What do associates want from their firms? You may be surprised
The associates you hire want to do a good job. They strive to become good lawyers. They recognize the demands that are placed on them for their time, attention and skills. And they are up for the challenge. But they need some help along the way.
There are things firms and partners can do to make a work environment and career trajectory more tenable. But not just tenable, which seems like a minimum threshold. Rather, there are affirmative things you can do to help your associates thrive and be successful in a way that promotes growth, strengthens the firm, and encourages loyalty.
WHAT STRUGGLES ARE ASSOCIATES EXPERIENCING?
The associates you hire are under a tremendous amount of strain—things they try not to exhibit in the office because they know it’s their problem and not yours. It affects them nonetheless.
Financial burdens: As tuition and associated law school costs continue to soar, many young associates are graduating law school with a financial burden of student loans not seen by previous generations. According to a 2018 ABAJournal.com article, Law School Transparency reported that recent law grads had on average $134,497 in law school debt if they went to a private school or $96,054 in law school debt if they went to a public school.
While the job market has recovered somewhat from the lowest ebb earlier this decade, it is still a grim place for new graduates. According to ABA data in an April ABAJournal.com post, out of 34,922 people who graduated in 2017 from ABA-accredited law schools, just over 75 percent had full-time long-term jobs requiring or preferring a JD. But keep in mind that about 2,200 fewer students graduated law school in 2017, so the actual number of jobs decreased.
Those who have been hired are likely earning less than they had expected going into law school. Their monthly student loan payment is the size of a mortgage and eats up a considerable percentage of their net income.
These financial burdens bring pressure that is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to create anxiety.
Difficult work environments: A hostile work atmosphere in which everyone is only seeking his own best interests can quickly become toxic. An office doesn’t have to be a place where everyone gets to work with their best friends, but it does need to be a place where there are people with amicable and supportive relationships.
Is your firm cultivating a collection of people who are willing to go out of their way to help one another? This can be done in part by hiring people for qualities over skills, and more importantly, by those in leadership positions exhibiting a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, not only to those who are on a lateral plane but also to their subordinates.
Imposter syndrome: When new associates enter a firm, they often hear, “fake it ‘til you make it.” Unwittingly, they have entered a world for which law school has only minimally prepared them. Some will land at supportive firms, where a partner or another associate is able and willing to guide them. Others will be left to flounder. Some will have the vision and assertiveness to set goals for themselves for purposes of self-evaluation and development. More will not.
Young associates need guidance and structure that will help them get their bearings as they learn to practice law.
WHAT ARE ASSOCIATES LOOKING FOR FROM THEIR FIRMS?
As with any relationship in which there is a power imbalance, there is often a lack of effective communication between partners and associates. It’s not usually intentional, and even less frequently is it insidious. But more often than not, neither side is open-mindedly asking the other what is important to them. Here are some of the things that are important to associates as they consider their futures at a firm and look to advance.
Opportunity: It is something associates crave from their firms and takes many forms. Opportunities to grow in their practice areas, opportunities to try practice areas of greater interest to them, opportunities to lead, and opportunities to advance. One Georgia lawyer was looking for “opportunities to specialize in practice areas we find interesting. Advancement talks are too focused on the associate-to-partner track. That’s not the only means of advancement.”
An associate in Pennsylvania is looking for the opportunity to lead: “There should be opportunities for nonpartners to take on additional responsibility and be afforded increased compensation. For instance, by taking on a ‘team leader’ type role in a practice group. Or by speaheading a new branch of business under a partner’s supervision. I might not be ready to be a partner in three to five years, but if there are newer associates that come in during that time, being able to take a team leadership-type role would be something I’d be interested in, particularly if it came with some perks/additional pay. Plus, it might be a good way to groom associates for partner by giving them an opportunity to lead without having to be rainmakers at the same time.”
