October 23, 2012

Law Practice Roundtable: Experts Talk Trends in Lawyer Management

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Management Trends

Marcia Pennington Shannon, Facilitator

How do law firms develop and motivate highly talented individuals in today's fast-paced, demanding work environments? A team of professional development experts pull out the stops to offer insights into the trends in lawyer management and the major issues confronting law firms today.


Marcia Pennington Shannon: The practice of law has changed significantly over the past two decades. Firms are now dealing with multiple generations of professionals who have a variety of needs and desires for their careers. There are growing complexities in recruiting, retaining and developing lawyers, from the most-junior level to the senior partners. What, from your perspective, are the major challenges in lawyer management that firms are grappling with today?

Stephen Armstrong: As firms continue to grow in size, not just in numbers but in terms of leverage and size of practice teams, it's leading to people in the firm having less contact with the senior lawyers. So how do firms go about the task of motivating, engaging and training lawyers? This is an increasingly difficult issue. And it really is an organizational development issue—how we think about integrating, motivating and getting commitment from individuals in our less tight-knit groups. How do you persuade senior lawyers that the vitality of the organization is dependent on their managerial and supervisory skills? And how do you train junior lawyers to successfully operate in these organizations?

Another issue, of course, is the changing demographics of law firms. To get a really good group of individuals to stay the course, firms need to think carefully about issues such as work-life balance, women's issues and diversity. This is not just a matter of recruitment tools. The concern is capturing and holding on to people who otherwise won't have incentives to stay long term.

Susan Manch: I agree wholeheartedly with Steve's comments. Most firms recognize that how partners manage those working with them has the greatest impact on junior lawyers' retention and professional development. Yet many partners do not have the skills and experience to supervise others in a way that contributes to their training. A lot is being asked of partners these days, and without the necessary training, their jobs are very difficult. From my perspective, partner development is one of the most major issues for law firms today.

In addition, as lateral hiring continues to increase, another top challenge for firms is integrating individuals and groups in a way that contributes to retention. Too often lateral hires are left to adapt to new cultures without much guidance, leaving many with the feeling that they are on their own to assimilate into the new firm.

Anita Zigman: Because the competition for top legal talent remains so strong, retaining associates long enough that they can become effective contributors to the firm is a critical challenge. As has been well-documented, the current generation of young lawyers don't necessarily view their legal careers in a static way, so the compact that firms have traditionally made with associates—in essence, we'll train you and if you work hard and stay for eight years, you have a chance to make partner—has little relevance to many of today's associates. Most look at their careers in much shorter blocks of time than eight years, and some have multiple career interests, seeing law as one of many potential stopping points along the road of life.

Further, many will admit that they are not willing to make the type of commitment to the practice that they see their firms' partners making. Accordingly, the number of associates leaving the law and moving to business ventures seems to be on the upswing.


Shannon: These are clearly major issues for law firms, regardless of firm size. Many, fortunately, now take seriously the problems of dissatisfaction with the profession, as well as the increasing demands on lawyers, especially time-wise. What are some of the ways law firms are addressing the issues you've identified?

Armstrong: Training, of course, is a major way of addressing many of these issues. Firms are also learning to change their incentive systems. For example, creation of upward review processes is an excellent tool if firm management really uses it to identify developmental needs and to change behaviors. Also, firms are beginning to put in place the support processes that are needed to assist individuals who do not want to be on a partnership track at various times in their careers. Flex-time and part-time arrangements are some of the ways in which this support can occur.

Manch: Training is vital. Importantly, law firms are investing in training programs designed specifically for partners, including new partner orientation programs and targeted skill-building seminars on supervision and team leadership. They are also providing partners with one-on-one coaching to help further develop management and interpersonal communication skills.

We're also seeing better integration of laterals through approaches such as retreats, regular training programs and ongoing orientation "short courses."

Overall, the new buzzword in the lawyer development world is "engagement." It is no longer enough to succeed in attracting and retaining highly talented individuals. Now the focus is on developing strategies to truly engage the multitasking, multitalented developing lawyer population. Firms that are seeking ways in which to do this will be rewarded with more productive, effective and motivated lawyers.

Zigman: Firms are responding to these challenges by taking the role of managing associates more seriously than in the past. Embedding professional practice group managers in key areas, enhancing professional training and development programs, and creating sophisticated alumni networks help improve the associate experience and, on the alumni side, can create career paths that are mutually beneficial for the firm and the associate.

Another response is the recent interest in career development programs for associates. At our firm, for example, we have just about completed a significant project developing benchmarks and other tools to help associates understand what it takes to move from a junior to a senior level in their practices. We have asked the associates to use those tools in thinking about their own careers. Then we are asking them to participate in discussions with a partner in their department about their goals, resulting in the creation of a career development plan for the coming year. We are integrating these plans with our assignment and evaluation systems so we can more strategically place assignments with associates in light of their plans, as well as track each plan's effectiveness.

Of course, the need to retain associates also means paying continued attention to the needs of women and associates of color. Programs such as work-life initiatives, alternative work schedules, telecommuting and focused mentoring programs are all geared to this retention effort. Firms are even hiring managers with expertise in this field to help develop and sustain a multipronged effort to improve the recruitment, retention and promotion of diverse talent.

Lastly, firms are looking at how projects are staffed as an important component of associate retention. If a firm can shift routine tasks to "off-track" staff attorneys or other non-associate positions, associates' time can be freed up for more intellectually rigorous and satisfying work.


Shannon : What trends can we expect to see in the future?

Armstrong: We'll see more managerial and leadership training. In particular, this training will be more directed to specific populations, such as women. This is a good thing. In addition, I think we'll see more firms hearing the need for alternative career paths, and coming up with more creative and imaginative ways of addressing these—providing more flexibility in work-life balance in the process. Also, the increasing attention on diversity, particularly in the composition of teams, will continue.

Manch: As associates continue to complain about lack of opportunities for skill and knowledge development, especially in large firms, firms will seek more ways to address this issue to keep high numbers of talented lawyers from leaving to find developmental opportunities elsewhere.

And as Steve points out, diversity will continue to demand the attention of law firms. Those that are committed to diversity are already seeking approaches that include strategies for measuring and guiding performance more consistently, engaging new lawyers at earlier stages in their careers, and forming stronger team bonds within practice areas.

We can also look for individual coaching and career path counseling to increase greatly as an important tool for firms trying to increase lawyer tenure and engagement.

Finally, while core competencies as a basis for professional development and performance appraisal continue to grow in popularity, a shift in focus is now occurring. The focus is moving from simply defining performance criteria toward developing a comprehensive approach to competency use tied to curricular development, work allocation and mentorship.

Zigman: Since one size no longer fits all when it comes to the interests, needs and desires of lawyers, we will probably continue to see multifaceted approaches to legal personnel management continue in the future. Examples include an increase in the use and acceptance of alternative or flexible work schedules, expansion of the use of off-track positions for routine work, and the development of varied career paths within firms that are designed to appeal to a broader set of career needs. Other approaches will very likely evolve along the way, too, because law firms will always need to look for new and better ways to find, develop and retain top talent