Midsize Law Firms: 5 Secrets to Improve Your Talent Strategy for Associates

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Diversity, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Legal Workforce, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Practice Engineering, Process Management, Staffing & Headcount, Talent Development


In the State the of the Legal Market: A View from Midsize Firms, associates were shown to be the most productive out of all of the levels of lawyers in midsize firms — and with demand growth continuing to remain under 1%, the retention of associates is critical for law firms to maintain profitability.

Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute re-visited its collection of talent content and consolidated our picks to create the Top 5 secrets to improving your talent retention strategy for associates.

1. Follow the lead of consulting firms by giving “taxicab feedback

Consulting powerhouses, such as McKinsey & Co., embed feedback within the DNA of the culture by cultivating the habit and expectation that senior consultants are expected to provide development feedback informally to the associates on the taxicab ride back to the office after a client visit. Dr Larry Richard, CEO of LawyerBrain, has seen an increase in the attention that feedback is gaining among law firms. Indeed, he recommends delivering feedback to associates when you have the opportunity after a group meeting with a client or when you assign work, and not to wait until the end of the year. Read more from Dr. Larry Richard on this topic.

2. Focus feedback using the strengths-based approach

According to Dr. Richard, one small success builds momentum for the next positive outcome. Brain science proves this because the “experience of a behavioral achievement and the associated positive satisfaction fortifies the neural pathways in the brain and reinforces the new practices.” Moreover, evidence shows that when we focus on developing one strength, it often incidentally builds “companion strengths”, i.e., other strengths that are loosely related, even though you didn’t expressly work to improve them. By contrast, the “fix your deficiencies” strategy is disempowering and only produces mediocre results, according to Dr. Richard. Read more about how to invest in organizational structures to build new feedback behaviors.

3. Prioritize creating diverse matter and pitch teams

The best way to retain employees is to invite them to participate in a variety of experiences. Lawyers are no different. Millennial associates desire to learn and develop as individuals, and the best way to do so is to put together matter and pitch teams that enable them to learn new skills and expand existing skills in new matters. In addition, teams with people from diverse backgrounds produce better results, according to research. Mixed gender teams ‘significantly’ outperformed those made of just men or just women across a dozen different performance indicators, according to an Acritas report that was based on interviews with almost 1,000 corporate clients. Check out how one practice leader develops talent using this approach.

4. Create roadmaps for associates’ career development

Millennial lawyers are competitive, just like those in other generations, and they are used to having information at their fingertips, having grown up with social media and smart phones. Because of this, they have an expectation of almost instantaneous transparency in how they are performing relative to their peers. To help these younger associates on their career path, the firm Neal, Gerber, & Eisenberg developed competency models comprised of practice-specific key experiences and firm-wide core competencies for junior associates, mid-level associates and senior associates. The enterprise core competency categories include communication, analytical skills, professional judgement, client service, professional development, and firm citizenship. Read Sonia Menon’s interview on how the firm empowers associates to take ownership of their career development and how they review their progress with firm partners.

5. Empower your future leaders by developing a shared vision and strategy for the firm

Talented individuals at all levels of a firm desire to know where the firm is headed and how they fit into it. The next generation of talent wants to participate in the development of the vision and the roadmap. Jennifer Wilson, co-founder of Convergence Coaching, uses a “road-trip analogy” to explain. “Invite your next-gen leaders to go on a road trip with you. To do so, they need to know where you’re going on the trip, in order to provide ideas and input on the destination, the roadmap to get there, and what it will be like when the destination is reached,” Wilson says. When the firm’s leadership cannot tell its people where they are headed, the employees are not very engaged in the trip and likely to “get out at the next stop that offers more money or a compelling vision.” Read more of Wilson’s guidance in how to leverage your future leaders.