5 Things Your Firm Can Do Now to Increase Associate Retention

Associate retention is at an all-time low according to the 2022 Report on the state of the legal market.  In fact, the report said retention is so low that by the end of 2021, all law firms were dangerously close to losing one-quarter of their associates. Take a look at the following statistics in the report issued by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute for a better idea of the issue:

  • The associate turnover rate for law firms reached 23.2% through November 2021 on a rolling 12-month basis. That is significantly above the 18.7% rate experienced in 2019, the year before the pandemic. For Am Law 100 firms, the turnover rate was 23.7% through November 2021.
  • Associate compensation increased 11.3% on a rolling 12-month basis through November 2021. For Am Law 100 firms, the increase was more than 15%.
  • There is a large spread between turnover rates for the 25% of law firms with the highest turnover (dubbed “go” firms) and the 25% of the firms with the lowest turnover (dubbed “stay” firms). Through November 2021, “stay” firms had an annual turnover rate of 8.7%, compared to 18.4% for “go” firms.
  • “Stay” firms billed 51 more hours per year per lawyer than “go” firms. Associate compensation at stay firms increased 9.8%, compared to 11.4% at “go” firms.  Note: The average size of a “stay” firm is 361 lawyers, compared to 514 lawyers at “go” firms.

What does this tell us? For one, pay increases are not the solution to keeping associates, a common idea perpetuated by firms in the past. The days of “throwing money at the problem” are no longer effective. Many associates are looking for more than money. Associate attitudes toward work and happiness in their lives have shifted due to COVID as well as generational differences, so understanding how to face the retention crisis head-on is critical. 

So, what creates an environment where associates thrive and become the leaders they are destined to be? Read on to learn 5 things this groundbreaking report suggests your firm can do now to decrease associate turnover.

Appreciate and Recognize your Associates

It’s not a surprise that people want to feel recognized for their accomplishments and appreciated for the work they’re putting in, and associates are no different. When you’re working such a high-stress job and hardly getting any nod, it can create a sense of defeat and contribute to a feeling of not being valued. Here are some ways you can recognize and make your associates feel appreciated. 

1. Give Feedback

The truth is, most lawyers only get feedback once every six months or once every year. There’s a lot of anxiety swirling around there in the in-between. Thoughts like “ This person is still giving me work, but they’re not telling me if it’s a good product or if there are areas I may need to really think about moving forward.” 

The problem with thoughts like these festering for too long is that they contribute to a feeling of uncertainty, and, as humans, our brains don’t perform to the best of their ability with uncertainty in the mix.

The pandemic has also played a major role in this. For the past two years now, we have lived in constant uncertainty, so when the world is suffering and you look for value in your work only to be met with the same feeling, it halts any sort of traction to be able to move forward and problem-solve. 

2. Think Outside the Box

Although it’s easy to take note of how other firms are making their associates feel appreciated and implement the same at your firm, it’s important to note individual, specific circumstances and ensure that you are providing something that aligns with your firm’s mission and values. 

Pro Tip: Don’t operate from a scarcity mindset, because in the long run, it will only further harm your associates, even if that isn’t your intention. Ask yourself the following questions: How do we build connections? How do we have strong relationships? How do we build the best teams? All of these things contribute to associates feeling appreciated.

Here are a couple of examples to get your wheels turning:

  • Host Lunch & Learns where partners can share their insights with associates. This will make associates feel like you value their growth as a lawyer and are committed to continuing their education.
  • Take notice of consistent positive patterns among associates. If there is something an associate does every day consistently well, continue to notice that behavior and acknowledge it. If you have a firm Slack channel or mode of communication, throw a “ [insert name] is killing it with [insert task] this week!” Feeling recognized by your firm management is one thing, but it also feels great to feel recognized by your colleagues. 
  • Bridge in. Another thing to keep in mind is trying to bridge in and create a balance between work and building connections.  Every meeting doesn’t have to be strictly related to clients. Constantly hearing “Have you covered this for this client? Have you covered for this?” will eventually dehumanize associates and make them feel like a robot, for lack of a better word. Instead,  try, “Hey, everybody let’s go around and share something going on in your personal life this week, and we’ll spend five minutes at the beginning of the meeting just chatting.” It’s a small, but incredibly impactful way to connect your group. Instead of knowing that Tom is a partner that bills 2,600 hours, you know a little bit about his kid that just started playing soccer. The meaningful connection correlates greatly to increased engagement, retention, and efficiency. 

