Lawyer Shelf Life: Is Investment in Employee Happiness Worth It?

We have all heard the old adage that “a happy employee is a productive employee.” In fact, a 2014 University of Warwick study found that happiness increased productivity by 12%. Within the legal profession, however, happiness and productivity can be difficult to measure. The legal landscape is rapidly changing. Gone are the days where a young attorney passes the bar exam, works as a clerk and associate, and then becomes a partner at the same firm for their entire career. New associates are commonly told that they should “stay at your firm for at least three years.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in January 2016 the median tenure within the legal profession was 5.5 years for wage and salary workers. If an average associate only works for a firm for 3-5.5 years, is all of the work to make that associate happy and productive wasted? And what does actually make an associate happy?


Countless articles on the internet advise on how to increase employee happiness. The Business News Daily recently published “11 Secrets to Keeping Employees Happy (Without a Raise),” which quoted a top executive as stating: “[b]onuses, company perks and paid days off aren’t enough to keep employees happy. Showing an employee how much the company appreciates, respects and values them on a personal level is much more gratifying.” Their proposed solutions? 1) Be transparent; 2) Make work-life balance a priority; 3) Encourage communication in common areas; 4) Create a career pathway; 5) Recognize and reward employees; 6) Help employees be healthier; 7) Offer benefits beyond the basics; 8) Cut back on emails and meetings; 9) Make employees part of the big picture; 10) Keep in touch; 11) Ask employees for their input. While these suggestions clearly make sense for a corporation, they may not be so easily transferable to a traditional law firm.

BCG Attorney Search published an article titled “Top Ways for Law Firms to Increase Associate Satisfaction and Increase Associate Retention: What Law Firm Associates Really Want from their Jobs.” The article suggests that “[l]aw firms must now consciously supply many of the career satisfaction components that old, small, collegial law firms provided naturally. When all lawyers in the firm were friends, made consensus decisions, and worked directly and closely with each other and the clients, the problems that currently arise in growing firms did not exist. Now it is necessary to formalize practices to obtain and retain valued associates.” The article offers the following focal points to increase the “workplace desirability” (aka happiness) for associates:

  1. Establish a niche for each associate.
  2. Assign a mentor.
  3. Acknowledge and stress people’s values.
  4. Acknowledge values and the importance of meaningful work.
  5. Allow associates to participate in the firm.
  6. Provide for training and supervision with thorough evaluations on a regular basis.
  7. Allow for growth.
  8. Create programs and address issues that indicate respect for an individual:
    1. A reasonable billable-hour requirement is a necessity.
    2. A firm should have detailed written policies covering part-time and flextime scheduling and parental concerns, such as parenting leave and routine and emergency daycare support, as well as the impact of the various choices on promotion and partnership.
    3. Encourage non-work interest in lawyers and allow flexible work schedules or leaves to accommodate those interests.
    4. Allow lawyers to make humanitarian contributions.
    5. Adjustable compensation systems recognize that each person is different and each produces work at an individual pace.
    6. Benefits and prerequisites can be used for associate rewards or as hiring inducements.
    7. Encourage and allow fun and humor—a “levity break” in the practice of law.

I sat down with Michael Althouse, a new Oregon lawyer, to discuss “associate happiness.” I asked him what was essential for him to feel happy in his associate position. He stated that his top priority was “learning new and diverse skills” and having “access to free continuing legal education classes.” We also discussed the importance of having legal mentorship. Mr. Althouse explained he felt that due to the current state of the economy, new attorneys must have a broader skill set and be trained in a wider range of legal disciplines to be marketable.


Along these same lines, BCG Attorney Search created “[a]composite wish list for associates, based on [their]conversations with thousands of unhappy lawyers.” The list includes:

  1. To be fully integrated into the law firm, treated with respect for past accomplishments, and given support and effective feedback for future efforts.
  2. To receive continuing education, both within and outside of the firm; interesting work, with increasing responsibility as ability warrants; humane and fair working arrangements; good pay; tolerable hours; and additional benefits and bonuses.
  3. To be treated as individuals, even allowed to market a specialized practice in a more entrepreneurial style.
  4. To identify with the compassionate values of the firm as demonstrated by pro bono commitments, training programs, employee diversity, reasonable billable hours, and part time and family leave policies.
A happy departing attorney reflects positively on a firm’s brand. | Click to Tweet

For firms to focus on their attorneys’ happiness, given that attorneys on average leave a firm after 3–5.5 years, the effort might seem daunting and the payoff minimal. If employee happiness truly amounts to a productivity increase of only 12%, an argument could be made that the gains do not justify the effort. However, when an attorney moves onto another firm, the exiting attorney can act as an ambassador for their previous employer. Any upward mobility reflects well on the firm that provided training and opportunities for that lawyer. As Paul Lopez, a contributor to, stated in his article, “Companies Must Aggressively Protect Their Most Precious Commodity: Their Brand,” “[a]company’s reputation is a very serious commodity.” This is no different for law firms. A happy departing attorney reflects positively on a firm’s brand.

Investment in employee happiness has one additional benefit to the legal community at large. In addition to enhancing firm productivity and protecting the firm’s brand, investment in employee happiness simply makes more effective lawyers in the long run. Better lawyers help elevate the legal profession as a whole, which benefits all of us.

Overall, despite the well-known short “lawyer shelf life,” an investment in an associate’s happiness can be “worth it” for both the firm making the investment and the greater legal community.

About the Author

Jamie A. Fender is an attorney with Robinson Tait, P.S., in Durham, OR. She can be reached at 971.282.4376 or

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