Most law firm associates do not have the skills or support they need to practice effectively, work efficiently, or succeed as an attorney without burning out, let alone to enjoy their practice and build a fulfilling career in the law. Law schools don’t teach these skills, and most law firms do not have the time, capacity, insight, or experience needed to provide the support and training their associates really need.
As a result, associates struggle just to keep up with client work and meet billable hour requirements, leaving no time for the work-life balance, foundational business development, collaboration, and intentional self-development that leads to growth and fulfillment in practice. They are burning out and unhappy, and they leave. Associates, their firms, and their clients all then miss out on the rewards of an associate evolving into an outstanding attorney, all because an early-career lawyer missed out on the right skills and support at a crucial time.
No amount of compensation or bonuses can fix this unfortunate and avoidable result.
Now is the Time to Become a Leader in Associate Retention
There is a gap between the struggling, draining experience of the typical law firm associate and the engaged, committed, practice-ready associate law firms need. The past few years of staggering associate attrition highlight the pressing need to close this gap. However, for those firms willing to invest in the right associate support to close the gap, now is a unique and ideal time to become a leader in associate recruiting, retention, and support. A law firm that closes the gap can get ahead of predicted market pressures to excel at attracting and retaining legal talent, as well as align its associates’ support needs with firm goals to fuel continued growth.
Most importantly, by closing the gap, a law firm can become a leader in four areas:
- Associate retention, recruitment, support, and development.
- Sustainable change to the burnout-inducing culture of our legal profession.
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion in our profession – by attracting and retaining women and other marginalized lawyers (the most likely to leave), fueling their success, and growing a truly diverse and thriving law firm.
- Law practice innovation – by attracting and retaining creative lawyers who look for and flourish in supportive environments, as well as a legal team diverse in thought and experience.
In other words, becoming a leader in associate retention directly supports a firm’s leadership in other key areas in our industry.
Identifying the Gap Between Associate and Law Firm Needs
I’ve seen the gap between the associate experiences and the law firms needs firsthand throughout my career while guiding early-career lawyers, supervising and hiring associates as an AmLaw200 firm attorney, turning law students into practice-ready lawyers through client work as a clinical law professor, creating foundational lawyering skills programs, and speaking/publishing on time management and balance in our profession. In addition, associate retention reports give us powerful clues about what associates really want, but firms need to know how to properly interpret retention insight.
However, few law firms are taking effective action in this area, even though doing so is very realistic, especially with the right help. Meanwhile, market pressures are intensifying the need to improve associate support efforts, and firms that hesitate to solve this puzzle risk chasing, instead of leading, our industry in this area. Fortunately, for firms ready to take action, a huge industry-leading opportunity exists if they are willing to explore the support associates really need and to provide (or invest in providing) that support for their early-career lawyers.
Three Keys to Becoming a Leader in Associate Retention
To successfully attract and retain associates, law firms need to provide support in the three key areas below (or invest in providing that support externally). These keys are crucial to unlocking valuable, balanced, fulfilling legal careers and to advancing the legal industry.
- Time & Priorities Management
Today’s new lawyers graduate law school without time management skills essential to succeed in practice. They simply are not taught, and do not have sufficient opportunity to master, effective time management strategies. Even those that do well in law school are ill-prepared for practice. Making matters worse, today’s practice environment and modern culture are increasingly unforgiving – associates must be skilled and self-aware in this area to stand a chance at thriving in practice.
I regularly teach these skills to new lawyers and law students because I consistently find them significantly lacking in, and entirely unsupported in developing, foundational time management skills at every level of education. We simply do not teach this skill at a time when it’s never been more important. From partners supervising associates in practice to law professors and law students themselves, people around the country reach out to me for support, sharing constant complaints and struggles in this area. We’re facing a bit of a time management skills crisis in our profession.
Associates struggling with time management will struggle in practice. They struggle to keep up with hours, to spend an appropriate amount of time on projects, to map out projects and predict how long they will take, to communicate with partners and supervisors about how long their work will take, and to avoid last-minute submissions leaving partners and clients scrambling to review work product under tight timelines.
Today’s associates unnecessarily practice at a sprinting pace to keep up with client work, leaving no time to rest, spend time away from work, reflect on their career goals, learn new skills, reflect on their professional development, connect with colleagues, spend time creating and taking action on a marketing and business development plan, develop their expertise – all the things that fuel growth and enjoyment in practice.
More importantly, few lawyers are taught how to identify their own priorities, to figure out what they want from their life and career and what makes them happy and fulfilled, let alone how to align their time more closely with those priorities. We need to intentionally manage our life and career priorities and to align our time more closely with those priorities, because consistent attention to priorities drives happiness and fulfillment.
