The perception is that law firms are traditional, stuffy employers. Known for long hours, formal dress codes, hard-driving work ethics, and competitiveness. In many ways, this perception is accurate. However, as the war for talent rages on, some law firms are adjusting their cultures to help attract and retain quality associates and other professionals. 

In our last blog, we discussed how law firm partners are negatively impacted by the lack of associate support. Now I want to discuss what creative law firms are doing (or can do) to attract and retain associates needed by partners.

Give Them Hope & A Path for Success

Partnership Track

Associates should have a clear understanding of what they need to do to make partner within their respective law firms. The key word is clear

What factors decide who is invited into the partnership ranks? Is it seniority, years of service, business generation, practice area expertise, leadership skills, personality, internal relationships, or some sort of combination? Associates should also know how long, in years, they can expect the path to partnership if they achieve all the necessary criteria.

And along the way, associates should be told where they are on that path. If they have veered off of it, then the firm needs to help them to get back on track. 

Associates also need the training and resources to be successful. Think about focusing on: 

  • The business of law
  • Marketing & business development 
  • Professional development
  • Meaningful mentorship programs 

 These are some of the things provided by law firms that have higher associate retention rates. 

How impressive is this?

Reports came out last month that Orrick, an international firm founded in San Francisco, promoted the largest partner class ever – 26 partners across 12 markets worldwide.

How does Orrick retain talent?

Nearly 40% of its U.S. attorneys advanced to partnership in 8.5 years or less, almost 25% of new partners work a flexible schedule, and more than 1/3 took parenting leave in 2021. Also, Orrick seems to be the only firm that is giving associates 40 hours of paid vacation that counts toward their billable hours and bonus eligibility. The firm issued a press release with these facts and statistics. This is a creative approach, and I am sure it has and will have a positive impact on retention and recruiting for Orrick. 

Orrick is not alone.

Orrick is not alone in having its largest ever partnership class. I saw an article in Above the Law that stated:

 “Bigger is apparently better at Kirkland, because late last week, the firm announced its largest-ever partner class. We’re not exaggerating when we say this class is huge. This year, the firm welcomed a partner class of 151, up from 2020’s record class of 145, 2019’s class of 141, 2018’s class of 122, and 2017’s class of 97.” 

Obviously, for firms like Orrick and Kirkland, these larger classes of new partners are retention strategies. 

The Benefit of Creative Benefits

According to a 2021 Workhuman survey, 66% of employees were waiting to review their company’s new benefits offerings before deciding whether to stay or go.

Smart law firms are stepping up their benefits game. They are offering much more than basic health insurance and a 401k plan, Some effective and creative additional benefits I am seeing include fertility and family planning benefits – egg freezing, surrogacy, and IVF, adoption support and paternity leave – to open leave policies, emergency funds, financial planning services, mentoring and coaching, mental health benefits and programs, pet insurance, childcare centers, and transgender-inclusive health insurance coverage.

Can your law firm compete in the employee benefits game?

There is Only So Much Money

Not surprisingly, “Big Law” is throwing a lot of money to get a leg up in the war for talent. There are plenty of stories in the legal media showing this trend. Started by Milbank, LLP, headquartered in New York, other large law firms are following suit. The new pay scale for associates looks like this*: 

Class Base      Compensation

1st year            $215,000

2nd year          $225,000

3rd year           $250,000

4th year           $293,500

5th year           $335,000

6th year           $360,500

7th year           $381,000

8th year           $396,500

* Since January, firms have implemented re-raises for associates with more experience. For example, there are firms paying Class of 2014 associates $415,000. While some of these firms have implemented several re-raises, others are waiting for the dust to settle so they can set their salaries once and for all. It remains to be seen if and when the compensation scale will be final. The point is that these firms are competing with each other to retain experienced associates.

What about firms without deep pockets?

For smaller firms that cannot offer big money, allowing attorneys to define their work preferences including hours, location, and remote work can be a big draw. Some firms are even encouraging associates and non-equity partners to select legal work that fit their interests and align with their career goals. 

Work-Life Balance

These days there is so much legal work that even firms that promote work-life balance may be having a tough time delivering it. Caution to those firms who cannot keep this promise. Associates who are billing 2000+ hours a year will not accept the firm’s unkept promise. If they must work that hard, they will want to get paid for it – or they will find a law firm that can deliver the work-life balance promise.

Law firms need to encourage overworked associates to take time off. Make them take vacations and leave them alone on the weekends. But creative law firms can do more. Examples may include:

  • Train Associates on time management skills.
  • Give hours credit for pet projects.
  • Let them create their own schedules.
  • Offer flex time, part-time, and more remote work options.
  • Give them vacation time that counts toward their hours and bonus as Orrick does. Another law firm, Sheppard Mullin, recently launched its “Unplug & Recharge” program where associates can earn up to 40 hours of bonus-eligible time.

We all know that no matter how many benefits you offer and how hard your firm works to provide work-life balance to employees, some will always chase the dollars. If that’s the case, they probably were not the right fit for your firm’s culture anyway.

Location, Location, Location

With client demands, court appearances, and an industry lagging in tech implementation, law firms that have traditionally required “face-time” have been the least adaptable to flex time and remote work. But the traditional 9-7 Monday-Friday work schedule isn’t working for most attorneys – from associates to rainmakers.

When I Googled “law firms wfh” the first result was an ad for a law firm’s job page – talking about how they offer the ability for attorneys to define their work preferences including hours, location, and remote work. Now that is a creative approach.

Other law firms need to listen to their associates about preferences in remote, in-person, or hybrid approaches. Firms that truly embrace complete remote work really have an advantage for associate recruiting and retention. In fact, some of these law firms do not care if the associate lives in another state. I have seen this philosophy benefit the firm’s partners who need additional associate support.

On the other hand, don’t forget the associates that would like to be in the office for mentoring and supervision. Make sure they have adequate resources to do so if they choose. 

Technology Matters

Many of the law firms that allowed employees to work remotely during the pandemic invested in new technology – to allow their teams to continue working effectively and efficiently from anywhere.

From billing to staffing, every facet of legal operations has had to adapt to ensure the continuity of their business and their client relationships.

Even if it’s possible to return to the office, smart firms won’t take their eye off new technology and how it helps attorneys get their work done. 

Paralegals and Other Professionals

In many law firms, there is a big differentiation between attorneys and non-attorneys – with non-attorneys unable to enjoy remote work, better benefits, and the salary wars. 

I’ve had several instances where I’ve placed an attorney and their paralegal or legal assistant at a new firm – because the attorney recognized that these professionals were their right-hand people – integral members of the team.

As the hiring across all positions in law firms has become increasingly competitive, some firms are upping their game in what they offer to non-attorneys. In some instances, they are even matching benefits, family leave, and other perks to what attorneys receive.

Partners – Talk to Your Firm

Being a partner at your firm should give you some pull to get the support that you need. Your position should also allow you to make recommendations for how your firm can be more successful in recruiting and retaining associates. 

If your firm will not or cannot get you the associate support you need and deserve, maybe it’s time to look for a new firm.

I am a firm believer that successful lawyers deserve to be happy. Sure, working long hours on stressful matters is part of the job. But, added stress that can be solved with more support should not be a long-term cause of your unhappiness. I know many law firms that are able to get partners the right associate support. If you would like to discuss options you may have, please reach out and we can schedule a call