Years ago, when lawyer attrition started to reach alarming rates (which for some reason we are more complacent about now), Catalyst in the US conducted research to determine why so many female lawyers were leaving the profession.  Not that only female lawyers were leaving; that was simply the focus of their research. They found that it boiled down to three primary reasons: a lack of opportunity for them in their firms, a lack of proper mentorship, and the lack of any work-life balance.

Is It Just a Woman’s Issue?

Years later, in preparation for the creation of a women’s forum, I conducted a study of research to determine why Canada had so few women in senior leadership positions (including as law firm partners or executive members).  But 20 years of coaching has taught me that many of the reasons learned are no longer women’s issues.  They are workforce issues.  For example, men are as likely as women to have some hesitancy in considering advancement.  That’s in part because they know so little about what the next rung of the ladder looks like.  And when they examine what they can see – firm culture, how other associates are treated, how decisions are being made – they often don’t like what they see.  No one is sure they want to be a partner with a law firm anymore, and many are questioning almost monthly if they want to remain with their current firm at all.

The cost of recruiting and training a young lawyer is said to be around $300k per lawyer.  Yet stats show that only one in seven associates actually make partner, that up to 50% of your associates can leave by year five (just when they are starting to produce income for you), and that less than 20% of your female partners will remain with you for over ten years.  (But don’t even think about an unspoken policy to promote only men.  Increasingly, your top clients have female corporate counsel, and their executives know that 85% of the purchase decisions about their products or service are made by women. They want to see diversity in their service providers and that includes women on their legal team).

And then of course there’s the argument that over 50% of law school graduates are female.  Why would you limit your access to legal talent?

Aside from this, we all know it’s not just women who are leaving law firms.

Change Your Business Model

With the attrition rates and costs referenced above, how can any firm believe this is an acceptable business model?  It needs to change.  But how?

Doug Conant, past President an CEO of Campbell Soup, once said that to win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.  He was selling a product.  Law firms, who must sell intellectual capital, should pay even closer attention to these words of wisdom as we are in the relationship business.  And those relationships include the points of interaction between our people and our clients.  To ensure all of those moments have maximum success, we need to ensure our people are happy, and productive.

So how do we make our workforce happy and productive?  Let’s start by addressing the issues that were the three sore points discovered by Catalyst so many years ago, but that still ring true with my coaching clients today…

  1. A lack of opportunity

With so many lawyers in a firm competing for what is too often a declining amount of work, senior lawyers can hold onto files longer than they should, take on work at a lower level than is appropriate, and limit the amount of time they are willing to spend on non-billable training or oversight of more junior lawyers.  That means that younger lawyers are not getting the exposure they need to diverse types of files, court time, and clients.  Sitting in a room observing is fine for an articled student but not a third-year lawyer.  They need to get their hands dirty.

Yet without this experience they will never get the chance to properly advance because what firm would advance a lawyer who doesn’t have the experience required for their year of call?

In addition to legal education and experience, growing lawyers also need exposure to other firm elements such as practice group admin, committee participation, marketing, client service initiatives, etc. if they are even going to be ready to advance.

This doesn’t happen by fluke.  You need a plan for the total education and advancement of each of your lawyers.  You need to identify approximately when they will want to see some form of advancement and ensure that you have prepared them to successfully reach those levels of accomplishment.   Ideally, you would work with them on this plan so they see your intent to advance them.  This level of transparency helps to instill a sense of trust by them that you are committed to seeing this through.

Finally, maintain their trust by working their plan with them, meeting with them regularly to ensure things stay on track.  The good news is that if they aren’t progressing, they’ll know it’s on them and not you.  They’ll either work harder, or realize they need to self-select out of the firm.

  1. A lack of mentorship

As referenced above, there is a hesitancy by more senior lawyers to spend time mentoring juniors.  Alternatively, some don’t mind being mentors, they just aren’t very good at it.  Yet strong mentorship is key for a consistent, coordinated, professional and productive firm.

Very few lawyers want to proceed in a law firm without mentorship these days, and the ones that do are properly more of a lone wolf than will ultimately function well in a typical partnership.  Yet through complacency we allow these lone wolves to proceed in our firm and then wonder why they are so high-maintenance as they get to the 7 – 10-year mark.

All lawyers in your firm should be mentored.  They may need different intensities of mentorship, but they should be mentored.  Senior associates and young partners should mentor junior associates.  Partners should mentor senior associates.  Even senior partners should mentor junior partners, albeit on admin, management and leadership issues.

Mentors should be officially assigned.  Roles should be developed for mentor and mentee.  Mentor and mentee should meet initially to review the roles, and develop a plan for their engagement.  A degree of regular touch points and accountability should be established: between the mentor and mentee, but also between the firm and the mentor to ensure accountability all the way up the chain.

The best mentors often come from outside of the lawyer’s practice area.  The Practice Group Leader is responsible for the specific education and experience of their practice group members.  Mentoring is often more about the “soft stuff” like delegation, file management or work flow, fit within the firm, etc.

  1. A lack of work-life balance

There has been much research and many suggestions out there for improving work-life balance for lawyers.  Some firms have embraced it (many of my clients are great at it!)  Some firms find it a distasteful phrase, suggesting that lawyers don’t want to work hard anymore.  That’s simply not true.  Lawyers want to work hard.  In fact, most of the lawyers I know want to be outstanding at what they do.  They know that takes dedication, time, and sweat equity.  But they don’t want to do this at the expense of their health, or their relationships.  They’ve witnessed several generations of lawyers with multiple marriages, estranged children, heart attacks and other major issues, and they don’t want to inherit that side of the practice.  This doesn’t mean they are lazy – far from it.  Rather, they want to do both sides of their life well.

Even if you disagree with their desire, the fact is that if you don’t allow them to pursue this goal, you won’t keep them.  And law firms need lawyers – especially over the next few years as so many senior lawyers are retiring.

Meet with them.  Figure out what work-life balance means to them (rather than guessing).  Work with them to build in policies and strategies to allow them to be their best in all facets of their life.  Ultimately, it will create a more stable, happy and productive work force.

Show You Are Invested in Them

Motivational speaker and marketing consultant Simon Sinek says that when people are financially invested, they want a return, but when people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.  Regardless of whether your lawyers are associates or partners, you want them to feel both financially and emotionally invested in your firm.

For a firm to thrive, the highest number of your lawyers possible need to be thriving.  The old law firm model was to rely on a handful of high-reputation lawyers to carry a firm.  Your younger lawyers may never be the rainmakers that your soon to be retiring lawyers have been throughout their careers because the business of law simply isn’t done that way anymore.  The new firm model requires lots of moderately productive, happy lawyers.  And that means you need to change your business model to focus on and support every single one of them.

This is more admin and leadership work than you are used to, but in my opinion it’s the only way for firms of the future to ensure they will have a productive, stable workforce of lawyers ready to successfully carry on the legacy of departing giants.  Or, we could continue with business as usual and keep up those very expensive attrition rates.  Your choice.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms and lawyers.  She can be reached at