Given this lack of experience in time management and priority management, it’s not surprising associates are deeply unhappy, burn out, and view leaving firm practice as the only escape from these struggles. However, when associates learn to manage their time and priorities well, they can have enough time for client work, expertise development, intentional self-development, effective networking and marketing, and most importantly, work life balance and attention to their own priorities.
It’s very important to note that giving associates more work flexibility (which firms should continue to do) will not, by itself, fix burnout issues. If associates do not have the ability to manage their time and priorities, they will still be unhappy, even in flexible work situations. Typically, they will assume leaving the firm is the only solution, realize too late their dissatisfaction continued after parting ways with their firm, and the firms will suffer not only the economic loss of associate attrition, but also the lost practice potential of likely-amazing associate.
Having worked with hundreds of early-career lawyers and graduating law students on time management skills, I see first-hand the impact of teaching these skills – associates move client matters forward more confidently and efficiently, they map out and more accurately predict timing of their work, they keep clients and supervisors informed more thoughtfully, they leave space to reflect and improve on their work, and they report high levels of enjoyment in their work, particularly compared to the near-constant overwhelm they experienced previously.
- Feedback Management (versus Mentoring)
We hear the word “mentoring” quite a bit, but what associates actually need and are looking for is a combination of actual mentoring on the one hand and feedback on the other.
Providing mentoring is a challenge for many firms. Mentoring takes significant time and skills that most law firm partners just do not have (or those that do get flooded with mentoring responsibilities to the exclusion of client service). In addition, an internal mentor relationship is not usually very effective, particularly when involuntary, such as in a mentor matchmaking program.
Supporting lawyers from outside of their firms is much more effective than internal mentoring. For example, when I externally mentor a law firm associate, they typically feel comfortable opening up to a non-supervisor outside their firm. In addition, I offer an independent and neutral perspective and bring a unique combination of experience in firm practice, associate supervision, teaching, mentoring, and associate skill-building program development. That high-quality mentoring result is impossible to replicate internally, and it’s not cost effective for a firm to attempt to do so. Firms can and should simply invest in external mentoring for their associates. External mentoring is more impactful for associates and a more cost and time effective way for law firms to solve the mentoring part of the equation.
The need for associate mentoring is often smaller than it appears. A substantial portion of requested “mentoring” is really just a call for effective feedback to help associates develop. The focus tends to be on getting firm partners to come up with comments, advice, and on-the-fly training for associates. Here again, partners don’t typically have the time or skills needed give effective feedback.
Fortunately, there’s a much better and easier way to approach the feedback dilemma. Associates need training to learn how to manage their own feedback. When associates manage their own feedback, they go to the supervising partner and ask targeted, clear, intentional questions. They also do so at times that make sense for the workflow and associate-partner relationship.
It’s a win for the partner – instead of awkwardly trying to push information and insight at associates, in contrived mentoring relationships, using non-existent feedback skills, spending time they don’t have, partners efficiently respond to targeted associate questions from the benefit of their own experience and practice insight. Most importantly, it’s a win for the associate – when properly trained, associates know best what skills and lessons they need to learn, they intentionally manage their own development, they get more effective, targeted feedback that’s easier to implement, they effectively implement feedback, and they feel a deserved sense of control and confidence in their own professional growth. Rather than spending partner time on ineffective feedback, firms should teach (or invest in) feedback management training for their associates.
- Practice-Ready Skills
High-performing law school grads generally have a strong understanding of substantive law and legal analysis, and will typically learn new areas of substantive law relatively quickly. However, substantive knowledge does not enable a new lawyer to produce valuable, clear, relevant work that is applicable to a client’s goals, empowering a client to make a decision or take next steps.
In other words, substantive knowledge and practice-ready skills are very different, and the latter is still rarely taught in law schools. When I start working with a new lawyer, they typically have substantive knowledge but need to unlock a few foundational skills and new ways of thinking to turn a wealth of substantive knowledge into usable, valuable, work product and client counseling. When I teach an early-career lawyer these skills, it feels like I’m giving them a decoder ring. They spend years curating a library of information in their minds, but they struggle immensely when the use of that knowledge changes from answering an exam question to working with clients. Giving them a decoder ring, in the form of a few key practice-ready skills, allows them to clearly see and effectively use all the knowledge they worked so hard to obtain.
Sadly, most new lawyers are never given a decoder ring. Those associates may produce a very long, treatise-like memo that is entirely accurate but ultimately useless to a client or partner. They may also write contacts saturated with legalese that seem to contain key topics but are internally inconsistent, miss key deal points, or don’t ultimately make much sense for the client’s goals.
Substantive knowledge also does not enable a new lawyer to function effectively in a law firm as part of a legal team – one does not follow from the other, and law school does not teach the latter. An associate who does not have a decoder ring will struggle to communicate effectively with partners, to ask relevant questions, to identify key facts and missing information, to earn partner trust, to add value to and support a deal team, to effectively work independently, to manage their own development, or to participate in firm marketing and business development efforts.
