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The Great Resignation Drives Law Firms Into New Territory for Keeping Good Associates

July 01, 2022 (4 min read)

Law firms have long dealt with the challenge of competing for the best new attorneys coming out of law schools and retaining their rising stars, but the level of associate mobility has reached new heights amid “The Great Resignation” phenomenon in the U.S.

The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education reports that associate attrition reached an average rate of 26% last year, up from 16% in 2020, and was roughly the same regardless of the location or size of the firm. Nearly half of those departing associates left to take a job at another law firm, a stunning 149% year-over-year increase in the number of associates switching firms.

“This was the highest average rate reported since the update on associate attrition studies began in 2006,” said the NALP report.

And while this unprecedented pace of associate moves is expected to cool in 2022, it is down by just 5% so far this year and is still on track to rank among one of the busiest years ever for associate lateral movement, according to data from legal intelligence firm Decipher that was reported in The American Lawyer.

Of course, this record amount of lawyer mobility is not limited to associates. There were a total of 14,534 combined lateral partner and associate moves within the largest 200 firms in the U.S. last year, nearly double the amount in the pandemic-altered year of 2020 and a 23% increase since the previous high in 2019, according to a report from Leopard Solutions.

But legal recruiting experts note that, while attorney attrition is inevitable, a key way to combat the challenge of associate retention is to focus on building the kind of law firm culture that is attractive to today’s incoming legal talent pool.

“It seems COVID has caused attorneys — really all of us — to reevaluate priorities, both in our careers and personal lives,” said Amy Sheridan, the former hiring partner at Sullivan & Worcester, in an interview with Attorney At Law. “Students and laterals are looking for firms that allow them to be authentic and have a meaningful, rich career and practice. They are looking for a professional home, not a way station.”

 The 2022 Law Firm Culture Survey — conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa and published by Law360 Pulse — identified the 10 traits that attorneys most want to see reflected in their firm’s culture:

  1. Emphasis on training and mentoring (44%)
  2. Diversity in race, gender, ethnicity and religion (38%)
  3. Has policies that support attorneys’ well-being and work-life balance (36%)
  4. Succession/transition minded (client relationships are passed to successive generations) (36%)
  5. Women and people of color occupy significant leadership positions (33%)
  6. Compensation and other important decisions are transparent to all partners (29%)
  7. Firm listens to input and everyone can contribute ideas (29%)
  8. Civic minded (encourage or award credit for pro bono work and/or public service) (27%)
  9. Sharing of origination credit (26%)
  10. Low turnover (partners and associates remain for 10+ years after elevation) (25%)

“What has happened is a once-in-a-century transformation of our work environment,” said Jarrett Green, a law firm consultant, to Law360. “It’s having huge effects on culture, retention, hours and profitability — yet, there’s actually been very little change in educating partners on how the new cultural dynamics require them to change some of their old leadership patterns.”

For starters, Green encourages law firms to have mandatory training for partners so they can better understand the challenges faced by their associates and evolving preferences for working relationships. Another key is for law firm leaders to adapt to the shift in mindset among younger lawyers with respect to work/life balance expectations and, more recently, remote working options. This will require a different approach to managing the new generation of associates than was necessary for previous generations.

One key associate retention strategy that many law firm leaders overlook is to make sure that incoming associates have access to their preferred technology tools and resources. This is because today’s new lawyers have “digital first” mindsets that allow them to quickly master technologies and provides them with an instinctive sense for which tools drive greater efficiencies in client service.

The latest Law Student Preference Survey, conducted by PwC Research, asked the next class of law firm associates for their feedback on how they expect to practice law in the future and the specific technology tools they prefer to use in their legal careers. When it comes to the foundational technology resource of online legal research, the results were conclusive: LexisNexis is the number-one preferred online legal research service, named by 50% of current law students, with Westlaw coming in at 46% followed by Bloomberg Law (0.5%), other (0.5%), and those who had no preference (2.5%).

Law firm leaders face a number of challenges when it comes to building a culture that maximizes associate retention. Some of these things may be beyond their control, but one practical step that firms can take today is to listen to what the incoming associates are saying about specific tech tools they want to use and consider carefully which resources they make available to these digital-first lawyers.