How to attract, develop and retain top law firm associates

Kate Ahern//May 25, 2023

How to attract, develop and retain top law firm associates

By Commentary:

//Kate Ahern

//May 25, 2023

BOSTON — Our industry has seen concerning associate attrition over the past few years, highlighting associate retention as a significant market pressure on firms going forward.

Law firms are struggling to attract and retain dedicated, motivated, reliable associates who are truly ready for practice. Adding to the frustration of many firm leaders: increased compensation and bonuses are ineffective in solving the associate retention puzzle.

Meanwhile, our industry is experiencing time management, work-life balance, and mental health crises. Associates are barely able to keep up with client work and billable-hour expectations. They have no remaining time for the building blocks of a successful practice life, including time to rest and refresh, collaborate fully with others, participate in business development, fuel their professional growth through intentional self-development, and explore their leadership potential.

Today’s associates do not learn the skills or receive the crucial support necessary to build an effective, efficient, focused, fulfilling approach to practice. Law schools do not teach those skills, and it’s challenging for law firms to provide effective associate support, given pressures on partner time, not to mention lack of insight and teaching experience at most firms.

New lawyers are not developing into the experienced lawyers and practice leaders capable of fueling not only their own success, but the success of their firms and clients.

Instead, associates are overwhelmed, burning out, and walking away, all because they do not receive the right skills and support at the right time.

Firms that solve this problem by investing in associate support are well-positioned to succeed, not only in associate retention but in other key goals.

Law firms can unlock these wins by building or investing in support for their associates in the following three areas:

  1. Time management training

Foundational time management skills are crucial for associates to thrive in modern practice. Unfortunately, today’s early-career lawyers do not learn these skills and as a result are unprepared for the pressures and complex moving parts of law practice. Even top law students struggle in practice for lack of an effective time management strategy.

Simply put, we are facing a time management crisis in our profession, and it is lurking behind the many frustrations shared with me by law firm partners and other legal supervisors, as well as by associates themselves.

Without these skills, associates are unable to keep up with their work, meet deadlines, or predict and communicate how long matters will take to complete. Instead, they turn in projects at the last minute, leaving little time for others to review their work, and they constantly scramble to get work done yet still struggle to keep up. They do not have time to rest, consider their own development, participate in marketing efforts, or contribute to their own growth as leaders in the practice.

  1. Feedback management training

Early-career lawyers need not only mentoring (ideally by experienced mentors outside of the firm to avoid internal relationship limitations) but training in feedback management.

Rather than pushing feedback out at associates, firms can invest in feedback management training for their associates, empowering associates to manage their own self-development.

In doing so, firms can trade awkward, forced (or, let’s face it, often nonexistent/entirely lacking) partner-initiated feedback conversations for targeted, clear, focused, associate-initiated feedback conversations that supercharge associate development.

New lawyers are capable of managing their own progress and better suited than partners to do so. When associates manage their own feedback, they will rightfully feel more confident and in control of their own development.

  1. Practice-ready skills training

New lawyers I work with typically struggle to independently produce the type of counseling and work product actually valuable to clients. (Don’t worry, there’s a cure for the long, accurate-but-useless memos and the vaguely relevant, legalese-filled contracts you’re recalling with frustration right now.)

Many law firms assume training associates in practice-area-specific technical skills, documents and procedure will produce practice-ready associates. Other firms assume associates need years of practice experience before they’re able to offer effective solutions, documents and counseling that fits a client’s goals, situation and industry.  Great news: neither of those assumptions is true!

Instead, the real magic happens when new lawyers are guided through a shift in thinking to quickly transform the substantive knowledge and analytical ability gained in law school into practical, practice-ready lawyering.

With a simple shift in thinking, not only new lawyers but even law students I work with are able to take a minimal amount of recently learned, foundational substantive knowledge and produce effective, real-client counseling rivaling results produced by lawyers with years of practice experience.

  1. Rethinking associate support

We easily can, and certainly should, do much better for the next generation of lawyers.  Associates not only crave but desperately need practical training and support in the three areas above. Firms providing that support can produce practice-ready associates, valued counselors, and indispensable colleagues who find fulfilment in their practice.

Your firm can get started by:

  • Identifying the gap between your current approach to supporting your associates and your new approach including the three areas above.
  • Deciding whether your firm has the knowledge, experience and time to create trainings and support in the above areas in-house, or whether your firm will need to invest in external support.
  • Calculating the current cost to your firm of each associate leaving the firm.
  • Identifying the benefits to your firm of investing in associate training and support.

Remember, supporting associates can boost retention but also contribute to attorney well-being, diversity at your firm, and innovation in your firm’s approach to practice and business development.

Kate Ahern of Unfrazzled, LLC, guides lawyers on time management, priorities management, burnout, and the related impact of gender bias and other external pressures. She can be contacted at [email protected]



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