees go where the money takes them — and you cannot expect them not to. Once an attorney knows they bring far more value to a law firm than their salary would indicate, they are likely to begin looking elsewhere for opportunities that pay what they are worth. Of course, they are likely to first come to their current firm and ask for a raise. It is up to the individual firm to consider the raise with the understanding that employee turnover can be incredibly costly.
The saying “employees do not leave a company, they leave a boss” rings true all too often. Bad management often reflects in poor employee reviews on job sites as well, along with poor feedback from former employees. Although it can be difficult to conduct a thorough assessment of your management and overall work culture, doing so is necessary if you are experiencing abnormally high employee turnover rates.
Not monitoring employee satisfaction
Attorneys and other law professionals are ambitious and actively seek challenges. If their job becomes boring or lacks satisfaction, then they are likely to seek new challenges with other firms. It is important to keep providing them with new opportunities that also help them grow and improve within their profession.
Ignoring your employee turnover rate
Employees often leave if they feel they are not seen as essential to the law firm. Moreover, law firms that ignore their employee turnover rate and/or do not place a strong value on keeping their current team intact are more likely to have flaws that lead to low employee retention. It is important for law firms to keep in mind the detriment of high employee turnover rates, which include incredibly high training costs, poor workplace culture, short-term skill gaps, and the need for more outsourcing which further increases the law firm’s expenditure.
Lack of staff retention strategy
Law firms can benefit greatly through direct efforts to improve staff retention. As discussed, employees often leave when they feel unimportant to the firm, and a staff retention strategy is one way to show they are vital and valued by the firm.
Is your business losing top talent to competitors?
What to do to improve retention
The Vault is a site we frequently hear about from candidates. It posts insider reviews about the inner workings of firms and often affects a candidate’s interest in a particular firm. The Vault also conducts an annual survey of “best places to work”.
The Vault’s criteria is similar and weighed their results by Satisfaction (25%); Hours (10%); Compensation (10%); Business Outlook (10%); Substantive Work (10%); Associate/Partner Relations (5%); Transparency (5%); Formal Training (5%); Informal Training, Mentoring & Sponsorship (5%); Pro Bono (5%); Overall Diversity (5%); Career Outlook (5%).
Your firm should review each of these areas to determine how well your firm performs in these key areas. Based on what we have learned as legal recruiters over the years, here is our top 7 list of what firms can do to increase job satisfaction and retain their associates:
- Offer training programs including how to network and how to build a book of business
- Clearly communicate the timing and requirements of the partnership path
- Develop basic skills regarding how to bill time, deal with clients, and legal writing
- Offer substantive work opportunities both inside and outside of the firm
- Allow associates to interact with clients and build their business
- Provide firm-wide retreats to build relationships with other lawyers in the firm
- Allow for flexibility when possible to attend children’s events and work from home
Every law firm should evaluate its own internal processes and determine ways to reduce employee turnover rates. For instance, your firm can learn a lot by simply collecting feedback from previous employees on why they left. Firms should also make a strong effort to persuade employees who are considering leaving the firm.