By Marcia Pennington Shannon
These days, the talk in many law firms is turnover. Gone are the days when you could hire an individual and expect that person to retire from your firm. But when someone departs, the relationship need not end. Think of it as a different kind of opportunity.
Statistics show that less-experienced individuals are now changing jobs every two to three years. Although more-experienced people tend to stay in their positions for longer periods of time, they are often in transition as well—even on the partner level. What is this telling us about the way we approach employment in the legal marketplace? Several things.
For one, while hiring individuals with the objective of having them stay for long periods of time is reasonable, such hopes rarely pan out. The sound approach is to hire the best person for your current needs. Look for ways to retain this person as long as possible, but don’t take it personally if the individual decides to move on. Given the right tools, the individual can make a good contribution while employed by you, and might even be willing to train his or her replacement. View departures as normal progressions. In doing so, you create an atmosphere where employees leave on positive terms.
When you accept turnover as a reality and maintain goodwill with departing employees, you will also create something else—opportunities to grow lasting win-win relationships with those employees. You can do this by developing a formal alumni program in your firm.
Nearly half of the AmLaw 100 firms have launched alumni programs and many others are planning to do so. But this is not just something for large firms. Smaller firms can also benefit from creating such programs. In fact, in his annual report on “ What’s Hot & What’s Not in the Legal Profession” (in the January/ February 2006 Law Practice), Robert W. Denney wrote: “Long a staple of the major accounting firms, these programs are now being initiated not only in large [law] firms, but in smaller and midsize ones as well.”
The breadth and depth of your program, however, will depend on more than just your firm’s size. It will in large part depend on what you hope to gain and what you want to put into it. Let’s look first at the range of benefits that firms of any size might gain by pursuing an alumni program.
The main purpose of an alumni program is to retain relationships with individuals who have “graduated” from your firm. There are many benefits to creating a program to keep and grow these relationships, including the following.
Goodwill. The goodwill you create by starting an alumni program will be an advantage to your firm. Those who have left will have another reason to think positively about their experiences with you. In addition, those who are currently employed will be impressed that you handle departures in such a positive manner.
Networking. Staying in touch with the firm’s alumni provides you with an opportunity to broaden your list of networking connections.
Business development. Similarly, alumni programs provide an opportunity to add to your business development connections, particularly if your alumni have moved in-house to corporations or to firms that might serve as referral sources of business for you.
Sources for referring out work. Are you looking for lawyers or related experts practicing in areas in which you do not? Your alumni can be excellent sources in this regard—referrals are often (indeed, should be) two-way streets.
Marketplace information. By creating a greater network, you have a wider base of knowledge regarding the marketplace. Your alumni can serve as resources about such things as what would attract individuals to apply for positions in your firm, what the going salaries are elsewhere in the marketplace, and ways to increase your competitive edge.
Feedback. Based on their own experiences in your firm (especially if you kept open the door to positive relationships), former employees may be happy to provide constructive feedback that can be used to improve client services, internal procedures and workplace satisfaction within the firm.
A selling point to new hires. New hires know that staying at one firm for the long-term is unlikely. Yet when they hear that their new, or potential, employer takes a positive stand on relationships with alumni, they know this is a firm where a premium is placed on maintaining mutually beneficial relationships over the course of a career.
A source of new recruits. You can also cut recruiting costs by alerting alumni to openings in your firm. When you have positive relationships with your former employees, they will be willing to recommend friends and colleagues to you.
Strategic partnerships. You may have a potential engagement that requires expertise within your own practice area coupled with a different set of skills and knowledge that only another lawyer can provide. Your alumni may be sources of such strategic partnerships or “cross-firm teaming.”
Once you’ve decided what benefits you would most like to gain from staying connected with former employees, you should identify the level of commitment you want to make to an alumni program. Do you want to take a casual or a more structured approach? What tools will you use to stay in touch? Will your program include all former employees or only lawyers?
Here are some specific ideas for a program.
Of course, like any major project, follow-through is always the most difficult part. To ensure that your program starts off right and stays on track, select one employee who is well organized to take the reins of running the program. Also, to help get a good mix of components in developing the program, be sure to ask current employees for their input.
Firms are beginning to accept turnover as a reality in today’s marketplace. But they also need to accept that turning past employees into firm alumni is more than just semantics.
It is a recognition that each individual has contributed to the success of your firm. However, setting up an alumni program not only pays tribute to
those contributions, it also offers the opportunity to maintain mutually beneficial professional relationships. And, as we’ve just discussed, many other opportunities can accrue to your firm from those relationships. It is, indeed, a win-win.