Midsize Law Firms: 5 Ways to Retain Talent on a Budget

Topics: Law Firms, Leadership & Retention, Legal Workforce, Midsize Law Firms Blog Posts, Networking, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts


A colleague recently had to prepare a presentation on the best ways to retain talent for midsize law firms that may not have the luxury of being able to match large law firm pay scales. I must admit, I was a bit surprised when he told me just how common it is for midsize and small law firms to struggle with recruiting and retention.

If you are one of those firm leaders who is scratching your head because you don’t know where to start, here are five steps:

1. Gain feedback from top talent

The first recommended action is to survey your top talent anonymously and do the same for those that leave the firm by asking five simple questions:

  • What is the best part about working here?
  • What are the benefits and perks that you most value?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5 (1-not well at all, and 5-very well), how well does the firm focus on your ongoing professional development as a lawyer?
  • What is one thing the firm could do to help you stay here for the long term?
  • What is your least favorite firm-specific thing about working here?

This doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking; there are great, free survey tools available online.

You may find that a key method to retain Millennial talent is to formalize policies on parental leave and flexible work for all staff — both lawyers and allied professionals — and allow it without penalty when it’s used.

The most critical part of this policy is not creating the policy itself but ensuring your culture supports it. You also need to understand that the perception of those who take advantage of these policies — that they’re not as committed to the firm or not ambitious enough to advance their careers — are common misconceptions. It will require the firm leadership and more seasoned lawyers to support the implementation of these policies.

That is why it’s important to appoint someone within the firm leadership to monitor performance appraisals for “face-time bias” and the assumption that if someone is out of the office, they are not working or otherwise not committed.

2. Create a “talent retention committee” of your top talent

Empower your highest performers by convening an inter-generational talent retention committee to analyze the results of your feedback survey and recommend three actions the firm can take within 90-days to respond to the results. Giving your young lawyers the opportunity to participate in a project that will improve the firm is a talent strategy within itself. When you develop a committee to address talent needs, it is important to set boundaries around when it will start and stop, as well as constraints around budget and the firm’s operations.

3. Share the survey feedback and announce the constitution of the committee

The next required action is to communicate the feedback from the survey with the results and the top three actions the firm will take to respond in a firm-wide memo, in practice leader meetings, and other workplace town-halls. It is very important for the firm’s leadership to be seen as responsive to feedback, and failure to do so could result in the overall effort backfiring.

Also, you want to share progress on the implementation of actions and the activities of the talent retention committee until its work is complete. Follow through and continue to deliver the survey annually in order to continue to engage your top talent and allow them to participate in problem-solving and contribute to the firm’s evolution.

4. Monitor the perception of the implemented recommendations

Initiate a regular anonymous feedback survey of all staff to monitor how the recommendations are working to ensure that all your employees see and feel the recommendations of the talent retention committee.

Let’s take a new flexible work policy as an example. A follow-up short survey might include the following:

On a scale of 1 to 5 (1-Disagree; 5-Agree), please share your level of agreement with the following statements:

  • I have taken advantage of the flexible work policy in the last 30 days.
  • I have been able to achieve my work commitments working outside of business hours when I needed to.
  • My manager supports me when I need to leave work early and finish up work at home after hours.
  • I have seen my colleagues using the flexible work policy in the last 30 days.
  • I have a more positive outlook on the firm because of this flexible work practice.

5. Make this exercise recurring

Finally, you want to make sure that the firm is responding to its employees consistently, so consider conducting the talent retention survey and committee every year or two. This ensures that you are engaging new top performers at the firm and potentially attracting a wider subset of your top talent. Moreover, for the long-timers and staff that are meeting expectations, they are more likely to stay because they are observing the firm responding to the needs of its people on a regular basis.

Yes, a large pool of cash for compensation can be valuable in recruiting and retaining talent — but not every firm has that luxury. And even those that do are not guaranteed to have satisfied staff.

A law firm that listens and responds to its people is one that will do well in recruiting and retaining the type of lawyers that can help move the firm forward.