Last summer, the legal industry entered an associate salary war, as firms raced to lure top talent amidst changing expectations and priorities. In June, highly profitable New York firms lost more than 270 associates, and since then there have been salary raises at many national, international, and boutique firms.
Reuters reported that the New York associate departures partly reflects “a generational shift, favoring more affordable cities, work-life balance and tech clients, that could leave a long-term mark on law firm recruiting.”
As law firms look beyond salary increases in order to curb high attrition rates, work quality has been highlighted as a way that they can stand out and prioritize associate career development. An NALP Foundation study found that “work quality standards not met” was the most frequent reason for lateral associate departures and the fourth most frequent reason for entry-level associate departures.
Why unmet work quality is a major cause of associate attrition
In October, the National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP) and vi by Aderant hosted a webinar on work allocation challenges and potential solutions, “Solving the Crisis of Associate Attrition with Effective Work Allocation.”
Marlon Lutfiyya, director of talent and diversity at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, told webinar attendees that firms may think that they are already doing all they can to retain their hard-working and talented attorneys. In reality, those star associates may be at risk of burnout, while other associates are being left behind, regardless of their potential.
“Firms historically just haven’t done a good job engaging and developing all of the talent that they’ve brought through their doors,” Lutfiyya said.
Andrew Talpash, founder and CEO of vi by Aderant, said that law firm clients have told them that their old ways of hiring, which involved bringing in more people than they needed and “letting the cream rise to the top,” don’t work in the current market.
The way that law firms have traditionally assigned work creates inequity in the distribution of work and opportunities, which has especially come under scrutiny in light of the industry focus on diversity and inclusion. Lutfiyya said the associates that can best establish relationships with assigning partners have gotten the best work and reaped the related rewards.
Other associates are left underutilized, regardless of their abilities and potential, especially when it comes to attorneys from underrepresented groups. Ideally, Lutfiyya said, firms should want to retain as many of their associates as possible, since they’ve already invested in them through recruitment and training.
Why the free-market system can fail every type of associate
Lutfiyya pointed to the September edition of NALP’s PDQ, which featured talent management consultant Werten Bellamy’s article, “Coaching associates of color during the COVID-19 crisis: Lessons learned and the path forward.”
Bellamy observed that law firm associates tend to fall into four categories: go-to associates, utility players, fringe players, and newbies. Each group has different talent and development needs, and Lutfiyya pointed out that each comes with their own attrition risks.
- Go-to associates are the top performers who are well integrated into their teams and practice groups. While they are in theory getting the best work, overutilization can lead to them burning out, being pigeonholed, or seeing a drop in their work quality.
- Utility players are generally seen as average to good workers, and will keep busy when there is a lot of work to go around the practice group. But when business is slow, they can be left in the cold.
- Fringe players don’t have strong relationships in the office and operate on the edges of practice group workflows. They have even more episodic work than utility players and risk underutilization. This leaves them with low levels of developmental assignments, meaning a lack of growth opportunities and a perception of unfair work distribution.
- Newbies, especially the ones who have joined a virtual office during the pandemic, are low on in-office experience and haven’t had the chance to build and develop relationships with assigning partners. (Lutfiyya pointed out that this can apply to pandemic lateral hires as well). Newbies are likely to emerge from the pandemic as fringe players.
“The free-market system of partners assigning work to their favorite associates leads to huge discrepancies in the workload and work quality of the go-to associates and the utility and fringe players, leading to heightened attrition risks for all,” Talpash said. “We’ve seen that with our clients, and with the pandemic, the problem has only gotten worse.”
Giving associates the right quantity and quality of work is key to fighting attrition
Firms that want to improve retention need solutions that help balance associate workloads, identify associate skills and developmental needs, and drive equitable distribution of work and opportunities.
Like many law firms, Lutfiyya’s firm uses a variety of reports to monitor their associate availability and capacity, including asking their associates to forecast their upcoming availability. But he says these reports are really just the starting point in their assessment.
When they spot an issue in the data, like associates going over or under their billable targets, they investigate and have conversations to uncover the story behind the numbers. This allows them to understand the cause, which can be exceptional circumstances or part of a greater trend that needs to be corrected. For example, an associate could have too much or too little work, but without looking into it further, they wouldn’t know whether that’s because of a major case, an increase in non-billable work, or extenuating personal circumstances.
Lutfiyya also said that for associates to fully develop, they don’t just need great work, they also need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and given the chance to progress in their abilities. They also need sponsors, which he described as “people who see your potential and are willing to use their clout and influence to help bring you along and get additional opportunities for you.”
“Sponsors are helpful in providing candid feedback that associates need to course correct so that they can develop quickly and avoid common pitfalls,” Lutfiyya said. “An associate who doesn’t have quality work and sponsors is fighting steep uphill battles.”
Supporting equitable work distribution with the right processes and technology
Every law firm’s needs and systems are going to vary, but Lutfiyya’s firm, Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg LLP, champions a data-driven approach. Every question, assessment, and solution is backed up by information on the associates and their work.
Firms can look into resource allocation platforms that allow them to easily and flexibly manage and share data from multiple sources.
“By categorizing work by its quality and growth opportunities, firms can also track the distribution of key assignments and engagements and ensure they are assigned equitably,” said Talpash. “This will greatly reduce the chance of losing associates due to implicit biases and unmet work quality standards.”
When associates self-report their skills, career development needs, and interests, it puts them in the driver’s seat. With this data at hand, assigning partners or managers can consider associate skills when allocating work. They will easily know who has the skills needed to deliver on a matter, and they can also see who is in need of the skills and experience that can be gained from working on the matter or partnering with a mentor. This way, no associate is left behind when it comes to acquiring the skills they need to advance.