By Marcia Pennington Shannon
From PDQ in NALP Bulletin+
October 2022 edition
AT A GLANCE
None of us have ever lived through a time quite like the past
two years as we all experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, it
became a time of self-reflection, and the reflection often led to major career
transitions, originally called the Great Resignation. In Part 1 of this article series,
we looked at how the Great Resignation was more of a Great
Reshuffling and how this Great Reshuffling specifically impacted the
legal profession. We explored this through the stories of several individuals,
lawyers, and non-lawyer professional staff who have made major transitions
during the pandemic. Although their reasons for leaving their old jobs and
moving to new roles are complex and varied, several themes emerged from my
series of more than 20 interviews, including:
A clear theme that emerged across all these stories of professional metamorphosis is that the pandemic provided the opportunity (and perhaps the time) for many to consider how they are living and working, and whether these practices meshed with their priorities and interests. At a basic level, many people asked themselves, “Is this the way I want to live my life?” This reshuffling is a byproduct of the introspection that many individuals undertook when there was only work and home life to focus on. And even though the worst of the pandemic seems behind us, individuals continue to rethink their relationship to work — how work fits into their lives rather than trying to fit life into work.
Of course, employees have been thinking about these things for years. What makes this particularly compelling is how many people took their self-discovery to the next step and changed how they work. In many cases, this meant giving up high salaries, changing industries in which they had built substantive careers, and moving to locations that are closer to family or with lower costs of living.
Since the inception of this two-part article, the global economic situation has changed somewhat and started to cool off. No longer are employees completely in the driver’s seat when it comes to what they want to negotiate from their employers, including salaries, bonuses, and remote and flexible working arrangements. However, any employer who thinks these things no longer matter or matter less is likely to see high turnover, negative impact on culture and the quality of work, and client retention issues.
According to an Aug. 2, 2022 episode of the Wall Street Journal’s As We Work podcast, “Covid Leave Changes and the Future of the Worker-First Workplace,” some large employers are beginning to pull back on the benefits provided during the pandemic. For example, many instituted leave specific to COVID so that an employee could take care of themselves or others should they contract the disease, and they are now cutting back on the amount of that leave. Some provided all-remote work options, and they are now moving to hybrid.
Brian Kropp, Vice President of Research at consulting firm Gartner, says organizations became more employee-centric during the pandemic and the majority are staying the course. “It’s not just the benefits part of it,” he notes. “It’s the communication that companies have had with their employees across the past couple of years where they’ve been saying, ‘We want to treat you more like a human being. We want to be more respectful. We want to help understand your family and your personal needs.’ And if you take away the flexibility, then that starts to send a message, which is, ‘We don’t care about you as a human being.’ From an employee perspective, you’re saying, six months ago you cared about my mental health and now you don’t.” According to Krupp, the consulting firm’s current research on post-pandemic work environments indicates that the flexibility trend will continue. “There’s going to be a majority of companies that will say we want to create a more human working experience for you — we’re going to offer some flexibility, we’re going to keep some of the benefits in place.” He goes on to say that while most organizations will lean more toward this human environment, “there will be a significant number that will go back to where they were in 2019. It will be up to employees to pick and choose the job that best fits their needs.”
What does this mean for us in the legal profession? Yes,
there may be an economic downturn, but given that most employers have been unable
to fill all their open positions from the Great Reshuffling, and other
types of employers are still hiring and providing flexibility, legal professionals
will want to consider the lessons learned during the past two years and thoughtfully
move forward in order to attract, retain, and engender loyalty within their
organizations. I asked several experts to share their thoughts on lessons
learned and the positive next steps that organizations can take to do just that.
Again, several themes emerged, including:
Focus on Providing Strong, Meaningful Leadership
There is an old adage that people don’t leave jobs, they leave their bosses. Someone can be relatively happy with the work they are doing, and yet leaders who do not focus on what motivates team members will continue to see turnover. Scott Love, Founder of the Attorney Search Group, focuses his practice on partner-level searches and mergers of firms. Scott notes the higher-than-normal number of partners who transitioned from one firm to another since the beginning of 2021. “There are two reasons partners decide to move their practices to another firm — leadership and strategy. Leadership is the biggest issue. If partners do not trust leadership to do what they say they will do or trust that they will make effective decisions that benefit the collective — not just a small group of people — they will look to take their practice someplace else.” And many partners did just that during the pandemic, and others are considering or making those moves now.
