October 23, 2012

Retaining Talent in a Free-Agent Lawyer Nation

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Five Things

By Ann Lee Gibson

The ties that bind lawyers to specific firms continue to weaken. According to studies, lateral partner movement is increasing. Young lawyers believe they will change jobs many times during their careers. Women lawyers struggle, as always, to negotiate competing responsibilities of career and family. Too many attorneys of color still opt out of big firm practices. Baby boomers are starting to retire. Amid this churn of elevator assets, firms struggle to attract and keep enough lawyers to serve clients and feed the leverage machine that funds per-equity-partner profits. In response, law firms' talent retention tactics now resemble those of other professional services firms, tech companies and corporations. Here are some tactics that can help your firm keep its lawyers productive and stable.

1. In-firm "universities" and other educational units provide significant professional development opportunities to lawyers in private practice. In the past few years, continuing education for lawyers has expanded far beyond legal skills to include networking and business development, personal finance, leadership, health management, project management, communications and other areas. To provide this training, firms are drawing from in-house talent, university professors, clients and consultants. Firms are also throwing multi-day retreats—in glamorous locations—for new lateral partners, associates, women and lawyers of color.

2. Executive coaches aren't just for CEOs anymore. Law firms are hiring coaches to support top management, management-in-waiting, chief executives and others whose performance is vital to the firm's success. Although "coaching" and "therapy" modalities can overlap, coaching focuses on helping individuals equip themselves for specific challenges and helps them design programs to achieve specific goals.

3. Temporary legal staff subsidiaries are part of the talent solution for a growing number of firms. These subsidiaries, staffed by lawyers and paralegals who prefer to work intermittently rather than full-time, can expand and contract rapidly as the firm's big-deal or big-suit staffing needs wax and wane.

4. Mentoring and sponsoring women and people of color has always been critical for partnership promotion and success at firms intent on achieving true diversity. But of late, mentoring and sponsorship are more structured and conscious. Mentors receive mentoring training, and mentees are taught how to benefit most effectively from these resources.

5. After baby boomer lawyers retire, some will doubtless boomerang back into the workforce. Like other industries that rely on highly educated and experienced workforces, law firms will benefit from the contributions of retirees who discover they still enjoy, even require, the intellectual stimulation, financial motivation and ego fulfillment that practicing a profession supplies. Law firm partners and regulators are already pushing mandatory retirement ages higher. After all, 60 is the new 40, and 70 is the new 50.