Shopping for Associates: 4 Ways to Hire and Keep Attorneys at Your Firm

Harrison Barnes

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  • The actual costs of losing an associate, whether by departure or termination, are often hidden by law firms—or are completely unknown.
  • The losses from associate attrition can be many and varied: How can your firm attract new associates and motivate them to stay?
  • The process of keeping associates should begin before they’re even hired: This article offers suggestions.
  • The article also lists ways of finding new associates, ways to retain them, and ways to ensure their success.

The firm and the associate: both are needy

What the firm needs: The firm needs the best associates they can find and the best environment for them to thrive in—for years to come. Before a new associate can bill more than they cost your law firm, they’ll require much time and training. In the process of bringing them up to speed, your firm will drain many hours of billable time from profitable associates and partners. Losing associates costs your firm. So, once they’re up to speed and profitable, you firm will have much to lose if they’re rushing out the door to a competitor.

What the associates need: No doubt, salary is crucial as are incremental pay bumps. But that’s not all. Does your firm offer a culture for success—is it honest and supportive? Such a culture isn’t easy to create in the fast-paced and high pressure ecosystem of a law firm. Then there’s the social environment, perks, potential for advancement—not everyone is looking to jump on the stress train for a path to partnership. When this is the case, what other opportunities for advancement will be available? And then there’s the work itself: Is it stimulating? Is there a culture in place to offer feedback to help associates develop and hone their skills? Does the firm offer flexibility, sponsorship, training, and mentoring?

Don’t underestimate culture: When asked, most associates say the most important factor in their happiness, the thing that makes them stay with a firm, is culture.

Please don’t go…

Beyond the inconvenience to both the firm and its clients, associate attrition has measurable effects on the bottom line. Here’s a breakdown of a firm’s obligation every time an associate walks:

  • Recruiting costs—recruiter fees, advertising costs, time spent by HR and Talent teams
  • Training and induction costs—by associates and partners
  • Administration costs—HR hours, resource shortages
  • Lost billings

Here’s a breakdown in actual cash money:

For the firm hiring an associate attorney through a recruiter at a salary of $160,000, the auxiliary costs may be:

  • The 25% recruiter’s fee (it can vary on occasion) of the new hire’s first year salary: $40,000
  • Cost of educating the new hire into the firm’s culture: if that training time is 100 hours at the billable rate of $200/hour, the cost is $20,000
  • If the partners are doing the training, that’s 100 hours at $500 per hour: $50,000
  • Most likely the partners will be involved in the recruiting process; estimated an additional 50 hours: $25,000
  • This sum total of hiring a new associate may be $135,000.

Clearly, retention has its advantages. The industry is presently in a very tight and competitive associate market. In conditions such as these, with a strong economy, the job market is wide open for associates and good candidates will have the luxury of being choosy. Also, retention is not just a large firm or urban problem; small and mid-size firms also struggle with retaining associates, and for them it could be even worse. An advantage that large firms have, and it’s a big one, is in resources. They may have staff devoted to recruiting which can provide presentations, strategy plans, and do on-campus interviews and special events targeted at law schools. They can offer competitively higher salaries and other benefits. Large firms can also provide their candidates the ability to cycle through a variety of practice areas until a “fit” is found. They can also protect themselves from poor choices and defections by hiring large “classes” of new associates every year. That’s something small firm and mid-size firms just can’t do.

Best ways to stop associate disassociation

  • Look for keepers: Seek those who have the potential to rise within the firm. Hire for, and then once they’re in, develop each associate toward success.
  • Define a matrix for success at your firm: measure performance in both terms of behaviors and results.
  • Create an incentive and reward system that fits with these measurements.
  • What do associates want in terms of money, training and development, status, quality of life—or anything else that motivates them? Figure it out and decide what you can offer them toward that goal.
  • Any professional development initiative implemented by the firm without a community of partners taking responsibility for seeing it through is a waste of time.

