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May 01, 2020 The Management Issue

A Sense of Belonging: Stopping Your Firm’s Revolving Door

Accountability, transparency and a sense of belonging can go a long way in keeping younger attorneys at your firm.

Sabrina P. Rockoff
A row of young professionals are seated listening to a presentation.

A row of young professionals are seated listening to a presentation.

Mikolette via Getty Images

You might expect an article about the hiring and retention of younger attorneys to begin with a discussion of generational differences—the Boomer, the Gen Xer and the “dreaded” Millennial. I have participated in several conferences where managing partners from around the country gathered with the primary intention of dissecting these foreign beings infiltrating our places of work—the Millennials. These conferences often focus on Millennials’ differing values and demands as if one Millennial were interchangeable with the next, entering and exiting through the revolving doors of our offices.

But, while generational differences are important, understanding a generation is not the key to solving your firm’s hiring or retention difficulties. Instead, I believe that cultivating a sense of belonging is essential to retaining younger attorneys. So, rather than focusing on the differences between partners and young associates, find the similarities. And rather than adopting broad policies intended to address the expectations of a generation, listen to your associates and invest in their particular futures. In other words, instead of treating younger attorneys as “others” to be studied, remember they are human, just like you.

As a Gen X managing partner of a 24-attorney law firm that employs attorneys ranging from their mid-20s to mid-70s, I’m constantly thinking about how to retain our best and brightest. My views on this have been greatly influenced by the way I was treated as a young lawyer. For the first 10 years or so of my practice, I worked in the employment practice group of a large international firm. I worked primarily with one partner (a Baby Boomer) and two senior associates. In this group of four, in a satellite office, I didn’t have the horror tales many of my law school peers had, in seemingly similar positions. I was immediately involved in cases. When I was given an assignment, my practice group members sat and explained to me its importance. They even brought me along to depositions, court dates and client meetings. They treated me like part of the team; I belonged. Because I belonged so quickly, I felt fiercely loyal to that partner. In fact, I only decided to leave for my current job with a smaller firm in my hometown when I realized that no matter how great the relationship, a large firm environment just wasn’t conducive to the way I wanted to practice law.

While times, client expectations and what Millennials value may have changed, the fundamentals about why attorneys stay and why they leave still apply. The following four fundamentals are essential to retaining attorneys by cultivating a sense of belonging.

Attorneys Belong Where They Share Values

Every generation has attorneys who value a variety of ways of conducting business, treating each other and community involvement. Some attorneys care more about billing hours and making money; some are more concerned with client service; others see great value in community involvement and pro bono work. Hiring attorneys who have similar values as the attorneys in your firm may be your best retention tool. However, before you can find attorneys who share your firm’s values, you have to know what they are. Defining the values that bring you together is instrumental in finding attorneys who will want to join you, will be successful and will stay.

Importantly, however, your values cannot be mere “aspirational” retention tools. Neither your firm nor the attorneys you are recruiting will benefit if the firm is selling values that aren’t real. Attorneys who were lured by those values will find that they don’t belong and will leave.

Once you know your values, include them in your hiring process. Potential hires should be asked about their own values related to client service, community service and treatment of co-workers. Interviewers should share the firm’s values and discuss how they are played out in firm management and the compensation process. Our values are only as real as how we reward for them.

Attorneys Belong When Their Work Is Meaningful

Conventional wisdom about Millennials suggests they seek immediate gratification. But the need to engage associates by quickly involving them in meaningful work is not new. Generation X attorneys, who were billing 10 hours a day on document reviews they didn’t understand or performing research projects with no understanding of why, grew to be miserable professionals. If you doubt this, I invite you to Google “Gen X attorney miserable” and click on any of the myriad articles that have emerged in the last decade about how Gen Xers, who paid their dues in anticipation of something better, are now unhappy.

Associates need to learn their craft. However, associates who are told the reasonfor their work also understand its importance to the overall project. We all like to feel as if we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Giving someone’s work meaning, regardless of their age, makes them more likely to stay in their job and enjoy it. So how do you accomplish this in the fast-paced, billable-hour environment?