I asked Scott for his thoughts on how legal employers can
retain their partners. They include:
Bryan Silver, who heads the national associate division of the Attorney Search Group, commented on the associate experience with leadership. “For associates in Big Law and outside of Big Law, the biggest impact on their happiness is the partner/supervisor they work for. If there’s a problem there, that person is willing to work with a search firm. It is a people business. Legal education does not really foster great leadership. Law school is an environment where it is every person for themselves. It is understandable that someone can become a great lawyer and does outstanding legal work but isn’t great at leading their team of lawyers. I consistently see this as a reason why someone is willing to look at new opportunities.”
So, what does leadership need to do moving forward? In a study by McKinsey & Company reported in What Employees are Saying about the Future of Remote Work, the authors note, “As organizational leaders chart the path toward the post-pandemic world, they need to communicate more frequently with their employees — even if their plans (for work arrangements) have yet to solidify fully. Organizations that have articulated more specific policies and approaches for the future workplace have seen employee well-being and productivity rise.”
Kate Ebner, President of the Nebo Company, in her June 2022 Lead from Within post, says to leaders, “2022 requires new approaches, beginning with a clear-eyed look at who you are, the impact you are having, and the direction you are articulating for your organization. Leaders must prioritize personal resilience to build the stamina for riding the waves of change, which require fresh ideas and nimble decision-making, no matter how weary we feel. And as companies work through the new structures of remote, hybrid, and in-person work, those who lead and manage must be ever-more adaptive to the needs of employees.”
Larry Center of Center Leadership Coaching provides more focused
advice on leading others. In his May 30, 2022, post, Larry mentions an article
by Alaina Love, the CEO of Purpose Linked Consulting. Alaina has identified
several questions leaders might want to ask their teammates about their
leadership to improve their skills and approach to leading others. I’ve selected
a few of them to highlight here:
If your goal is to improve retention and productivity, nothing impacts it more than leadership. This should be a high priority for any employer, especially in this time of constant change as we navigate the new workplace.
Focus on What Motivates Individuals
Do you know what motivates your teammates? Too often we
assume all employees are motivated by the same things, and that is just not
true. Jim Jones, Senior Fellow at Georgetown Law’s Center on Ethics and the
Legal Profession and Principal of Legal Management Resources, LLC, points out
that this issue of retention is really an issue of understanding what motivates
your talent. “The single-most often reproduced article in the history of the Harvard
Business Review is entitled, ‘One
More Time – How do We Motivate People,’ written in 1968 by
social scientist Frederick Hezberg. The fundamental point is that if you pay
people what they think they are worth and their vision of what they are worth
is what they see in the market, that satisfies them but doesn’t motivate them.
If you pay people less than they think they’re worth, it dissatisfies them and
is an element in why they leave. What produces loyalty includes:
In particular, it is essential to understand the motivations
of the Millennial and Gen Z generations since they make up the mid-level talent
(who continue to be in high demand) and newer professionals in your
organization. Why do they work and how do they view work in their lives? Each,
of course, has their own unique motivators, but several themes have been
identified for these generations. They include:
According to the 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Profession published by Thomson Reuters and Georgetown Law’s Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession, “Reinforcing the idea that increasing compensation has not necessarily stemmed the tide of lawyer departures, the report analyzed turnover patterns and found that firms with the lowest turnover are not necessarily those with the highest compensation growth. In fact, those law firms that have experienced lower rates of turnover among their lawyers tended to have the lowest compensation growth among firms in the market… One possible factor influencing these contrary findings is that many lawyers, especially younger ones, may now be giving higher priority to intangible factors, such as feeling appreciated and recognized at work, as well as achieving better work-life balance and mental well-being.”
Focus on Supporting Well-Being and Flexibility
In speaking to several experts, they
agree that flexibility is the key word moving forward for all
organizations. We learned during the pandemic that we could work from home and
be productive. What many
found during that time was that it actually allowed them to have more control
over their time when they weren’t commuting and going into an office every day. It is not
something most people want to give up at this point. According to Gary McGinnis
of Garrison &
Sisson Search, hybrid
has become a baseline expectation for most lawyers currently seeking new
positions. “When organizations’ expectations are higher than the
typical three-days-a-week in the office, candidates are less
interested.” There are lawyers who want/are willing to go into an office
full-time, but most firms have selected a hybrid model in which employees are
expected in the office up to three days per week. What’s important to consider
the following in any model your organization institutes:
Many people that I interviewed for this article mentioned mental health issues based on the pressures they felt even prior to the pandemic, and for many, the pandemic increased those pressures. Firm culture and not individual stress are often at the foundation of mental health issues and yet most of the interventions or support measures are focused on the individual rather than the workplace.