That’s how to keep them. Here’s how to find them.

Shopping for Associates 101: The Best Ways to Find New Associates

1) Prospecting

  • Job websites: There are many options here—such as sites targeted to the legal profession specifically—like HiringPartner, LawCrossing, and others—as well as more general job sites like EmploymentCrossing, Monster, and Indeed. Also, the job sections of association websites can be good places to target lawyers in specific practice areas.
  • Using an ATS: When you post a job to an online job board, chances are you’ll receive a flood of responses—a hundred to hundreds or more résumés. This is an unwieldy quantity for humans to navigate. Enter Applicant Tracking Systems: with an ATS, applicants can be quickly reviewed, organized, and matched to each opening. Additionally, an ATS will allow you to quickly schedule interviews, send customized emails to applicants, and save firm thousands of dollars. HiringPartner has its own proprietary ATS designed specifically for legal employers and law firms.
  • Get the word out, old school: You’re looking to hire. If you started with your network and then moved on to the networks of trusted colleagues, this is where the net you cast gets wider. At this stage, be more concerned about getting your channels working rather than the quality of the connections.
  • Post law firm vacancies on your website: Make sure your website is up-to-date. Some firms and even businesses in other sectors feature statements like “We’re always interested in speaking with talented attorneys…Send us your résumés” on their websites. Of course, if you’re going to have this sort of open ended inquiry, you’ll need to have some sort of process for receiving and keeping promising potentials on file and searchable.
  • Career centers at law schools: If you’re looking for hungry young attorneys, there’s no place better. The schools will no doubt be anxious to help as they’ll have an acute interest in helping place their students.
  • Recruiters: Why not hand the responsibility over to someone who’s an expert? There’s a cost involved but they have access to expanded networks, screening capabilities and other efficiencies that you don’t. Plus, they can do all of the heavy lifting for you.

2) Make professional development a thing at your firm, and if it’s already a thing, make it a better one

Rest assured, this will not be the last time you’ll need to fill valued associate attorney jobs. Attrition and turnover is a reality in any industry, even high paying ones like the legal industry. Turnover rates are higher than ever in the industry. Make sure professional development at your firm is a top priority. If you already have something in place, make sure your programs are working. If they’re not, upgrade. See what could be done differently. Is it coherent and effective or is it a wasted opportunity? Do you have a summer associate program? This is your firm’s future we’re talking about. Make sure it’s up to the task because it’s an important one.
Hire a Professional Development Director if you need one—preferably one with a degree in Organizational Development or experienced in running a large-scale Professional Development program. Then, if this position hasn’t been elevated to a seat on the firm’s Executive Committee, make it so.
Get data: No practice or program can be or remain effective without some measurable or accountable matrix. The data will be vital for determining what works and what doesn’t.

3) Hire not to fire

Hiring is expensive. And so is firing.

Consider the costs of termination.
­The presumption is when a firm hired the associate, they were needed. A firm may later lose clients or have a slowdown in work and decide they can no longer afford to keep an attorney. Above, it was explained why every associate is a major investment. Some will thrive and some won’t but any associate sent packing is a lost investment. And not just for all of the training and enculturation that goes to waste, but in other very significant ways. Terminations also have ramifications for those associates that remain. It can undermine their loyalty to the firm and make them more inclined to leave themselves. Those that remain may feel in danger of losing their jobs. This multiplies the damage of one termination multiplying into other potential losses.

Yet for all of the expense, most firms don’t even know the actual costs of termination. They’re generally not calculated into their business costs. And if they are, they tend to be underestimated. Some of it is simply denial. Firms often have measurable metrics available to them that they rather overlook. Acknowledging the high cost of terminations would force partners to consider compromising their power to terminate at will—or at least consider alternatives.