Putting the Three Keys Together
When early-career lawyers have time and priority management skills, feedback management skills, and practice-ready skills, they thrive in practice. After learning these skills, my past students constantly marvel at how enjoyable the practice of law can be, how empowered they feel, and what they’re able to accomplish. Because these lawyers enjoy their practice, they stay. If they become unhappy or out of balance, they know how to assess and address the cause, get targeted support if needed, and continue their practice. If someday they do leave their firm, they do so because they are confident it’s truly not a good fit, not because of avoidable burnout, overwhelm, frustration, or the misunderstanding that leaving practice will fix any of those issues.
When supervisors hand off a project, those thriving associates move it forward independently, then return only with clear, concrete, relevant questions. Partners trust them to communicate well and check in at appropriate and timely intervals. They submit work in advance, leaving time for partner review. They make effective use of feedback. They offer valuable insights and suggestions on client work. They produce clear, valuable work relevant to a client’s goals, industry, transaction, and situation.
Thriving associates also excel at the intentional self-development that leads to growth, success, and fulfillment in practice. They enjoy learning new skills and increasing their substantive knowledge, because they know how to put it to good use working with clients. As they grow, their practice-ready skills make them valuable, sought-after counselors, trusted colleagues, and let them succeed in marketing, business development, and growing a practice. They build a practice and become experts in their field, which further enhances their fulfillment in practice.
Consider how associates would feel about a firm that provided the support that made all this possible for them.
Most importantly, when firms support associates in gaining these three keys to success, everyone wins. Firms attract and retain capable, valuable, practice-ready associates. When I speak to firms hiring new lawyers I trained, they consistently point to these three keys as the reason they are thrilled about the hire. Meanwhile, associates grow, find fulfillment in practice, gain clarity around their priorities, and succeed as lawyers, while avoiding burnout. A diverse, talented team of lawyers stays in firm practice and supports a diverse group of clients, and those firms lead the legal industry’s evolution and innovation moving forward.
How to Get Started
If your firm shares this mission and is ready to be a leader, not only in attracting, retaining, and supporting early-career lawyers, but also as a result, in work-life balance, diversity, and innovation as well, let’s get started!
Below are five questions to ask yourself to get started and direct your next steps:
- Does my firm have the ability, knowledge, and time to create and provide training/support in each of the above three areas? Or will we need to invest in external training/support in one or more of the above areas?For example, I teach lawyers in all three of the above areas, but perhaps your firm only feels comfortable providing support in practical skills but not in time management or feedback management, which it would rather outsource.
- What is it costing my firm to lose associates each year? What is it costing us to struggle to attract/retain the best talent? Concretely calculating this number will inform how investing in providing this support for associates supports firm’s financial goals.
For example, many estimates show as much as $500,000 per lost associate. Do the math for your firm. Think about not only the money lost on training new associates who leave, the cost of recruiting a new associate, related human resources, administrative, and partner time, lost billable hours, signing bonuses, etc., but also the lost future benefits of a successful, experienced associate (e.g., hours, higher rates, business development success, professional reputation), as well as cumulative lost opportunities in areas such as diversity and innovation. When many associates leave it takes more associates and more years on average for the firm to see future results.
- Is my firm committed to being a leader in not only in attracting, retaining, and supporting associates, but also in other areas that can naturally follow (i.e., changing the burnout-inducing culture of our profession; diversity, equity, and inclusion; innovation in legal practice)?Thinking through your firm’s commitment in each of these areas, as well as alignment with your firm’s mission, will help inform your firm’s continued motivation to provide, or invest in, training and support in this area. Your firm’s motivation is key to its success in this area.
- If my firm plans to directly provide some or all of the training/support in the three key areas: Who will be involved? Exactly what do we need to include, when/how will we provide training and support? How will we know if it’s working? If we already provide some training/support internally, how do we need to adjust to cover the three keys as part of our program?
- If my firm plans to invest in external support to provide support/training on one or more of the three keys: What is our budget for investing in that support? Who will reach out externally for support? When will we get started with support and training?
The practice of law is ripe for change in early-career lawyer support, and leaders like your firm are essential to unlocking that evolution, as well as the downstream benefits to associate success, balance, mental health, client service, diversity, and innovation that follow. Finally, please feel free to connect with me to discuss applying these keys to your firm’s associate support strategy – I’m cheering you on as you become a leader in this area!
About the Author
Kate Ahern guides lawyers and law firms on time management, burnout, associate development, and the related impact of gender bias and other external pressures. She’s also a law professor, former AmLaw200 attorney, transactional attorney (and generally more fun than her LL.M. in tax might otherwise suggest). Connect with Kate at www.kateunfrazzled.com