For example, a firm will offer wellness coaches or an app for meditation. But what really needs to change is the environment itself. On the simple side, switching from a completely client-centric approach and recognizing that employers have multiple constituencies — including their lawyer and non-lawyer professional staffs — would go a long way toward alleviating some of the pressure-cooker mentality so often associated with legal employers.
Kendra Brodin, Principal of EsquireWell, states it this way: “Leaders who take care of their organization’s well-being and the well-being of their individuals have stronger more profitable organizations where people want to stay. Burnout is a workplace syndrome. At the end of the day, people have only so much control. The workplace has to change —that is, there are institutional and systemic issues that need to be addressed at the leadership level.”
McKinsey’s study noted above goes on to state, “Across the board, employees are eager to see organizations put a greater emphasis on flexibility, competitive compensation, and well-being.” Firms that look at well-being as an organizational priority, one that is about how the workplace contributes to anxiety and burnout, and a willingness to take proactive steps to decrease the environments negative impacts on well-being, will be rewarded with healthier workplaces, ones that have engaged and productive employees who are bringing their best selves to work.
Focus on Tailored Talent Management Programs
Speaking of flexibility, the Attorney Search Group’s Bryan Silver suggested that flexibility should extend into conversations about associates’ career goals. “One way to differentiate your firm from others is to have open conversations with associates about their ultimate career goals and then find ways to support them. For example, if going in-house is your goal, this is how that looks here — we are a firm who is friendly about people going on secondments in different practice areas. This is something that would attract and retain individuals. In addition, organizations should be willing to adjust hours and make this more of an open-door policy. Having open conversations about what would work for someone can greatly increase retention. Most associates are afraid to have these conversations, so they look elsewhere.”
Jim Jones, a former firm managing partner himself, acknowledges that setting up a talent management program that allows for various tracks for people who have different aspirations would be an excellent approach. “The program would have the ability to impact assignments and training. It is a big, big job and expensive, and most firms do not know how to do it. There are some firms with really good global talent management professionals that are doing fantastic things. But not many at this point… Law firms, like corporations, are coming to grips with the fact that they have several constituencies, and your talent is a major one. Talent is at least equal in importance with clients, and that has not been the attitude. At the end of the day, taking care of talent is not inconsistent with staying focused on clients. The goal is to provide the finest legal talent possible, and you need to have the talent.”
Many corporations now have career path design programs that are more individualized, recognizing that employees do not have the same goals and aspirations. A career development study conducted by the Brandon Hall Group found that “employers with a clear career development framework that allows employees to change career direction — horizontally, vertically, or into an entirely different career stream or level — have a competitive advantage. They are four times more likely to see increased employee retention. And twice as likely to see increased employee engagement compared with organizations without clear career paths. Customer satisfaction and customer engagement are also higher.”
What would it take to create such a program? A real investment in talent management, including hiring individuals, typically non-lawyer professionals, who have experience with such programs. The short-term gain includes the ability to highlight this to potential candidates and the long-term gain, as noted by the Brandon Hall Group, is increased retention and engagement, the opposite of which — turnover — is enormously time-consuming and expensive for employers.
Individualized talent management programs are particularly important in
attracting and retaining lawyers from underrepresented backgrounds. We know
that lawyers who identify as diverse, particularly Black lawyers, are leaving law
practice at numbers much greater than their white counterparts. We learned
through interviews with Black lawyers that many feel there is no real future
for them in law firms. Kameron Townsend, interviewed for the first part of this
article, said it best, “The number of Black equity partners at these
firms and Black partners in leadership continues to barely grow each year. Why
are we not making progress in that particular space? Many of my peers and I
just couldn’t see a long-term future in Big Law that was worth sacrificing our
mental and physical health along with our time.” A career development program
tailored to each lawyer and including open and encouraged conversations about their
career goals would not cure all the problems within the profession, but it
would go a long way toward identifying ways to engage individual talent by
providing opportunities that will help them develop the needed skills and
experiences to achieve their career aspirations. Individuals stay when they
These types of programs provide the opportunity to learn what is important to your talented team. A tailored talent management program demands more individualized attention, which is particularly important to the newest generation of lawyers. And it will allow individuals to craft careers within your organization that better fit their lives, rather than losing them to another organization that was willing to create a flexible career path.
Focus on Your Non-Lawyer Professional Staff
Most of the comments in this article have focused on lawyers particularly in law firms. But many of the people I interviewed were in non-lawyer professional positions in firms. Let’s take a look at this group, lessons learned from their attrition, and potential next steps to increase recruitment and retention.
