Many associates share the misconception that all law firms are created equal. The reality is that culture often varies from firm to firm and can even diverge within different offices of the same law firm. In order to break the misperception, law firms that wish to recruit and retain top legal talent need to actively—and vocally—differentiate themselves from the pack.
Law firms can and should take actions to shift their culture, policies and perks in order to attract top talent in law school and the lateral market, and some progressive firms have already begun the transformation. Below are some of the steps firms should consider.
Offer Flexible Work Arrangements
What "flexible" means at one firm may vary from other firms, but young lawyers today clearly want it all, professionally and personally. Often, this starts with some modicum of flexibility in the workplace.
Firms with flexible work arrangements take a variety of approaches: Some allow associates to work from home every Friday or on certain days during the typical work week, while other firms may allow associates to work from home for a certain percentage of hours, to be allocated at the lawyer's discretion. Policies should provide clear guidelines about flexible work arrangements, detailing a specific length of service requirement before working from home is allowed, expectations for reporting time, expected level of responsiveness and availability, etc.
Develop Progressive Leave Policies
Time off is paramount for maintaining balance in life. Whether it is for a medical reason or vacation, having flexibility, options and support for life events is important to young lawyers. Firms can set policies and tenure requirements for how much time off lawyers receive and which types of leave are paid. A generous family leave policy is increasingly expected, and to remain competitive, firms should seriously consider a policy that allows women to earn full pay for their time off and men to take specific leave with the birth of a new child. A strong policy shows that a firm is thinking progressively.
Provide Reasonable Benefit Packages
Most firms offer a similar suite of benefits packages. Firms that successfully distinguish themselves offer unique benefits options, such as a healthcare spending account, which allows the company to match a percentage of the employee's contribution. Price matching on 401Ks is another popular benefit, as are Employee Assistance Programs and Employee Discount Programs. Benefits such as these are essential for firms looking to stand out, especially in an age where pay is no longer the sole decision factor when lawyers look to take a position or make a move.
Create Off-Partner Tracks
Not all young lawyers have partner aspirations, but they do want to know they have options for progression. Some firms have an "up and out" policy where a lawyer has to work toward making partner, a model that has become outdated in today's environment. Others let lawyers stay as long as there is a role and sufficient work, and they continue to be productive, contributing members of the team.
Many firms have progressive counsel tracks that make space for experienced, well-compensated lawyers who are not working toward partner. Lawyers on this track aren't burdened by the pressure to develop a book of business, but are expected to produce excellent work and be responsive to clients and partners. Wise firms have benefited from this policy as they don't have to compensate these lawyers as much as they do partners.
Associates want to know where they stand and what it takes to advance, so firms must be open and honest. Some firms will set very specific benchmarks that associates need to reach in order to move toward counsel and/or partnership. Others will perform regular oral or written reviews, or hold periodic conversations to provide feedback on progress. Unfortunately, many firms have failed to develop clear guidelines to help their associates understand what it takes to move up the ladder. We see time and again that clarity is what young lawyers need to be more productive and engaged.
Protect Your Associates
Nearly everyone in the industry has a story about a problematic partner who makes associates' lives miserable and, in worse case scenarios, makes sport out of bullying younger lawyers in the firm. It goes without saying that this behavior causes dissatisfaction and will steadily lead to associate attrition within the first two to three years of practice. Firms need leaders who will stand up for associates and be available should associates want to turn to them in confidence for advice on how to deal with bullies. Young lawyers will appreciate having someone more senior listen to their complaints and problems and help them navigate life at the firm. If they feel as though they can be open and honest with their colleagues, they'll feel valued and loyal to the firm.
Not all law firm lawyers want to stay in a firm for their entire career—that's the reality of the practice of law in 2017. So, why not help associates get to where they want to be in their careers? A lot of firms now have a designated employee who helps associates find future job opportunities or navigate a move in-house. Law firms are wise to have a team member such as this, because once in-house, a lawyer will often remember who helped him/her along the way and send work back to the law firm from which they came, if they still have a good relationship there.
Attracting and retaining great legal talent boils down to the fact that today's young lawyers want to enjoy a successful career and a healthy personal life—and there is nothing wrong with that. To achieve this, they need to work for a firm that values a work/life balance. Treating associates as professionals will go a long way, and, ultimately, not only create a better image for the firm but also help attract and retain top talent.
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This article was featured on Bloomberg Law, Big Law Business, July 24, 2017.
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Darin R. Morgan is the Managing Partner of our Philadelphia office and a Partner in our Washington, D.C., office, and is very active in both markets. He places both partners and associates into both large and boutique law firms.