One suggestion is to have attorneys record their “mentoring” time and be rewarded for it. Mentoring time is a large part of a law firm’s investment in its future. Compensating attorneys only for today’s billable hours is as short-sighted as the widget maker who refuses to spend the money to invest in upkeep of his machinery. Our firm has a subjective compensation system that includes mentoring time in our determination of compensation.

If you have a more formulaic compensation system, I encourage you to consider how to include mentoring time, your investment in your next generation, as valuable, compensable work.

Another approach is to develop a checklist of information that should be shared when delegating work, such as the reason for the work, the deadline for the work and how client communications will be handled. This very practical step improves client service and also provides an implicit communication to the associate about the importance of the work.

Attorneys Belong Where People Are Held Accountable

Accountability is scary because it makes us vulnerable. But accountability from the top down is absolutely essential to retain younger attorneys. Younger attorneys see all of our flaws—we aren’t hiding them. If you think you are, just ask your younger associates. Trying to ignore your flaws, and thinking that younger attorneys won’t notice, is toxic and counterproductive.

Fostering accountability in a way that builds a sense of belonging isn’t easy. But here are two suggestions. First, transparency promotes accountability and belonging. Share as much information with associates as possible. Consider allowing associates to see the same statistical performance data that shareholders receive: billable hours, collections, originations, realization, accounts receivable and work in progress. Also explain the financial implications of their contributions, so they are not only learning how to provide client service but also the business of being a law firm.

This transparency also means that members of management have a particular responsibility to live the firm’s values “out loud.” Share management goals with the entire firm—all attorneys and staff. Then accept feedback on the execution of those goals.

We ask our entire firm to participate in anonymous surveys at the end of each year about our performance. We then share the results with the entire firm. Sometimes we get high marks, and we are happy. Sometimes our lives or practices got in the way, and we failed on a goal. Importantly, we don’t act like that goal didn’t exist or leave that question off the survey. Instead we own it in front of everyone. It gives us the opportunity to be vulnerable and acknowledge when we miss the mark. An additional benefit to being willing to admit failure at the top is that it teaches younger attorneys that they don’t have to be perfect. Younger attorneys will feel they belong where leadership is authentic.

Attorneys Belong Where the Firm Listens and Innovates

Instead of deciding on your own what Millennials want, ask the ones you have hired. Asking Millennials who have already bought into your culture how to improve it is another way to ensure your firm and your culture continue past your tenure as a shareholder or in management.

Direct feedback from associates can be solicited in a number of ways: mentoring relationships (both formal and informal), monthly associate lunch meetings, annual interviews with members of the management committee and biannual meetings with the managing partner, for example. Our firm also uses an annual anonymous survey not only to measure how we performed in the prior year, but also to ask for suggestions in the coming year. Involve all levels—shareholders, associates and staff—in processes to review, develop and report innovative suggestions to management.

But asking for feedback isn’t enough to promote the long-term belonging that leads to retention. Management must not only ask but truly listen to the answer and then—here’s the hard part—be willing to innovate in ways that the younger attorneys believe are necessary for their practices.

While generational stereotypes should be generally avoided, one thing is true by generation: Baby Boomers are starting to think about retirement, and Gen Xers may be able to finish their careers without significant changes to the way they practice. But Millennials need firms that are willing to invest and innovate to help them adapt to an ever-changing marketplace. If you want younger attorneys to stay for the long term, you have to prove you’re willing to make the necessary investments to support these changes to come. Younger attorneys have to be able to see themselves at your firm five years from now, and see the path to make that viable, in order to want to stay.

Just as client interactions that lack investment, loyalty and true relationship are at risk in the current economy of faster, cheaper, better, so are employment relationships, particularly with younger attorneys. Cultivating a sense of belonging requires investment, transparency and accountability to develop the true relationships that cause attorneys to stay for the long term. While none of these concepts is easy, failure to recognize their value will only increase the inevitable costs in hiring, training and firm culture as attorneys enter and exit in search of the place they belong. 

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Sabrina P. Rockoff

Managing Partner

Sabrina P. Rockoff is the managing partner of McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA, in Asheville, North Carolina. She regularly advises local, state and national employers on issues related to human resources, and frequently trains human resources professionals and managers.