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“Treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen doesn’t work for lawyers.”
       Amanda Egden          Nov 07, 2014

The Importance of Staff Retention in the Legal Space

With fewer well trained lawyers at the junior and most sought after levels in the legal industry, it becomes increasingly important for firms to retain their talent. So how should firms tackle this?

The days of essentially counter-offering staff who have already decided to move are over. By the time a firm decides whether to offer an additional $10K to a current staff member to keep them, there is already bad blood and probably not the time for a firm to start working out what went wrong.

While there are numerous reasons for candidates wanting to move, the three most common and preventable are: having no sense of achievement through lack of mentorship and training; lack of recognition – feeling undervalued; and lack of information i.e no clear or planned career path.

Many junior lawyers are being thrown in the deep end and working sometimes for several years without adequate guidance and mentoring. The result, more often than not, is less skilled lawyers in firms who are slowly developing a sense of desperation and looking for somewhere they can improve their skill set. Some of these lawyers on paper may look like they are 5 years PQE but the reality is, their actual skill set may only be at the 3 year PQE level.

It’s a tricky situation, partners are under increasing pressure to meet billable targets and ensure their practice group is profitable which leaves them with no time to mentor or train. Some firms have found a solution by introducing KPI’s, specifically allowing for mentoring time. The result is twofold, it eases pressure on partners, increases the skill set of talent developing in the firm and results in talented junior lawyers moving up the ranks with a sense of loyalty to their mentor, and who are less likely to jump ship.

It is a common conception that lawyers must work long hours to succeed in the industry and at some level this is mostly true. Even though some firms now offer genuine work life balance as a pull factor to attracting more staff the reality is, working overtime either perpetually or occasionally is a given. Either due to the complexity or volume of work this genuinely precludes most firms from being able to offer reasonable hours to all their lawyers 100% of the time.

Generally speaking, lawyers don’t mind working long hours either perpetually or occasionally, they know it comes with the territory, what they do mind however, is when perpetual long hours are always expected and never acknowledged and the feeling of being undervalued bubbles to the surface. Simple things such as days in lieu or a genuine, “thanks for your hard work” are simple and inexpensive ways to make staff feel valued. Studies have found recognition is proven as the best method of improving work motivations and employee engagement. It has further been shown that one minute spent on recognizing great work turns into 100 minutes of initiative in return. The most surprising thing about this study was that 2 out of 3 people receive no workplace recognition in a year (Note that this study was not limited to the legal market).

Finally, when junior staff are looking ahead to their future, in the face of an extremely top heavy practice group it generally invokes a feeling of uncertainty “what am I doing” “where am I going to be in 5 – 10 years”. Most junior lawyers have no idea how/if and whether they want to make it to partnership. People’s goals and visions for their future are usually an evolving process and productive discussions with staff that set out specific performance goals and career plan need to be had on a regular basis.

Staff retention as a concept and practice- which was a large focus of HR teams- seems to have been de-emphasized in a GFC market- where firms weren’t sure whether they needed to keep those staff. As the market turns, firms will need to once again put staff retention in the spot light and start looking at innovative ways to retain talent.