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The last two quarters of any year present increased risks to associate retention. Coming out of the global COVID-19 pandemic, law firms worldwide are seeing even greater movement this year in the market for talented associates. It is a reasonable assumption that even if your firm has only four associates, at least one of them is actively planning to leave your firm by the end of the year if what looks like a better opportunity comes along.

The good news is that there still is time to reinforce -- or, for too many law firms, develop for the first time -- an effective associate retention plan that is right for your firm.

This article, originally posted in March 2015, is even more timely today.

Recruiting good associates into a law firm is difficult enough. Keeping the good ones is even harder.

In almost almost every legal market in the world, the toughest competition is not for clients but for legal talent. Yet most law firms fail miserably at presenting a persuasive business case to each associate, explaining why his or her best future is a career in the firm.

This is one of the most bizzare aspects of law firms.  Unlike other businesses, we fail to manage our assets -- and sometimes don't even know what they are.

Promises of more money and references to vague values such as "culture" aren't enough. Associates do not make career decisions the same way they decide which new mobile phone to buy.

One of the most successful practices for associate retention is to develop plans that present a compelling, individualized case for each "at risk associate" to remain in the firm. The ideal time to do this is probably two to three years post-qualification or post-admission. By that time, an associate has enough experience to have developed a good understanding of his or her professional options; so the firm and the associate can design an individual plan that meets the firm's needs but also is more attractive to the associate. The individual retention plan must not be just an piece of paper. It should be integrated into a firm's performance management systems and professional development programs; and it should be reviewed annually to ensure that it remains relevant -- and most important -- states the strongest case for the associate to remain in the firm and, if he or she wants to do so, eventually become a partner. Some firms also incorporate retention plans into their mentoring programs.

This requires ongoing commitment and personal attention by all partners. This is not a job that can be delegated to your human resources director or an external HR consultant. Most of them lack the deep experience with, and understanding of, the practice of law in law firms that is needed to address these issues successfully in the unique environment of the legal profession.

It also requires that partners take time to deliver feedback that is about more than technical legal issues or how well an associate completed the most recent task. Instead it should introduce the idea, which is uncommunicated in most law firms, that you value the associate as more than just a good legal technician, but as a professional colleague. This investment of three minutes of your time can help to produce gigantic long-term benefits for your firm.

For example, if you are a partner, how long has it been since you have told one of the associates in the firm that you value and respect that person as an individual colleague and that you personally would like to see him or her become your partner?

Can't remember how long it has been (if ever)? Then remember this:

Ignore an associate and he or she will go away.

Norman Clark



Walker Clark(R) can help your firm to improve your associate retention rate and readiness for promotion -- even before the end of the current year.  If you retain just one associate who otherwise would have left, your financial return will be many times more than your investment in our fee or of your time. For more information about Walker Clark services in associate retention and performance management, contact Lisa Walker Johnson by e-mail or at the telephone number at the bottom of this page.