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birds around a birdhouse

Attracting the best possible lateral associates is critical to a law firm’s ability to maintain its competitive edge, financial leverage, internal succession and future success when candidates approach our firm about a lateral move, they all tend to ask a variation of the following questions: which firm is the best for me? Which will make the greatest difference in my career? Which offers me the greatest opportunity for success? For the best candidates, the task almost always lies in narrowing down all possible opportunities to the one or two that can offer them the best career path.

Recently, loyalty to law firms is being redefined, and the relationship between associates and their firms continues to change. Partnership is no longer the goal of many associates, and many are less inclined to stay with the same firm for their entire career. added to this dynamic is an increasing number of mergers and layoffs which, along with a choppy economy, have left many associates somewhat leery of their firms and far less likely to believe that what is best for their firm is necessarily best for them and their careers.

In this market, loyalty is short-lived and a strategic approach to attracting top lateral talent is critical to a firm’s success. This strategy invariably includes a firm both honing its recruiting processes and becoming a preferred employer in its market.

Recruiting smarter

A common mistake firms make is to identify needs only when they become crises, i.e., when there is an immediate and pressing position that needs to be filled. Instead of this reactive approach, firms should forecast forward and identify their needs over the next several years in order to ensure a constant flow of the right people. Knowing who might be favourably inclined to join your firm and when and how to initiate contact with them is one of the best ways a focused recruiting process can deliver value to a firm. A strategic recruitment plan will infinitely increase your firm’s chances of hiring and keeping the best.

Simply placing an ad in the Ontario Reports (or an equivalent publication) typically results in nothing more than a large number of unsuitable candidates. No doubt some firms have had great luck in catching a top associate who has gone on to become a leader in his or her field. But the chance of coming across the right candidate at just the right time, persuading her to join your firm and finding that she is a good fit is rare and the cost of getting it wrong is high.

Targeted brochures and website pages, a designated recruitment/professional development director and a formal employee referral program can all be strong components of a firm’s overall recruitment strategy. Use your firm and other legal recruitment websites to post openings. Encourage partners and associates to actively network at conferences and industry events that are likely to be frequented by top performers. Cultivate relationships with law school career offices and legal recruiters. Develop a ‘story’ about your firm that delivers a consistent message to the marketplace about who you are and where you are going, and spread the word!

How to be a choice law firm

Becoming a law firm of choice requires both a clear understanding of exactly what associates want and a strategy to provide them with the platform through which they can achieve their professional goals. Assessing what superstars are seeking and figuring out how your firm is best positioned to respond is crucial to any recruitment and retention strategy.

A law firm is an employer of choice when its lawyers believe they are working at a great firm and tell people as much. The best associates do their due diligence and ask the lawyers employed at the firm what it is like to work there. They also ask trusted friends and advisors (including legal recruiters) about the reputation of the firm and the likelihood that it will deliver on the career opportunities promised.

Stars will ask the difficult questions about work platform, career trajectory and fit. Strong indicators that a firm is an employer of choice include:

  • it has positive name recognition on the street;
  • prospective candidates and clients tend to choose the firm over others;
  • there is a low turnover rate of top performers;
  • lawyers at the firm deliver a consistent message on why the firm is a great place to work;
  • there is a record of ‘recruiting back’ former associates and partners to the firm;
  • the firm appears in the “best” lists of legal publications such as Lexpert; and,
  • legal recruiters speak positively of the firm.

Law firms of choice consistently have the most effective recruiting and retention programs. Those programs may vary from firm to firm, but what all of them have in common is that they recognize associates financially, create an exceptional working environment and have a clear understanding of what their associates want (and why some of them leave).

Money and other things

Although people work for a variety of reasons (professional fulfilment, personal challenge, desire to serve the community, meaningful work, contributing to society), the principal reason most people work is to get paid.

Even those for whom money ranks farther down the list of reasons for working are not interested in being unfairly compensated. Fair compensation is the first and most critical component of a successful recruitment and retention program. Only once this initial hurdle is cleared can a firm and its associates focus on issues of productivity and practice development.

That said, fair compensation does not always equate to top-of-market compensation. If your firm expects its lawyers to docket more than 2,000 billable hours every year, then it can and should pay top dollar. But many of today’s associates are focused on more than just compensation. They are seeking responsibility and recognition for their efforts, the chance to learn from and work with skilled practitioners, professional growth and development, some measure of control over
their personal and professional lives, an opportunity to have a hand in the firm’s evolution, and to receive timely and thoughtful feedback.

The old law firm maxim that “no news is good news” simply does not work anymore and is, in fact, a fail-safe way of having associates walk out the door “out of the blue.” On the question of bonuses, many firms offer their associates plans that are intended to reinforce and reward the principles valued by the firm. If your firm only cares about financial profitability, then bonuses on billable hours alone will suffice. Too many firms claim they want their associates to contribute in ways beyond the billable hour but only reward those who are exceptionally profitable.

Inconsistent recognition programs are a guaranteed path to high associate turnover.

How To Create A Superior Working Environment

The single most valuable tool in associate retention is effective communication. All too often, lawyers in management positions fail to communicate critical information about the firm and where it is going to its associates. These managers become absorbed in and distracted by in the day-to-day practice of law or firm management and mistakenly assume that the associates at the firm know what is taking place ‘at the top’.

If an associate is not performing, firm managers often assume that the associate knows he or she is underperforming and needs to pick up his or her game. Perhaps even worse, many firms do not communicate to star associates that they are doing a good job, meeting or exceeding expectations, and are valued for their contributions to the success of the firm. as a result, the law firm misses a considerable opportunity to recognize and reward the efforts of its stars in a meaningful way.

Beyond sharing information to retain lawyers, there is another and more important aspect of good communication and that is the need to listen. Law firms are typically chock-full of great talkers, with great listeners a considerably scarcer resource. To retain people, especially star associates, firms must become good at listening. One of the most valuable tools a law firm has is the ability to receive and provide regular feedback. This can be achieved in any number of ways, including formal orientation programs, an internal mentoring program, written procedures manuals for new lawyers, a designated professional development director, and regular reward and recognition programs.

becoming a preferred employer in its market.

If it didn’t work, what went wrong?

When an associate announces his or her impending departure, many firms respond by feeling rejected and sticking their heads in the sand. Unfortunately, not asking why the associate is leaving and what the firm could have done to better meet the associate’s needs prevents us from understanding what changes can be made to keep the remaining associate ranks happy, motivated and ‘in their seats’.

As recruiters, we hear from unhappy associates every day. we know why they come to us. And if one associate is unhappy, in all likelihood there are a number of associates who are unhappy. It is therefore critical that there be no confusion about what a firm’s associates are seeking and whether they are finding it at their present firm. The best time to find that out is before they are crying on the shoulder of a recruiter. But, at the very least, conducting meaningful exit interviews with departing associates will allow the firm to adjust its practices to avoid similar departures in the future.

A great firm is not something that can be haphazardly assembled by chance. It requires partners, associates and management to be working together towards a set of common and clearly defined goals.

Cleo Kirkland is a senior recruitment consultant at The Counsel Network in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].