Prepare for Hybrid Work

If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s hybrid work environments are here to stay, and if you want to keep top talent, it’s a very smart idea to provide the option if you’re able. Let’s take it a step further, though.  Only provide hybrid work if you’re not going to create an environment of distrust. I’ll elaborate. Oftentimes, associates are micromanaged, from what time they log on the computer, to time spent offline, and I DON’T think that’s a solution. 

What I do think is that allowing some flexibility and autonomy is incredibly beneficial, and research backs that up. Larry Richards studied lawyers for decades and he observed that the second lawyers feel like they’ve lost autonomy, their productivity is impacted. The reality is, not a lot of firms give autonomy, but it’s critical for optimal performance. Autonomy can be integrated in small ways. For example, letting someone else pick the time of the meeting. It really doesn’t have to be a big thing.

Support Effective Management that Listens 

Change can’t truly begin until there is effective management in place, and there is one characteristic, among others, that is crucial to have if you want happy associates: good listening and creating a space to listen.

Many lawyers experience situations like the following: They want to go and talk to someone in a management position about something, but every time they pass their office, they’re bolted to their computer, on the phone, or unavailable. And, unfortunately, even when they aren’t on the phone or their computer, they’re quick and dismissive, uttering phrases like “What else do you need?” This creates an environment where associates feel annoyed and in turn don’t want to look for help. 

I’ve also worked with an associate who was completely stuck on a project, so they reached out to their mentor and sent them multiple questions, only for the mentor to address just one. When the associate reached back out for further clarification, their mentor was unavailable.  

They had meetings on their calendar, or they were on the phone (the vicious cycle I mentioned previously), and every time they did have an interaction, it felt really abrupt like they weren’t actually being heard. This left the associate feeling stressed and lost, and afraid of mismanaging the client’s situation. A lot of time was lost and the relationship became fractured. 

It’s imperative that firms create schedules or set aside times for associates to speak with management regarding their current projects so that they don’t end up wasting hours, spinning their wheels only to complete the work incorrectly. 

Consistent mismanagement can lead to diminished team morale, decreased engagement, and attorney attrition. Taking the the extra step to provide space for communication helps lawyers on all levels.

Prioritize A Better Work-life Balance 

Take this statistic from the report as a starting place when it comes to work-life balance: “About 27% of the 3,700 associates from 77 Am Law 200 firms surveyed by The American Lawyer for its 2021 Midlevel Associates Survey, said they would leave their current law firm for higher compensation. More importantly, 60% of respondents said they would consider leaving their firm for a better work-life balance.

Associates are tired of the grueling increase of workload, and they’re looking for a place where they can work hard, but also have time to come up for air. 

Hard work and putting in long hours at times is inevitable as a lawyer, but there are areas that your firm can decrease workload according to the 2021 skills and progression survey. These include reducing commitments to non-billable administrative activities not directly related to client relationships, limiting involvement in activities like marketing, training, diversity initiatives, lateral and graduate recruitment, and knowledge management. 

Ensure There Are Opportunities To Buffer Mental Health Challenges

Often, firm management will ask me, “But where do I begin?” My answer: Jump in, start somewhere. Having honest conversations with associates about current challenges is a great place to start.

It doesn’t have to be perfect and often it’s not, but starting somewhere starts to provide information that informs “gaps” that exist and specific areas to focus on first. It might look like setting up a leadership training for firm leaders. Or, setting up a coaching program for your associates to help them combat work-related challenges. It could also look like providing a DISC training for an entire practice group.  Or, focusing on attorneys who have a lot of leadership potential.  

Here are a few examples of ways you can help your associates build mental health buffers on the front end: 

  • Check in with them about their current workload to help navigate when they’re maxed out or can add another task onto their plate. Often, associates don’t have an accurate way to assess their workload.
  • Consider providing an option to work from home one day if they’re needing a change of scenery and to focus on a big task. 
  • Help them learn strategies to navigate stress and become a better leader. Share what you’ve learned with them or encourage them to consider consulting to help build personal development and leadership skills. 

Experiment. Be open. And know, that while the first approach might not be perfect, it’s critical that firms show they care and are willing to invest in associates to help them thrive. 

    At Rachel Fry Consulting I’ll help your associates find the tools, clarity, and confidence they need so they can build the legal career they deserve. I offer private coaching, group programs, workshops, and on-demand training and I have served over five hundred lawyers and given 46 training presentations and conference speeches. I am truly dedicated to helping lawyers live their best lives (both in and outside the office). If you’re a firm looking for ways to increase retention, consider me as an option and learn more here!



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