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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Practice Management Advice: Confronting Low Unemployment in Legal: Retain Good People

John D Bowers


  • Nothing gets blood pumping faster than when an employee decides to leave a small law office.
Practice Management Advice: Confronting Low Unemployment in Legal: Retain Good People
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Nothing gets blood pumping faster than when an employee decides to leave a small law office. Regardless of the employee’s role, the departure of almost any member of a team is magnified when that team is small. Many leaders simply cannot spare the added time investment in recruiting, hiring and onboarding: In a busy practice, each hour expended on administration is carved directly out of client work. So the need feels overwhelming even before the departing employee’s seat is empty.

This scenario plays itself out frequently in law practices, whether there is a “Great Resignation” or not. In fact, as of July 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 1.7% unemployment in legal—but is that the only reason you have lost an employee? It’s delightfully gratifying to opine on macroeconomic topics; I love Malcolm Gladwell, too.

Now, however, leaders of law practices must get practical, and fast—or risk necessarily referring client work out that could otherwise be revenue for the practice. The optimal solution to low unemployment is to keep intact the good team you already have. Take personal responsibility to step into the role for which you may be most needed: “There are no bad teams, just bad leaders,” according to Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. No time is better than right now to engineer a reliable process to focus energy on keeping good people in the right seats.


First and foremost, confront the brutal realities of why the employee left. Exit interviews are huge opportunities to learn about the market and, more importantly, your law practice. There’s always some truth in greater compensation, better benefits and people they look forward to working with, so do a deep dive into these facts to learn how to keep your people. Even when the departing employee claims that criteria about the new job are the only mitigating factor, dig deeper and interview other employees to uncover real motives. Few staffers or lawyers in any legal market overtly burn bridges, so you cannot depend only on answers from exit interviews.

It’s a timeless truth that satisfied employees don’t look for other jobs. Leaders ask the hard, personal how and why questions that made other pastures look greener in the first place. Managers don’t even do a postmortem and instead only dig into the worn bag of reasons why the employee wasn’t the “right fit.” While there is validity in this self-inventory that does feel satisfying, managers fear sharing blame with anyone but the departing employee; after all, nobody wants to risk offending those who remain at the firm. It’s certainly easier to hold the door open and leave well enough alone.


Departures do carry the benefit of acting as a trigger, encouraging you to circle the wagons and ensure that the practice isn’t somehow bleeding other people, even if it is a painfully obvious next step. Too often, however, departures are the only events that cause managers to put any effort into retaining employees. Such activity reeks of fear rather than genuine concern.

Yoda reminds us to “Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” While that is far easier said than done, developing an ongoing engagement plan contributes mightily to such training and demonstrates the leader’s sincerity among employees to keep good people and invest in their future. Law practice leaders can accomplish this with well-timed raises, bonuses and employee benefits enhancements. However, there are many no- or low-cost best practices leaders can implement, including:

  • Stay interviews among staff and lawyers. They are the ultimate answer for law practices that have only ever done exit interviews, and they yield far richer and more actionable data points.
  • Investigations of organic growth. To the extent that the practice experiences any growth apart from new hires, investigate the why and how questions involved in promotions, innovations and new revenue streams.
  • Ongoing training for staff. Few law practices develop ongoing training for staff whether they bill time or not. ABA’s Law Practice Division, among other associations, provides excellent learning opportunities for all employees on topics ranging from data security and financial management, to ethics and loss prevention, to name just a few.
  • In-person time. Leaders give this time to people they value. No, email, Zoom or a phone call simply will not work. It may be a sacrificial investment, but employees want no-holds-barred access to you: Give them time in limited increments on a more-than-you-would-like-to basis.

Thou Shalt Not

Looking at excellent ways to upset the proverbial apple cart can often illustrate pitfalls to avoid. Among far more depressing steps:

  • Go on an immediate hiring spree. Yes, the firm may desperately need a new timekeeper, and it may also feel redemptive to show that a departed employee was easily replaced. But there’s a wide delta between hiring a warm body and recruiting the best hire for the job.
  • Ignore warning signs along the recruiting path. If it is nearly impossible to hire a candidate (difficulty scheduling interviews, multitudes of questions, repeated counteroffers), trust your gut and cut the cord: They will be just as impossible to work with once they are on board.
  • Pay similarly situated employees differently. Employees at every level discuss compensation. The slightest difference among compensation that lacks clearly stated reasoning invites at least dissension in the ranks, if not serial departures.
  • Set rules and expectations that cannot be measured or will not be enforced. Whether it’s demanding daily reporting to the office (except the leaders), annual billable hour expectations with zero accountability and time entry deadlines no one respects, most employees will sense this from a safe distance. But rule followers will jump ship out of presumed necessity.

Of course, you need to field available timekeepers enough to satisfy client needs, but you ought to highly value the time and resources already invested in your team. When an employee leaves, hire slowly: It’s inordinately more difficult to manage out a bad hire than it is to not let them in the door in the first place.