Stay Interviews Are Key To Retaining Legal Talent


While some law firms are still conducting layoffs in the first quarter of 2024, firms always want to retain their best people. One way to make sure that they're on the right track is to conduct a stay interview.

From its name alone, you might imagine a stay interview as an interrogation of sorts. Not quite — a stay interview is an informal conversation between an employer and employee with the goal of understanding why the employee stays with the organization, or what would make them most likely to stay.

Unlike exit interviews, which happen once an employee has already resigned, stay interviews are proactive. They aim to identify potential issues or concerns before they lead to turnover.

While the "great resignation" of 2021 may have ebbed, many employees are still weighing their career options. A 2023 FlexJobs survey found that 42% of professionals were actively considering quitting their job.[1] And research shows that turnover may be preventable to a large degree.

According to research by Gallup, more than half — 52% — of voluntarily exiting employees said their organization could have prevented them from leaving.[2] And in Major Lindsey & Africa's law firm retention survey last year, at least 60% of attorneys stated they did not feel their firm was actively trying to retain them.[3] More than 90% said that if their firm was trying to retain them, they'd be more likely to stay. These numbers don't lie.

Even if the economy has shifted and layoffs are still happening, firms should actively work to retain their best people.

That's why smart legal leaders don't wait for their best attorneys to have one foot out the door — they look for ways to make them happier right now. When done strategically, stay interviews can have a measurable impact on your retention rate and boost overall morale.

The Benefits of a Stay Interview

A stay interview gives employees a unique opportunity to express themselves in a comfortable, nonintimidating setting. The goal of this discussion is to foster transparency and pinpoint areas where a firm is doing things well and areas where things can be improved.

Stay interviews can help you identify easy — or sometimes more involved — ways to keep your top people with your firm for as long as possible. Specifically:

  • It can tip you off to warning signs that an attorney may be frustrated or struggling, allowing you to prevent pain points from becoming full-blown problems.
  • Managers have the chance to build stronger one-on-one relationships with attorneys they've invested substantial time and resources into. This breeds greater trust, which means employees are more likely to approach their manager with concerns in the future rather than seek another job right away.
  • If partners have expressed that an associate is not meeting expectations, this meeting can help nail down areas for improvement, and identify additional training and resources that can facilitate that person's success.
  • They've been shown to effectively increase employee engagement by helping employees feel seen and heard, which can strongly affect their job satisfaction. Even just the act of getting their feedback shows your people that you value them and you're willing to make changes to ensure they have a better experience.
  • Through collective employee feedback, these meetings can help define broader areas where your firm or practice group can do better — for example, issues with workflow, work distribution or advancement. Even if that problem can't be completely fixed, it's an opportunity to find ways to minimize the issues or create buffers.

Stay Interview Basics

Your stay interviews should be conducted by someone in a managerial position — not in human resources — and focused on your high-performing attorneys.

Prepare for these discussions by having your partners or practice group leaders meet to determine questions likely to arise during the interviews. This gives them a chance to consider their responses and create a list of resources they can direct employees to if necessary.

Interviews should be conducted at least once a year — preferably twice — and kept separate from performance reviews. Schedule all interviews in advance, and let your attorneys know why they're being interviewed so no one is caught off guard. Label the calendar invite clearly as a stay interview.

Ideally, you'll book all stay interviews close together. This allows your firm to more easily spot any patterns or themes that may point to wider issues in need of immediate attention.

Conversations should be informal and last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. And since you want to make employees as relaxed as possible, the setting matters. Try to be flexible with the location; you can even ask each employee where they'd prefer to conduct their stay interview. Going for a casual stroll outside can often lead to more open and honest conversations than sitting in a conference room.

One of the most important aspects of the interview is being an active listener. Keep the conversation focused on the employee, not the firm. Stay interviews should be tailored to each interviewee based on their role, scope of work and any issues you may already be aware of.

Lead with empathy, encourage openness and ask thoughtful follow-up questions. And take plenty of notes.

Most Important Rule of Thumb: Follow Through

Once all your stay interviews are complete, make sure you visibly act on the feedback you and your team have gathered by translating it into defined action items. Determine what people and resources will be needed to accomplish these goals — and set a realistic time frame for achieving them.

Communicate with your employees about the results of the interviews and any changes that are going to be implemented. Keep them updated regularly on the plan's progress. Also, manage expectations and communication around changes that will not or cannot be made.

Concrete action shows you respect your attorneys' time and feedback, and are serious about making improvements that increase their satisfaction.

Stay Interviews: A Competitive Advantage

While stay interviews are gaining traction as a turnover reduction tool, they're not yet being widely embraced.[4] A 2022 Paychex survey of 1,000 human resources decision-makers in the U.S. found that only 27% utilize them.[5] And in Major Lindsey & Africa's recent law firm retention survey, 92% of attorneys stated they had never been asked to partake in a stay interview at a firm.[6]

What does this mean for your firm? Incorporating stay interviews into your retention efforts could give you a serious leg up in the ongoing battle for legal talent. While you may not be able to keep every top player, these regular check-ins will promote productive employee relationships and a culture of engagement that keeps everyone striving for excellence.


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