And what are those termination costs? They include:

  • Hiring costs—recruiting and interviewing
  • Training costs—orientation and training, plus compensation costs, benefits, and productivity lost while the replacement is trained
  • Client service costs—client dissatisfaction, the reduction or loss of business associated with an increased workload, lost productivity, and other losses due to being understaffed until a new person can get up to speed
  • Direct termination costs—exit interviews, severance, and other administrative costs

It’s been said that the losses incurred when attorneys leave or are terminated is the largest, least understood, and often most hidden expense for law firms of any size. In 2014 it was estimated that turnover costs for the Top 400 law firms in the United States were $9.1 billion. Imagine what that could be on a global industrial scale. We know why these costs can be so great—yet, many firms still don’t track or calculate them. They especially ignore the impact these costs can have on their bottom lines: all firms need to understand that every attorney at their firm represents a substantial investment.

4) Making life better on Planet “New Associate”

Traditionally, firms have tried to motivate lawyers through three types of approaches, some better than others:

  • Peer evaluation: This can bring favorable results when it’s used as an opportunity to recognize, praise, and acknowledge good performance and accomplishment. However, results may not be so favorable when this peer review becomes a forum for criticism and complaints. An example of this is the annual performance review: this can be a chance for the evaluator to spur achievement—but only if they are very familiar with the lawyer they are reviewing. If the evaluator normally has limited interactions with the lawyer, it becomes an empty exercise of duty without much value.
  • Money: It’s often argued that while money is a good motivator, it’s not the only one and not always the most critical. Part of the failure of money is, in the long run, it’s never enough. Once the novelty has faded, the associate is left with the work and the environment. Are they engaged or satisfied with the work? Do they feel supported and valued? Money can’t be viewed as an end all in itself.
  • The “Sword of Damocles”: One well-known law firm consultant calls it the “big stick,” a way of motivating lawyers through ever-present fear. At best, waiting for the Sword to fall is only useful with marginal issues. Otherwise, it only tends to increase resentment and hostility—elements that’re the inverse of inspiration and motivation.

In order to effectively attract and retain associates, your firm will need to take a deep look into identifying the possible key reasons for attrition. Of course, attorneys may decide to leave your firm or completely leave the practice of law, which many attorneys do every year. This is particularly baffling when considering the investment and commitment it takes to become a lawyer. This only goes to show the importance of providing attorneys the best possible experience possible at your firm.

Finding a work/life balance in a legal career is always an extreme challenge—the bigger the firm the bigger the challenge. Law firms are also coming under increased competition from New Law and Legal Tech businesses that are more focused on delivering services at fixed fees. These businesses are offering young lawyers more beneficial work and time pressures for their employees and they will no doubt offer an alternative to the grind of law firms. While these jobs don’t pay as well as top law firms, it’s also another demonstration of how money isn’t always critical.

What else can your firm do to make associates want to work for you? More questions worth considering:

  • Is there more your firm could be offering in terms of flexible work arrangements that could appeal to a broader range of associates?
  • Are there alternative career progression tracks that could be offered or expanded?
  • Can anything be done within the parameters of the Big Law business model to make an associate’s life more livable?

More carrots; fewer sticks

How does the firm demonstrate its collective attitude toward the lawyers in their employ? A culture that recognizes and acknowledges the effectiveness of the individual can be a great motivator for not only retaining associates, but for ensuring their future excellence: more carrots, fewer sticks. As young lawyers get up to speed, and even then, mistakes are an essential component of the learning process—even for senior associates with years of experience. Mistakes in the practice of law, for better or worse, are also great teachers. Using mistakes as an opportunity for more “stick,” however, can too often be energy misspent and misdirected. Expect that the offending lawyer is already well aware of the error. Better than remedial action is to focus on improvement and success in the future. Consider that the lawyer’s need to prove themselves and their abilities will offer better results next time.

Give your team the space to excel. Your firm is only as good as its attorneys that work there. Your associates should add to the firm’s reputation and its future. The firm that thrives is the firm that allows its lawyers to perform for both their individual benefit and the firm’s. Management serves best when it provides them with the right environment to do so.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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