A California insurance defense associate had two thoughts about what opportunity looked like for her: “If you’re not given increasingly greater responsibility, challenges and chances to do all aspects of a case (i.e., mediation, arguing motions, and trial), then an associate will look elsewhere to get those things.” As with many associates, she expressed that there had not been communication about a clear path to advancement. “So often it’s all smoke and mirrors about what it takes to make partner. I know I need to land a client and bring in money. But how much and for how long?”
This was mirrored by an associate at an insurance defense firm in Mississippi: “Firms should try to do a better jobs at selling to younger attorneys that sticking with them and trying to advance is a good investment career-wise for the attorney. This would require firms to pull back the curtains a bit, which many firms seem to not be thrilled with doing.”
Each of these associates is looking to improve themselves and their practices. They are looking for their firms to give them a reason to stick around and help the firm grow along with them. Partners who are cognizant of the opportunities to develop, lead and advance their associates can provide the guidance associates need to accomplish their goals.
Direction: A Michigan patent attorney told me that he was looking at his firm to provide “a somewhat clear path. Having the end in sight, however far away, is good motivation and helps us figure out if we’re progressing.”
In order to thrive, young lawyers need structure and support, a mentor who has a vested interest in their development and success. They need feedback on the work they’re performing—instruction, reinforcement and criticism. This level of development aids in laying the foundation for a successful professional career. The early years of practice will effectively mold the lawyer into the practitioner she will be for the next 40 years.
When you provide effective feedback, it is timely and specific. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management has given the following advice:
- As pertains to timeliness, “Employees should receive information about how they’re doing as timely as possible. If improvement needs to be made in their performance, the sooner they find out about it the sooner they can correct the problem. If employees have reached or exceeded a goal, the sooner they receive positive feedback, the more rewarding it is to them.”
- Regarding specificity, “Telling employees that they are doing well because they exceeded their goal by 10 percent is more effective than simply saying, ‘You’re doing a good job.’”
Your associates need to know how they’re measuring up. They need to hear from you whether they’re meeting expectations and what they can do to improve. If you want to put them in the best position to succeed, your associates need specific, measurable goals that will create the opportunity for you to give specific performance feedback.
Stability: By a wide margin, the strongest responses when I asked associates what they are looking for from their firms was stability. When lawyers feel secure in their jobs, they are more inclined to be emotionally invested in their work and loyal toward their employers. I have had the great fortune to be at the same firm since I started practicing. My firm has had a consistent leadership structure throughout that time and has provided a stable foundation for my development. But the responses I received from other associates have me believing I may be among the minority.
“My firm is in a constant state of chaos because the partners can’t seem to coordinate or sit still long enough to get things done, or come up with a plan for how to handle some of our recurring issues. At this point, if they asked me if I wanted a promotion with a raise, I’d refuse because I don’t want to be at all responsible for when the firm eventually fails,” responded an associate at a firm in Virginia. A general practitioner in Canada remarked that he was seeking “stability and good leadership/management. No sense in advancing into a dysfunctional environment.”
A lawyer secure in her environment and with stability around her will be comfortable shouldering more responsibility and taking measured risks. She will know that a mistake won’t necessarily result in a job loss, but instead an opportunity to grow. She will be in an environment where she can grow intellectually and professionally. This lawyer will have a secure platform from which she can build a successful practice.
PROVIDING FOR THE NEEDS OF YOUR ASSOCIATES STRENGTHENS THE FIRM
There are plenty of “average” lawyers who are practicing law. I have a friend who is wont to say: “The average lawyer isn’t very good … and 50 percent are worse than that.”
We don’t need more of those lawyers. We need lawyers who have been put in positions to thrive, for whom others have put in the time, energy and devotion to help them stretch their intellectual limits, have critiqued them to higher performance levels, and generally have prodded them to caring and achieving more than the “average” lawyer. We need lawyers who are at their very best.
By recognizing the needs of their associates, firms can enable their young lawyers to achieve more. It takes consistency, commitment and intentionality to create an environment in which lawyers cannot merely survive, but thrive. By serving its young lawyers, the partners are serving themselves.
Jeremy W. Richter is an associate with Webster Henry in Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of an eponymous law blog.
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