How to Stop Good People From Leaving

It doesn’t matter how much money the professions spend on programs to keep their people – good people are still leaving in droves.  We need a change of strategy.

Professional services attrition rates are atrocious, in two ways.  First, far too many professionals leave a firm before or in the early stages of partnership.  For example, a large law firm anticipates that only one in seven associates hired will make it to partnership.  The second concern is the cost of this attrition.  Again using law firms as an example, it costs around $350,000 to hire and train an associate.  So if only one in seven make it, the cost of developing that partner is around $2.5m.  For firms bringing on a partner every year or two…well, you can do that math.  Laterals are also problematic in that the majority leave within five years.  And while I’ve never seen stats on retainment of partners, they are rarely lifers anymore either.  It’s a wonder law firms don’t all install revolving doors.

Firms aren’t blind to the challenge.  Millions of dollars have been spent on research and program development to try to reduce departures, with limited success.  I don’t believe that a few alternative work arrangements will fix this problem.  Instead, firms might wish to consider the following:

  • Make talent management more of a priority: Great work environments are win/win; both sides need to feel strong value in the relationship.   Most firms hire relatively well, offer training as needed, assign a mentor, and have an annual review with their professionals.  This isn’t enough.   The relationship between the firm and its professionals should be constantly nurtured and renegotiated, because people’s needs change over time.  People assess their jobs by two elements: dissatisfaction and motivation. Dissatisfaction is determined by things like status, job security, work environment, supervision and compensation.  Weakness in one  area probably wouldn’t cause a professional to leave, but a combination may do so.  And as every marketer knows, the lack of dissatisfaction doesn’t make for a happy client because 63% of those would still try another service provider.   So professionals don’t want to be dissatisfied, but they also want to be motivated to remain.  Motivators include having challenging work, feeling recognized for contribution, having responsibility, and getting opportunities for personal growth.  What matters is that the professional feels they have those things.  And that requires more regular touch points between the firm and the professional.
  • Improve mentoring programs: All firms say they have mentoring programs, a few actually have them, and not many of such programs are effective.  Mentoring is still critical for lawyers.  They can’t learn everything they need to know about application of the law, the business of law, and client management in school.   They need access to immediate feedback and advice, especially in their earlier years.  The challenge is that not all partners are good mentors simply because they survived the profession for a number of years and are relatively productive.  Have a mentorship program but make it a program.  Carefully select and then train your mentors.  Create guidelines on the mentorship program itself so there is consistency in treatment.  Put some accountability into the process.
  • Explore coaching:  Increasingly, coaching is being used as part of an effective talent management strategy.  Here are some examples of where it can help:
    • Underproductive professionals want to be successful, and are frustrated when they aren’t.  Ignoring the problem or trying to fix it with bandaides won’t help.  Get them the support they need to get to the heart of the matter.
    • We expect a lot from senior associates, yet don’t really prepare them for partnership.  What do I mean by this?  Most senior associates I’ve met don’t know how a law firm runs, don’t know what’s expected of them as a partner (in terms of billable hours, non billable commitments, internal leadership, external profile, etc.), and might not know the process for consideration for partnership.  Through coaching, they can learn how to uncover this information and then use it to better prepare themselves for the role – ideally two or three years out.
    • We put lawyers into leadership positions without training.  This could include a practice group leader, managing partner, marketing partner, etc.  One of the primary dissatisfaction elements for departing lawyers is supervision.  I once rolled out a client team process where the success or failure of the teams were directly correlated to the effectiveness or weakness of each team leader. Leadership training tends to be more effective through coaching because it is a skill that must be practiced and honed over time.
    • A mentor/mentee relationship can only go so far because no lawyer wants to highlight their challenges in front of the very people who will decide their fate within the firm.   A coach can dig more deeply into problem areas, and work with the professional to successfully work through those issues.
    • I mentioned earlier how frequently laterals fail, but their biggest success factors is proper integration.  Integration coaching helps the professional to hit the ground running, and become productive more quickly without stepping on any toes.
  • And finally, we should consider that perhaps the partnership model is broken: Not everyone wants to become a partner. If there’s someone you want to keep, figure out what they want out of you rather than assuming you know what they need or want.  If they do want partnership, it might be taking too long to get there.  To survive the process they must be dogged and politically neutral (or politically conniving).  Or they must be billing machines, with such a focus on their own productivity that team work and wisdom are at best secondary goals.  Not the kind of people I would want in my partnership.  I’d rather establish partnership requirements of practice credibility, professionalism and respect (with professionals, clients and staff), team work, business development skills, and productivity (personal and delegating).  Then regardless of year of call, anyone who made the cut would be invited to consider partnership.  I’m not suggested a bunch of second year calls will necessarily make it, but a remarkable fourth or fifth year might.  One of the best practice group leaders I even worked with was an associate at the time.  I’m actively recruiting lawyers for clients looking to move them quickly into ownership positions based on their qualities and capabilities, not their year of call.  Partnerships that insist on 7 – 10 years of internship before partnership (because that’s what they had to go through) will start to miss the boat on good people.  Seek out and engage the ones who have the qualities that will create the best business environment. Your business will thrive and you’ll have highly loyal and motivated, productive partners.

If this all feels to you like too much molly codling, remember that the only product professional services firms have to sell is the application of the intellectual capital of their people.  So hiring and keeping good people is the cornerstone of your business.   The old way of running a professional services firm and managing professionals is expensive, and attrition rates suggest that it isn’t working.  If you want to keep good people, start managing them differently.