Turnover: What can you do to keep good lawyers?
by Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

A 1998 study of 10,000 associates by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reports high levels of law firm turnover: Approximately nine percent in the first year after law school.  Turnover approaches 50 percent by the end of three years -- just when associates are becoming profitable.  The rates are even higher among women and minorities.

Everybody Pays

A firm's success depends largely on its ability to attract and retain the best and brightest.  The costs of turnover are enormous.  When the bills for recruitment, training, and lost productivity are tallied, the total is estimated at up to two and a half times an individual's annual salary.

It is not just firms that pay the high cost of turnover.  Clients share the burden.  They have to educate new attorneys and establish new relationships.  This takes time and money and compromises client service -- the bedrock of a firm's reputation and profitability.

Turnover also costs the individual who is leaving, , whether voluntarily or involuntarily.   Voluntary moves may mean a better situation, more interesting work, better pay, and higher levels of career satisfaction and motivation. But they also can mean delayed partnership, and disrupted skill building and client development.   Involuntary turnover -- losing a job --  undermines self-confidence and can have lasting emotional and professional effects.

Remedies for Turnover

Higher salaries alone cannot prevent turnover.  What can? 

The NALP study cites a lack of development opportunities, feedback, and mentoring as major causes of turnover.  An attorney career management program that addresses the key issues behind turnover offers the firm a significant annual saving.  It provides an important recruiting incentive beyond compensation, and ongoing support to enhance job satisfaction and productivity.

The law firm culture,  with its bottom-line orientation and emphasis on short-term goals, may influence you to seek a quick, inexpensive fix.  This is a mistake.  Don't be lulled into believing that  a couple of hours of performance feedback training will fix your performance review problem, or that a single team-building session will foster teamwork.  None of these so-called solutions provide the kind of thoughtful, comprehensive, and ongoing career management support and attention that associates need.

Lawyers are eager to discuss career issues. They want someone to help them examine their skills and accomplishments and identify where they need better depth and experience.  They want to know which aspects of their style hinder their effectiveness.  They need to define steps and implement action plans to reach their goals -- to help them take control of their careers.

Many questions have to do with non-technical issues like mastering the interpersonal, political, and management aspects of law practice.  What should you do when your mentor leaves the firm and cannot take you along?  How do you integrate yourself into the firm?  How do you change practices?  How to deal with a tyrannical partner?

In the best-selling business book, Built to Last:  Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors James C. Collins and Jerry L. Porras identify the factors that distinguish visionary companies from other successful companies.  A fundamental difference is that truly visionary companies put their primary attention on building great organizations and people rather than looking for quick-fix ideas, short-term profits,  or inspiration from charismatic leaders.  Outstanding profits and reputations are the result -- not the primary focus --of visionary c companies.

Lessons for Law Firms

Law firms make a major, continuous investment in marketing because they believe their success depends on it.  Career management deserves a similar investment.  In fact, the ability to market effectively is but one important part of an attorney's career development.  Turnover rates and recruitment challenges suggest that a firm's success depends on hiring and keeping good lawyers.

One of the greatest challenges I face,  working with client organizations,  is the tendency (especially among hard-charging, results-oriented types) of firm leaders to look for a quick solution so they can get back to their "real work."  Findings from behavioral change studies are clear: Change is slow and gradual. Change programs fail at the implementation stage when leaders do not accept that ongoing implementation support is essential.  Without a long-term commitment, the firm will fail to reap a return on its investment in people.

The NALP study provides useful insight into the reasons for turnover.  Before designing a program for your firm, gather information from your lawyers about their specific needs and priorities.  Conduct thorough exit interviews.  Hire a consultant to gather this information from current and departing lawyers who are reluctant to give candid feedback.  Involve associates in the data collection and design process; create a program they own.

Partners must be involved actively in the career management effort.  However, it is unrealistic -- both in terms of their available time or their existing skills -- for them to take the lead in a career management program.  The firm needs an outside expert to give focus and continuity.  Select an outside consultant who is experienced in career transitions and performance development.  A national legal strategy firm may have a strong reputation generally, but may lack the expertise  you need to build and lead your program.

Outside experts need authority -- not just responsibility -- to help produce results. It is imperative to listen to their advice and respect their expertise, just as your clients respect your expertise as a lawyer.   Don't waste your time and money giving lip service to a program if you are convinced that lawyers know best.  They Don't (as turnover rates indicate).  

Involving an outside expert has another important benefit: It maintains confidentiality in regard to career problems and issues.   Individuals can speak freely without fear of their candor coming back to haunt them in a performance review.

The Retention Prize

With their deeper pockets, large firms are better able to compete in the salary sweepstakes for top associates.  But the retention prize will go to firms that invest wisely in programs that help associates manage their careers.  No matter the size of your firm, if you create an environment of learning and support you will increase job satisfaction -- and reduce turnover.

Suggested Reading

"Keeping the Keepers:  Strategies for Associate Retention in Times of Attrition," National Association for Law Placement Foundation for Research and Education, 1998.  www.nalp.org

Built to Last:  Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, HarperBusiness, 1994.

"Your Hired 'Em, But Can You Keep 'Em?"  by Shelly Branch, Fortune, November 9, 1998.

"I'm Outta Here!" by Susan Kostal, California Lawyer, January 1999.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of Law Practice Management (Volume 25, Issue 4,), a publication of the American Bar Association.  Copyright © 1999  American Bar Association.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.