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Law Practice Magazine

The Marketing Issue

The Thriving Lawyer: Retain Talent With a Probable Future

Anne Elizabeth Collier


  • Transforming a possible future into a probable future in the eyes of everyone from recent recruits to relative old-timers also requires a culture of psychological safety.
The Thriving Lawyer: Retain Talent With a Probable Future

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If you’ve run a firm or a practice group or relied on colleagues, you know the importance of retention. When people stay, the entire team trusts, collaborates and communicates better. There is shared understanding of the very specifics of processes and of each other. There is more focus on the work than sorting out how colleagues work together. Shorthand communication works. There are fewer missteps. Work takes less time. You forgive each other of stress-induced snarkiness and apologize when it happens. These rare incidents aren’t a big deal because you are confident that they aren’t a threat to team or personal well-being. Retention is important for these reasons and more. The real question is: How do firms get people to stay?

People tend to stay at firms where they see a future for themselves. This future seems more possible when a person receives mentoring and thoughtful training and is confident that colleagues will help them succeed. This future seems more possible if at least one or more senior colleagues look out for them, providing work and other opportunities for professional development. 

Transforming a possible future into a probable future in the eyes of everyone from recent recruits to relative old-timers also requires a culture of psychological safety. Newly minted lawyers, lateral hires and staff are more likely to leave firms where they don’t see a future for themselves, or the inchoate future comes at too high a personal cost.

Being psychologically safe means that a person feels accepted and respected by team members. It means that a person can share work product, express views, disagree, ask questions and raise concerns without fear of overt or covert punishments. Mistakes present an opportunity to learn, not look for a scapegoat. Colleagues solve problems and eschew blame, not taking or making things personal. They can discuss extremely touchy subjects without resorting to bullying or manipulation. In essence, colleagues devote their time to serving clients, building business, mentoring, and developing talent and firm administration. They do not live in fear of the next shoe dropping or devote precious time or emotional energy to self-protection. They aren’t constantly worried about being “in trouble.”

The pivotal question a person asks themselves when tempted by another career opportunity is: “Where do I belong?” In “How to Solve the Performance-Wellness Conundrum” (November/ December 2022), I made the case that high performance and true wellness can coexist if you get the culture right. In “How to Turn a Great Culture Into an Effective Recruiting Tool” (January/ February), you found out how to amplify this great culture and intentionally exploit it as a recruiting tool. Here, I am taking this line of thinking a step further by focusing on steps to create a culture of belonging and a probable future at your firm so that the answer to the question “Where do I belong?” is “Here.”

7 Strategies for Creating a More Probable Future of ‘Here’

Belonging doesn’t just happen, especially in our new hybrid world. While senior leaders have the most influence on culture, everyone can make a difference. Here’s how.

  1. Deliberately onboard new hires and lateral partners. While onboarding isn’t technically the first time a firm gets to make an impression, it is a critical time. Don’t squander it. Take the time to welcome your new recruit so the person is enthusiastic about having joined the firm. Have a plan in place for ensuring that the recruit has work and several colleagues to rely on. Especially if the recruit is relatively junior, or the practice utilizes steep learning curve processes, have a training plan and patience. When people complain or leave a firm, it’s usually due to how they perceive they were treated. “Sink or swim” onboarding is a recipe for a retention disaster.
  2. Integrate the recruit’s goals with the firm’s opportunities. In “How to Turn a Great Culture Into an Effective Recruiting Tool,” I recommended that you be curious about the candidate’s goals to determine whether the firm and candidate are a fit for each other. Now it’s time to make that promise a reality. Develop a thoughtful plan complete with resources and mentoring support to operationalize the recruit’s dreams for becoming the hero of their own story.
  3. Plan professional progress. When onboarding a new recruit—even new partners— identify opportunities for growth that also meet client
    service needs. Be patient as you train. Work on a matter with your new colleague, expecting to do 90% of the work as you train. Plan to
    write off time—you’ll likely need to. With successive matters, gradually increase the new colleague’s responsibility. You will always be a
    safety net, but your time will decrease the more the recruit gains knowledge and confidence. As any successful lawyer knows, you need to build your team to build your practice.
  4. Empower through coaching. Regardless of a recruit’s experience level, asking coaching questions—open-ended questions to elicit creative and thoughtful thinking—builds confidence, collaboration and connection. Be patient, curious and supportive when coaching.
  5. Listen for loyalty. This strategy is not listening to discern whether the colleague is loyal to the firm. Rather, the strategy is to truly listen to colleagues so that they are loyal. When people are listened to, they feel valued. Valued people are loyal; loyal people think twice about leaving. While listening isn’t always easy in the moment, especially if you disagree with the person, listening is critical to psychological safety, a strong relationship and retention.
  6. Give feedback and mentor in the trenches. Nobody likes delivering feedback, but ongoing constructive feedback is essential to both providing excellent client service and building a trusting relationship. Those who do it well adopt a no-drama and patient disposition, explaining what, why and how to do it better. The best mentors don’t forget to reinforce work done well.
  7. Be kind. We are better firm citizens if we can remember that a person’s grumpiness, uneasiness or other negative behavior is not about us. A down disposition is most likely caused by bad news or events of which we’re not privy. Be kind no matter what. We’re all human, and we all have bad days. A place that forgives and supports is a place people can see a probable future for themselves.

If what it takes to successfully retain lawyers and staff feels like too much work or you don’t have the requisite time, consider that the extra effort to train and retain great people is also what it will take to improve the firm’s performance and viability over the long term. Now that seems worth it, doesn’t it?