Keeping Big Firm Associates On Board

Yesterday’s blog touched on the topic of what associates are paid in both the private and public sector, and on why they leave large law firms. Today we’ll review a few of those reasons and look at ways in which a career specialist addresses the attrition factor.

The issues revolving around Biglaw are broad, says Kate Neville in the Legal Times. Neville counsels lawyers who are considering career changes.

When an associate joins a firm, she explains, there are huge investments involved on both sides of the aisle.  It  behooves associates and firms to try to forge a better fit beforehand, and to try to make a go of it once an offer has been accepted.

There are ways, says Neville, that attorney attrition can be kept down—to keep this investment “on both sides of the table” intact.

The resolution lies in looking beyond the obvious reasons, which can be summarized as being alterations in demand and the maximizing of partner profit. There are other forces that contribute to, or drive attrition.  Included in the many factors Neville touches on are the following:

1. There is almost no investigating of employment options on the part of students.  The majority of associates become lawyers at top-tier firms after three years in school.  “For many, it is their first full-time job,” explains Neville.   They lack experience, and they really don’t know who they are yet, what they would love to excel in…or how to interact in the workplace.

2. When a match between a large firm and a student is made, it’s based on very little information.  When it comes to how their performance will be evaluated, the new associates lack know-how. They do not have a clear picture of what they can anticipate on the job.  This occurs because offers are extended “in the fall of a student’s third year of school, based primarily on interaction with the candidate as a summer associate.”

Additionally, there is pressure exerted on the student to decide.  Since third-year law students must accept or decline by November 1st, most accept their offers as a default position, stresses Neville.   “Students who are uncertain quickly discover that the large-firm market is drastically smaller in their third year and that other employers will not even post openings until the spring.”

With large debts looming for most, the thought of turning down a large firm’s offer may seem daunting.

There are steps which can be taken to lessen the toll that attrition takes on firms.

1.  First, Neville advises that law firms not always focus on hiring and grooming “keepers”.  Efforts to cultivate the best and brightest should be broadened.

2.  Don’t overlook the firm alumni network.  Your departing associates can be seen as future clients who will go on to be successful elsewhere.

3.  Create new roles for attorneys.  If you value an attorney’s skills, negotiate him or her into an expanded capacity.  For instance, says Neville, you may want to have your up-and-coming associates take on “a nonequity partnership status”. This helps the firm “retain experienced attorneys who can handle work independently.”

These same associates will monitor junior associates and generate billable hours for the firm.  They wouldn’t, however, be expected to bring in new business.   Other novel ideas for associates with worthy skills:  director of recruiting; director of professional development; director of marketing; and director of pro bono work.

For more, go to:

Interested in an audio conference on this topic? See:

Photo courtesy of Dave Pear’s blog (



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