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Associate Turnover Is the Symptom, Not the Problem. 3 Steps Toward a Solution

Law firms are shedding associates. Turnover rates climbed from 18.7% in 2019 to 23.2% in 2021. And you know that's costing you money -- lost billables, recruiting and onboarding (as high as 8-9 months salary), workload redistribution costs, and reduced well-being (e.g. high healthcare costs, absenteeism). And it's costing your firm its reputation and reducing the loyalty of those who remain. But associate turnover isn't your problem, it's the symptom.

As lawyers, it's easy for us to write off associate turnover as a benign feature of a difficult profession. When life as an attorney starts with The Paper Chase, everything after that feels ok. And even if your law school experience wasn't like the movie, your expectations were still probably set with the movie as a backdrop. (Yes, I know there was/is a book, but every lawyer I know has seen the movie.) So grinding hours, competitive colleagues, and unbearable 'mentors' feel like just part of the terrain of lawyering. And, in some respects, it's true. We often do need to navigate those things. But they're not the permanent contours of the profession. And, quite frankly, why would we want them to be? (Remember, the suicide attempt? Sadly, it captured one impact of the practice that is all too common. See also, National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being 2017 Report.)

Associates may not be met with movie-levels of hostility, but even at the best firms they are often met with indifference. I've seen associates describe themselves as disposable, expendable, or as fodder. It's no wonder they leave. But the reason you know that turnover is a symptom not a problem is because they don't leave right away. Associates know within the first 6 months -- as soon as the shine wears off their new job -- that a firm probably isn't for them. They are waiting 5 years to leave because it takes them that long to build up the skills to feel confident going anywhere as a lateral. Turnover is the symptom, but the problem is you're not actually convincing them to join your firm because you're not actually inviting them in. Here are 3 ways to start engaging your associates more meaningfully to make them feel like you actually want them to be a part of your team.

Teach Them

There is a general fear among firms that if we teach our associates too much they will leave. They will take what we've given them somewhere else. Maybe. But that's most likely to happen when we don't empower or acknowledge them (see below) and when we aren't actually teaching them in the first place what they need to know to be successful. That's why it takes them so long to leave; they're learning by osmosis. (And when they are chipping away at the years it takes to get enough skills to go, don't believe for a moment that we're getting their best efforts.) If we teach them from the beginning the skills and expectations it takes to become a senior associate and a partner, they will more easily see the path available for them where they are and won't need to look elsewhere to grow.

Empower Them

Teaching the necessary skills is only part of the equation. Your young associates need to get the opportunities to use those skills and to do so in an environment that expects them not to get it right the first time. This means we need to creatively set the conditions for failure. This should never come at the expense of the client, but failure -- i.e. growth! -- is what we should be baking into our firms instead of turnover. This is the hardest pill to swallow, but it's critical to growing a cohort of associates that understand how to do the lawyering, not just know the steps of lawyering.

Acknowledge Them

Certainly, acknowledgement should include appropriate compensation. But money is only part of the equation, and it's probably less important in creating loyalty to the firm than acknowledging them as individuals. One of the reasons the biggest, best-paying firms still have a problem recruiting and retaining diverse talent is because they don't yet know how to acknowledge and appreciate the individuality that diverse associates bring to the table. Their experiences, perspectives, judgements, and values inform a more well-rounded firm culture, and all of that on top of the legal skills they bring. But no one wants to work at a firm that can't see them. Start seeing them and it will be so much easier to keep them.

By being more engaging and inviting to your associates, I don't mean to suggest that every one of them will stay forever. Some people will leave. But when they do, it will actually be for the reasons they give you in their exit interviews -- my spouse/partner wants to move; I couldn't turn down the money; I just want to try something different. If you're getting these answers now and haven't surveyed for engagement and leadership quality, don't believe them.

In the end, the good news is that turnover isn't a baked in feature of running a law firm. At least it doesn't have to be. These three steps are a great beginning to turn your ship around. I'm happy to suggest a few ways to implement these steps or to suggest others that will also help.

1 comment

1 Comment

Jeremy Scholtes
Jeremy Scholtes
Oct 23, 2022

Yes, yes, and yes - teach, empower, and acknowledge. If you're late in your career, you should model this because you could leave/retire with amazing young men and women coming behind you who could take your practice, and our profession, to a higher level of performance and satisfaction. If you're in the heart of your career, you should model this to build a resilient and sustainable team and so others around you will model this in their sphere of influence (we do what we know). If you're at the very beginning of your career, you should model and practice this to find your groove early and create a grassroots movement. Great post, Ben.

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