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Where’s My Trophy? Why Associates Leave and How to Stop Them

trophyOne of the most serious challenges facing law firms today is recruiting and retaining young talent. Firms of all sizes are finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto associates for more than a few years. That means partners and firm administrators have to pay more attention to keeping their best young lawyers in the fold.

The traditional career path of putting in years of hard work and billable hours to be rewarded a partnership is not as important to today’s young attorneys. According to legal pundits over 50% of them have no desire to become a partner. Therein lies the problem.

It’s a generational thing. The attorneys coming out of law schools today share several traits, both positive and negative, with their Millenial generation peers. They tend to be:

  • Open minded and accepting, willing to try new things
  • Committed to causes they are passionate about
  • Confident in their abilities
  • Tech savvy and at ease with instant and frequent communications
  • Impatient, with an inability (or unwillingness) to take the long view
  • Seeking fun and fulfillment at work, rather than security or financial remuneration

As a result of this mindset, many Millenials enter the workforce with no intention of staying at one company all of their working life. They embrace the flexibility and mobility that is part of modern society. Their plan is no plan.

While it is hard to hit such an elusive target, let’s not lay all the blame on the fickle nature of Millenials. The younger generation is still smart enough to know a good thing when they see it. Igniting their curiosity and passion can help capture their interest and dedication. But this is an area in which law firms have fallen down on the job.

In speaking with younger associates at several law firms, we have uncovered several common concerns that lead to short stays and more frequent “firm jumping” and abbreviated careers:

  • Not enough involvement. Inquisitive Millenials see their education as a never ending journey, with college and law school just a jumping off point. They want to be part of the team and learn their craft by doing. The drudgery of legal research and low-level work that is often the fate of first year associates is anathema to them.
  • Ineffective mentoring programs. In the press to log billable hours, fewer and fewer law firms have time to engage in a meaningful mentoring program. A brief meeting once or twice a year is not mentoring; it is not even monitoring. Young associates feel ignored and marginalized.
  • No investment in their future. Ironically, Millenials resent being treated like an employee, yet many are content with simply having a job that does not necessarily lead to a career. Partnership seems to be an unattainable goal that is too far in the future. Still, they want to know their work is appreciated and that they are wanted. Remember, this is the generation that grew up with the expectation that every member of the last place soccer team would receive a trophy.

What can you do to help identify and retain those young associates who show the most promise?

  1. Improve communications from top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top. The last thing an eager young associate wants is to be buried at the bottom of the depth chart. They want to know what is going on at their firm, and are eager to be associated with a firm that is growing and active. They also want the opportunity for their ideas to be heard.
  2. Put a formal mentoring program in place. Young associates need attention and guidance to help create and navigate their own career path. That means frequent conversations and a genuine interest on the part of a more senior attorney. Management should hold mentors accountable for the progression of their protégés.
  3. Offer more training opportunities. I know of a firm that promises first year associates at least one out-of-town trip to a training event or conference every year. It’s an investment that can pay off in many ways, including a more skilled and capable attorney, and improved job satisfaction. Another route is to encourage participation in Inns of Court, where a young lawyer will be exposed to experienced attorneys and judges in a collegial setting.
  4. Adapt your compensation system to accommodate salaried attorneys. The “carrot” of a partnership may not be enough incentive to keep a talented young lawyer on staff. Be prepared to offer attorneys a non-partner-track position that pays more now, without the promise of equity later.
  5. Don’t assume that if they are not in the office they are not working. Millenials place great faith in technology and they are very comfortable with concepts such as telecommuting and flex time. They believe that, so long they are getting the work done, it does not matter where it is being performed. Embracing this as a firm can create the lifestyle balance that many associates – indeed, many experienced attorneys – crave. Imagine being able to attend your childrens’ soccer games or ballet recitals, yet still be in touch – and achieving the required hours!

There is no easy answer to the challenge of retaining youthful talent in your law firm. The best approach is to be more alert to the needs of your associates, and flexible enough to adapt and adjust internal policies and programs. The energy and drive that today’s eager young attorneys bring to the table can be well worth the investment of time and money.