By Kate Ahern
Our industry has seen concerning associate attrition over the past few years, highlighting associate retention as a significant market pressure on firms going forward.
Law firms are struggling to attract and retain dedicated, motivated, reliable associates who are truly ready for practice. Adding to the frustration of many firm leaders: increased compensation and bonuses are ineffective in solving the associate retention puzzle.
Meanwhile, our industry is experiencing time management, work-life balance, and mental health crises. Associates are barely able to keep up with client work and billable-hour expectations. They have no remaining time for the building blocks of a successful practice life, including time to rest and refresh, collaborate fully with others, participate in business development, fuel their professional growth through intentional self-development, and explore their leadership potential.
Today’s associates do not learn the skills or receive the crucial support necessary to build an effective, efficient, focused, fulfilling approach to practice. Law schools do not teach those skills, and it’s challenging for law firms to provide effective associate support, given pressures on partner time, not to mention lack of insight and teaching experience at most firms.
New lawyers are not developing into the experienced lawyers and practice leaders capable of fueling not only their own success, but the success of their firms and clients.
Instead, associates are overwhelmed, burning out, and walking away, all because they do not receive the right skills and support at the right time.
Firms that solve this problem by investing in associate support are well-positioned to succeed, not only in associate retention but in other key goals.
First, when law firms invest in or build effective training and support for their associates, they are better able to attract, develop and retain top associate talent, and their associates grow into fulfilled, valuable, industry-leading lawyers.
In addition, supporting associates starts a potential cascade of wins for law firms, because investing in such support is strongly connected to a firm’s effectiveness in reducing attorney burnout; increasing attorney well-being; increasing the firm’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts by retaining and advancing women and other marginalized lawyers; and boosting the firm’s innovation in practice by retaining and advancing innovative lawyers who tend to look for supportive law firm environments.
Law firms can unlock these wins by building or investing in support for their associates in the following three areas:
Time management training
Foundational time management skills are crucial for associates to thrive in modern practice. Unfortunately, today’s early-career lawyers do not learn these skills and as a result are unprepared for the pressures and complex moving parts of law practice. Even top law students struggle in practice for lack of an effective time management strategy.
Simply put, we are facing a time management crisis in our profession, and it is lurking behind the many frustrations shared with me by law firm partners and other legal supervisors, as well as by associates themselves.
Without these skills, associates are unable to keep up with their work, meet deadlines, or predict and communicate how long matters will take to complete. Instead, they turn in projects at the last minute, leaving little time for others to review their work, and they constantly scramble to get work done yet still struggle to keep up. They do not have time to rest, consider their own development, participate in marketing efforts, or contribute to their own growth as leaders in the practice.
Lawyers need to understand how to use an effective time management strategy to support their priorities, i.e., what is most important, what they value, where they want to steer their life and career. When lawyers do not learn to identify and focus on their priorities as a starting point, time management skills will only expedite overwhelm and burnout, rather than help avoid those issues.
Feedback management training
Early-career lawyers need not only mentoring (ideally by experienced mentors outside of the firm to avoid internal relationship limitations) but training in feedback management.
Rather than pushing feedback out at associates, firms can invest in feedback management training for their associates, empowering associates to manage their own self-development.
In doing so, firms can trade awkward, forced (or, let’s face it, often nonexistent/entirely lacking) partner-initiated feedback conversations for targeted, clear, focused, associate-initiated feedback conversations that supercharge associate development.
New lawyers are capable of managing their own progress and better suited than partners to do so. When associates manage their own feedback, they will rightfully feel more confident and in control of their own development.
Practice-ready skills training
New lawyers I work with typically struggle to independently produce the type of counseling and work product actually valuable to clients. (Don’t worry, there’s a cure for the long, accurate-but-useless memos and the vaguely relevant, legalese-filled contracts you’re recalling with frustration right now.)
Many law firms assume training associates in practice-area-specific technical skills, documents and procedure will produce practice-ready associates. Other firms assume associates need years of practice experience before they’re able to offer effective solutions, documents and counseling that fits a client’s goals, situation and industry. Great news: neither of those assumptions is true!
Instead, the real magic happens when new lawyers are guided through a shift in thinking to quickly transform the substantive knowledge and analytical ability gained in law school into practical, practice-ready lawyering.
With a simple shift in thinking, not only new lawyers but even law students I work with are able to take a minimal amount of recently learned, foundational substantive knowledge and produce effective, real-client counseling rivaling results produced by lawyers with years of practice experience.
This kind of practical skills training quickly and effectively bridges the gap from law school to practice, but sadly is rarely offered to associates.
Rethinking associate support
We easily can, and certainly should, do much better for the next generation of lawyers. Associates not only crave but desperately need practical training and support in the three areas above. Firms providing that support can produce practice-ready associates, valued counselors, and indispensable colleagues who find fulfilment in their practice.
Your firm can get started by:
What will you need to add to, or change about, your existing program? Will you need to build a new program from scratch?
If you invest in external support to build a training program, what is your firm’s associate support budget? Who is responsible for reaching out to get started with external support? What is your target timeline for starting your new associate training and support program?
If you build a training program on your own, which partners/administrators will play a role? Who will take the lead? Exactly what will you include and how will you structure and deliver your program? How will you measure if it’s working?
Calculate this number as concretely as possible to get a better sense of how an investment in associate support to improve retention aligns with your firm’s finances. For example, it can cost firms as much as $500,000 to lose an associate. Firms lose money in re-training associates, in recruiting new talent, in billable hours, and in additional signing bonuses, as well as on extra human resources, partner and administrative time.
Remember, supporting associates can boost retention but also contribute to attorney well-being, diversity at your firm, and innovation in your firm’s approach to practice and business development. How might these additional benefits impact your firm, colleagues and clients?
Today’s early-career lawyers are talented in myriad ways but also fully capable of outstanding practice, valued client work, leadership in the profession, and directing their own career progress. They just need the right support to unlock the results for their clients, their firms and themselves. •
Kate Ahern of Unfrazzled LLC guides lawyers on time management, priorities management, burnout and the related impact of gender bias and other external pressures. She also helps law firms support associate development and retention. Ahern is a law professor, former AmLaw200 attorney and transactional lawyer. She can be contacted at [email protected].