When we think of law firms, the focus on professional development, and the environment experienced by lawyers, the non-lawyer professional staff experience is often forgotten or at best, a second thought. It is not unusual for professional staff members to feel “less than” or second-class citizens in these environments, and yet if not for the important work they perform, law firm productivity would come to a dead stop.
Jim Jones describes it best. “There has been an increasing reliance over time on non-lawyer professionals, and it is pretty obvious they are driving a lot of the efficiencies and business retention in firms. Firms are learning that they are more reliant on these individuals. In some ways, the pandemic drove this home. Most law firms had to close down their in-person operations and start remote operations in the course of a weekend. That whole process went much more smoothly than firms thought it would and that is all attributable to non-lawyer professionals. They already had systems in place that would accommodate such a move that firms didn’t even know about. Throughout the pandemic, the value of these professionals has really risen. But true to form, the first thing the law firms did when they got into the pandemic of mid-2020 was to begin laying off non-lawyer staff.” Jim goes on to say that the pandemic “caused a lot of people in these positions to say, ‘This is really enough. I’m working really hard and I’m not getting recognized the way I should.’ What law firms have to remember is that the market isn’t just other law firms, it’s all the other opportunities out there, and these people are marketable. So, for starters, you have to pay them what they are worth. You need to make them feel recognized, appreciated, and that their work is important.”
As client pressures continue to mount for law firms to be more efficient, law firms will become more dependent on the non-lawyer experts, such as project managers, pricing specialists, and technology experts. And if they are to retain new partners and associates, there are needs in the talent management and recruitment areas that non-lawyer professionals also fill. Jim noted that younger lawyers seem much more open to the importance of non-lawyer professionals. He is encouraged when he sees younger partners stepping into leadership positions because there is an attitudinal difference. He sees the younger generation as more willing to treat professionals who are not lawyers as partners in work.
In addition, according to Eva Wisnick, President of Wisnick Career Enterprises, Inc., many law firms are creating new professional development jobs. “Lawyers need more support in a hybrid, remote setting and transitioning back to the office. For example, practice group leaders are so busy with work and client relationships that putting professional development managers or practice management professionals in the mix can be very helpful in ensuring that associates are getting the right amount and type of work, especially when they are no longer seeing each other in the office on a regular basis.” Eva notes that many of these positions are being filled by law school career services professionals who have decided to make a move out of the law school environment.
Conclusion: Unshuffling the Retention Puzzle
If you are picking up a common theme across all of this, it is because the pandemic has accelerated the need for change in the legal profession — a profession that is often described as slow to change. What the pandemic brought about is this very unusual, hopefully once-in-a-lifetime event, that caused many to stop and consider how they were living their lives and their relationship with work. Organizations that take this opportunity to rethink their relationship to their employees and begin to view them as one of their important constituencies will be rewarded with employees who are engaged, loyal, and remain in place for longer periods of time. Why make the transition if you are paid a fair salary, your career advancement and opportunities are important to your employer, you feel your mental and physical health are supported, and your work arrangements are flexible?
This new era presents great opportunities for organizations willing to invest in their lawyers and non-lawyer professionals. Begin by considering a well-thought-out career path design that can be tailored to the career goals and aspirations of your professionals. This design should include an attitude of openness about your employees’ long-term career goals. Unless you are an organization that makes everyone a leader/partner, why not use the fact that you know people will eventually leave to your advantage? Providing them with the work experience and professional training that allows them to achieve their ultimate career goals is a win-win. You end up with engaged employees who are doing excellent work. You likely keep them longer as they gain the experience and skills they want. They win by having the organization’s support in following their aspirations. The organization ends up with alumni who feel loyalty to their past employer.
Each of us has our own unique motivations. Figuring out what motivates members of your team and then following through is another important step in this process. Assuming everyone is motivated by high salaries will only lead to greater turnover. This is a different generation of professionals and with it comes different expectations of what work and the work environment should be. They want a more supportive, collegial culture where concern for someone’s well-being is of primary concern. They want challenging work and a way to contribute to the greater good. But they also want flexibility and time away from work. They do not view the sacrifice of one’s personal life until partnership as worth it. Throwing more money at associates is not working. While associates will transition to new jobs if they are not paid what they believe the market is telling them they are worth, the money is not what motivates them.
Has the pandemic led to a major shift in the legal profession and workplace environments? Probably not. But it has led to some changes in a positive direction for employees and employers alike. Happy engaged employees who are not anxious nor experiencing burnout and believe they are valued will lead to excellent work product and happy clients. Use this as an opportunity to reassess the way you run your firm, department, and team. Are you back in 2019? Or are you stepping into the challenges the new way of work demands and finding creative solutions that work for all?