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June 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 4| Page 8
FRONTLINES

Trends

Taking a More Comprehensive Approach to Retaining Young Lawyers

It’s no secret that associate retention is one of the biggest challenges facing law firms. However, some firms now recognize they have another major challenge—training younger partners to assume management and client responsibilities as older partners retire.

So the real challenge is not just about associates. Even in small and midsize firms, it’s about retaining and developing (personally as well as professionally) all the younger lawyers in a firm. To successfully meet this challenge, firms are recognizing the many factors involved and the strategies that can be implemented.

 

Generational Styles

One prime factor is the generation gap and the differences in thinking and cultures between the so-called traditionalists (lawyers in their mid-60s), the baby boomers (ages 43 to 61), and Generations X and Y (lawyers from their mid-20s to early 40s). These differences are not limited to law firms, of course. Corporations and other professions have been dealing with them for years, and they have learned that overcoming the gap—and getting the generations to work together—requires relinquishing some old-line thinking and a one-style-fits-all approach.

The key is for all parties to recognize the differences and listen to and communicate with each other. Here are a few examples: The generations have different expectations, both of themselves and of each other. They also favor different learning venues. Boomers are accustomed to classrooms with an instructor; Gen Xers generally prefer Web courses that they can take on their own; Gen Yers prefer working with and learning from others in groups and teams.

There are differences in their ways of working, too. Traditionalists and boomers feel people must be in their offices in order to work productively. In contrast, because they have grown up in the Technology Age, Generations X and Y have proven they can work effectively off-site and don’t need to be in their offices all the time to be productive. This is difficult for the older generations, particularly older partners in law firms, to accept. But it must be recognized as part of the work culture today.

 

Other Factors and Strategies

To help bridge the differences and rise to the challenge of retaining younger lawyers, here are additional issues and some practical solutions firms should consider.

Feedback. Much of the best training occurs when a partner gives feedback, not at an annual evaluation, but when the associate presents his or her work product.

Evaluations. Seven years ago Husch Blackwell Sanders realized that it doesn’t make sense to evaluate associates based on their class so it halted its lock-step evaluations and began evaluating associates individually based on their learned skills. It also began recognizing pro bono work and other initiatives. As a result, the firm reports it has cut attrition in half.

Mentoring. Associates want mentors to guide them in developing their legal skills. Younger partners are often excellent in this role and also welcome the responsibility. Furthermore, serving as mentors also helps younger partners develop leadership skills.

Flexible work schedules. This is an important issue for an increasing number of senior associates and younger partners.

Technology. Firms that are constantly improving their technology have an advantage in recruiting and retaining associates and younger lateral partners as well. Furthermore, while providing laptops, PDAs or BlackBerrys to younger lawyers makes them more efficient and productive, it also demonstrates the firm’s recognition of their technology savvy.

Pro bono opportunities. This is not just an issue of “giving back to the community.” It also recognizes a desire that most younger lawyers have.

Family-friendly policies. Being able to work part-time or from home is important to some younger lawyers. Yet many do not take advantage of these alternatives if offered, for fear of negatively affecting their future with their firm. Firms that “walk the talk” on work-life balance will gain the edge with many younger lawyers.

Child and family care. A growing number of firms such as Smith, Gambrell & Russell and Alston & Byrd provide excellent child-care arrangements. Fulbright & Jaworski offers extensive family-care services as well.

Committees. Some firms now recognize the benefits of appointing associates to serve on committees. One respected legal consultant even advocates having at least one senior associate as a non-voting member of the executive committee.

Practice rotation. Several firms, including Gibson Dunn and Latham & Watkins, have returned to the old-time approach to training associates by rotating them through various practice groups before assigning them permanently to one group. And if the program is well implemented, a surprising amount of the associates’ time can be billed and collected.

Management and leadership training. A few firms have recognized that their leaders—and future leaders—need training in leadership, business development, technology, professional support and law. Reed Smith was perhaps the first to develop such a program by forming Reed Smith University five years ago. The firm has now expanded the program to include younger partners and even senior associates.

Certainly, this list is not complete, although it represents a good start. Ultimately, though, there’s no “magic bullet” that can ensure success in retaining and developing younger lawyers. It will continue to be a huge challenge for firms—and one that requires a comprehensive and coordinated triage that focuses on all of a firm’s younger lawyers.

About the Author

Bob Denney , President of Robert Denney Associates, Inc., has provided strategic management and marketing counsel to law firms throughout the U.S. and parts of Canada for over 30 years. He can be reached at (610) 964-1938.

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