Associate Engagement is No Laughing Matter

The Best of Law Practice Today. This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of LPT (The Professional Development Issue). With the significant expansion of our subscriber audience since July 2014, we thought our new readers would enjoy reading an earlier feature that you may have missed.

Hey, have you heard the one about the lawyer who stayed with one firm her entire career? Joined as a young associate, paid her dues, made partner, and retired leaving the next generation a thriving book of business to take over?

Take my associates, please.

The idea of spending your entire career with one firm is as old-fashioned as a Henny Youngman joke. There’s no longer a stigma to jumping from firm to firm. According to the National Association for Legal Professionals Foundation, firms with 251-500 lawyers lost 19 percent of their associates in 2010. Firms with 100 lawyers or fewer averaged 20 percent. These are significant rates of attrition, yet they’re often rationalized as the cost of doing business. These numbers are the new reality, but firms are doing little to influence who chooses to leave, and who hopes to stay.

The Corporate Leadership Council says that 25 percent of key associates are looking to leave their current job. Most firms already invest in professional development, skills training and marketing, but too often these resources are dedicated only to making lawyers better at their job, not making the job better for the lawyer. So you bring them aboard, you teach them how to be lawyers… and then you watch them go make money for someone else? I don’t think so.

What can firms do to keep the most promising talent? The solution is attorney engagement, which has become a critical piece of any law firm’s strategic plan. Even if they don’t move on to greener pastures, under-engaged associates are not giving you their all. The bottom line is that engaged associates are better for a firm’s bottom line.

Global HR consultancy Aon Hewitt defines employee engagement as “the state of emotional and intellectual involvement that motivates employees to do their best work.” Law firms generally pay associates well. Shouldn’t that be enough to motivate them to do their best work? Studies say no. Sure, money is a key factor, but it’s not even one of the top five drivers of employee engagement. According to studies by Aon Hewitt, those are: career opportunities, recognition, organizational reputation, communication and performance management.

Let’s take a closer look.

Career Opportunities

Firms need to consider how transparent the path to partnership is. Being kept in the dark does not motivate, it only confuses. While you’re at it, does the firm encourage honest and open discussion about part-time options, telecommuting or other non-traditional work arrangements? And recognize that it’s not “partner or bust” for every associate you bring in. Keep an open mind toward alternative career paths, and even encourage attorneys who may want to pursue other options like going in-house or working in government. Then, cultivate an active alumni program that makes people feel like they’re part of the firm for life.


Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has conducted numerous studies on what motives people and makes them more productive at work. In one such study, students at MIT were given a piece of paper and asked to find pairs of identical letters. Students in Group 1 wrote their names on their sheets and handed them to a proctor, who looked over the work in front of them. Students in Group 2 didn’t write their names on their sheets and their work was simply placed in a pile without being looked at. When students in Group 3 handed in their work, it was shredded immediately. Upon completion, each student was offered money to complete the task again. The results show that the students whose work was shredded needed twice as much money to continue doing the task as the students in Group 1 whose work was recognized. The students in Group 2, whose work was saved but ignored, required almost as much money to continue working as those whose work was shredded.

Fortunately, providing recognition to increase motivation comes cheap. Acknowledge good work in front of peers and partners, even in front of clients. And include the significance of recognizing associates and their work in leadership-training programs.

Organizational Reputation

Sure, you want to be listed in all sorts of “top lawyer” publications. But what really makes a difference is being associated with a great place to work, somewhere associates believe they can grow and make a significant contribution. People naturally want to be proud of where they work, and that starts with a firm being proud of its culture. Promote that culture and be recognized for it every bit as much as having the best (insert practice area here) attorney in the neighborhood.


It’s a new world. Associates are going to talk, share, post, text, like and tweet. Yes, you need a social media policy. But it doesn’t need to be strictly punitive, drawing boundaries and setting limits. Embrace the technology. Keep associates engaged by encouraging them to share about the firm. Of course areas should be off limits, but what’s fair game? Take a proactive approach to working with your associates and making social media work for them and the firm.

Performance Management

Okay, so you have a professional development program in place. Now, is it only designed to teach skills that associates will need when they become partners? Or does it also enhance associate engagement today? Teaching associates networking strategies is important. Taking associates to networking events and client meetings increases engagement. Coaching associates on writing and public speaking is valuable. Facilitating public speaking opportunities and articles to write increases engagement. On the surface, the differences are subtle. In practice, they make a tremendous difference.

Firms that understand how employee engagement fits into their long-term strategy reap a significant competitive advantage. By identifying and investing in the drivers that have the greatest impact on their associates, firms will see increased motivation, productivity and efficiency. And their ability to retain the associates they groom will be no joke.

About the Author

Rachel Silverman is an attorney and advisor to law firms on communications, business development, and marketing.

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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