October 22, 2012

Retaining Good Employees: Five Things Law Firms Can Learn From Corporations

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention Issue
Law firms, particularly larger firms, invest heavily in recruiting new associates—only to find that those associates often leave the firm within a few years before they are truly productive. The track record for retaining lateral hires is also terrible and even more costly. Corporations, on the other hand, often have greater success in keeping the people they hire. What’s their secret? What can law firms learn from businesses about how to select, integrate and develop good employees? Five key lessons from corporations are outlined below.


Too many law firms decide whom to hire based on how good a law school the applicant went to, what his or her grade point average was, or whether he or she was on law review. What is worse, these criteria are often the only criteria used for deciding among competing candidates. Clearly, nothing is wrong with hiring associates who got good grades at a prestigious school or who wrote for that school’s law review. But the exodus of associates with that pedigree should give the people who run law firms pause to reflect on whether those criteria alone will predict how good a lawyer someone will be or how well he or she will do at a particular law firm.

Law firms might be forgiven for giving so much weight to the educational bona fides of third-year law students looking for a summer clerkship or a job as a new associate. But applying those same criteria as the gold standard when considering hiring an experienced lawyer as a senior associate or even, possibly, a partner, makes little sense. The farther from one’s legal education, the more important it is to give relatively greater weight to on-the-job performance and personality factors over academic credentials.

In my work as an outplacement consultant with firms around the country, I often am told that a prospective lateral hire applicant is “just not partnership material” or “doesn’t fit in this firm.” The same is true with associates who are outplaced. The reason for these termination decisions is rarely academic smarts or intelligence but has more to do with factors such as style, judgment, interpersonal and communication skills, and relationship issues.

Is it any wonder that lateral hire retention rates are so low? Law firms spend an exorbitant amount of time and money recruiting prospective applicants. Why, then, do they not expand their thinking to incorporate a broader range of selection criteria into the hiring process?

Businesses understand far better than law firms the most powerful predictor of success—and it is not academic pedigree. Corporations understand that “emotional intelligence” is a much greater predictor of success than grades, IQ or test scores. Interestingly, while law firms are still using outdated criteria for deciding whom to let into their firms, the same law schools from which they are recruiting applicants have learned that there are better predictors of law school success than college grades. Enlightened law schools increasingly base admissions decisions on a broader set of criteria, including an applicant’s life experiences, hobbies and avocations, and work experience. Law firms could improve their selection success by incorporating emotional intelligence and related criteria.


Corporations have long known that it is a recipe for failure to hire someone new and merely throw them into the fire. Instead, corporations are increasingly taking a systematic approach to the integration of new employees. This systematic approach, known as onboarding, typically involves identifying the new employee’s goals and aspirations, putting a development plan into place to motivate and support his or her best performance, and involving a mentor who takes an active role in helping the new hire become a functioning member of the organization.

At a firm with a comprehensive integration plan in place, the first week is not just a bunch of group orientation sessions or a lunch with a mentor who answers a few questions and then disappears from the new hire’s work life. Instead, new hire integration generally provides a highly individualized orientation that signals that the new employer is invested in the new hire’s productivity, development and satisfaction. How?

Week 1 can take many forms, but it could involve putting the final touches on a development plan based on goals and priorities discussed in the selection process. It could involve being completely set up with all forms of technology, and/or having meetings set up with key players in the organization or practice, and appointing someone (the boss or someone else) who has ongoing responsibility and incentive to help an employee perform at his or her best.

Many law school graduates, particularly in this bad economy, just want a job with a steady paycheck. They have given little thought to what practice areas they might enjoy, how to join a desired practice group or what it might take to make their best contributions to the firm. The firm can provide the attention and development assistance to answer these crucial career questions, and in the process, maximize the investment and performance of its new associates.

What are other ways to adopt the corporate integration model to law firms? New associates can be invited, alone or in small groups, to meet with leaders, including practice group leaders, and encouraged to ask questions. Meetings with senior associates should also be part of the development plan. Brown bag seminars that give more-senior attorneys the opportunity to share lessons learned, tips on obstacles to avoid, and help in career development provide invaluable information as well as opportunities to bond.

Day 1 should also include an orientation on the firm’s technology. New associates need to know what the firm has available to help them hit the ground running and whom to call if they can’t figure out how it works.

Useful development plans can provide the new associate with help in setting short- and medium-term goals as well as longer-term ones. For example, it would reduce associates’ stress and impart a great deal of confidence to know what they will be expected to know six months from now, or a year from now. Transactional and litigation practices have ample experience in determining these goals; sharing this information with new hires gives new associates a roadmap from which they can determine if they are moving in the right direction. It also provides structure and clear performance expectations.


If law firm leaders want to convey the importance of nurturing, developing and integrating new hires to the firm’s long-term success, they must do what other organizations do: Provide incentives for these behaviors.

Simply praising the importance of these activities will not change behavior. No partner or senior associate is going to invest time and energy in the integration of new hires if they are expected to do so without letting their billable time slip or without monetary or other incentives. When compensation depends on billable time and revenue generated, without reduction in production targets, no one is going to put his or her time into integration.

The partners and senior associates must have a plan in place for integrating new associates and should be evaluated on how well they execute the plan. Those partners and senior associates should see the success or failure of the associate as their own success or failure. Corporations have made these changes successfully as they recognize that you get what you reward. It is time for law firms to do the same.


Firms frequently invest heavily in technical skills training, especially for new lawyers. Whether legal writing or advocacy, firms often do a decent job of skills-building in these areas but pay little attention to relationship management or other “soft” skills that can have an even more important effect on client retention and satisfaction, as well as on individual career success. It is not enough to hire for emotional intelligence; like any other kind of skill, firms need to nurture its continued development through courses to extend and refine these abilities.


Group training programs that seek to build and enhance interpersonal skills are necessary but not sufficient to build skill and loyalty to the firm. Younger generations of lawyers place high value on the importance of skills development, mentoring and the like. The best and the brightest want—and in many cases, demand—this kind of attention to their careers.

The optimal setting for adult learning involves one-on-one focus over time, so group education programs should not be the primary vehicle for development. Giving individuals the opportunity to work with a career expert one-on-one provides the greatest return on the firm’s investment and gives individual lawyers the strongest experience of the firm’s investment in them—not just as a worker bee, but as a professional whose career success is important to the firm beyond how the firm can tangibly benefit. When the cost of hiring, education and turnover are considered, the costs of individual development through working with outside career experts are nominal.

In summary, law firms can learn a great deal from corporations on how to select, integrate, develop and retain the best employees. Law firms can adapt successful practices from corporations to their unique challenges and structure to ensure that their investment in people and careers provides the firm, its clients and its attorneys with opportunities to maximize their contributions and satisfactions—and their tenure! Law firms don’t need to reinvent the wheel; they just need to modify it to make the most of their people.

Firms pay little attention to relationship management or other “soft” skills that can have an even more important effect on client retention and satisfaction, as well as on individual career success.

It would reduce associates’ stress and impart a great deal of confidence to know what they will be expected to know six months from now, or a year from now.