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THE LONG HAUL. Keeping Top Legal Performers.

If you were the principal at an existing firm, how do you ensure top employees are in it for the long haul? While finding jobs for law school graduates may have been difficult in previous years, a recent New York Times article points to several studies indicating a possible uptick in law school enrollments and job placement after graduation, indicating that competition for legal talent may be on the increase. Additionally, the American Bar Association reported that law schools are seeing a "slight rise" in the percentage of 2014 graduates obtaining entry-level jobs compared to 2013 grads—71 percent of 2014 graduates were employed in long-term, full-time positions where bar passage is required or a J.D. is preferred 10 months after graduation. And it's not just lawyers that firm owners need to be concerned with; legal support staffers play a vital role in keeping law firms running smoothly and efficiently.
With 'people' being your most important asset, how do you ensure that you can retain great employees once you are established in your legal practice? Whitney Price, vice president and relationship manager at Torrey Pines Bank, has worked with hundreds of legal firms, and draws on 18 years in the banking industry. John Morrell is Chairman and Managing Partner of Higgs, Fletcher & Mack, one of the oldest legal firms in San Diego; and James S. Iagmin of Williams and Iagmin LLP and John Kyle of Kyle Harris LLP, two principals that recently started San Diego-based law firms shared their thoughts on how to ensure employee retention.


It seems like money would be the biggest element in retaining top talent, and compensation is a factor, with law firm salaries rising by more than inflation since 1995, according to the National Association for Law Placement. But Iagmin and Kyle agree that money is not the most important consideration.
"Beyond paying employees well, law firms need to treat people fairly and give their employees meaningful work that allows them to be their best and make them feel that they're making a difference," offers Iagmin.
"Money is good but only goes so far," adds Kyle. "People want to be valued as part of the team and feel like contributing members. People enjoy being part of an entrepreneurial venture."
John Morrell, whose firm has been around for nearly 75 years, said, "we treat people fairly with the understanding that we are in this for the long haul together—it's not merely an employer/employee relationship. We have a generous family leave program for those at the lawyer level and plan several yearly events that include our employees and their families, such as our yearly San Diego Zoo outing," said Morrell. "We also believe in an open door policy to support all staff members. It's important that our employees know they are heard."

" With 'people' being your most important asset, how do you ensure that you can
retain great employees once you are established in your legal practice?"



A mathematical model developed by professors at Kellogg School and the Chinese University of Hong Kong confirms money is not the only motivator. Researchers examined how companies can best motivate workers when cash may not be available to hand out. They determined that promotions can be extremely effective, particularly in smaller companies that offer good odds at making partner. However, in larger firms (often presenting lower odds advancement to top spots), money may be more important.
Similarly, a 2014 Towers Watson study cites career growth as the third most frequent reason employees joins a firm and the second most frequent reason for leaving.
Price notes that she has seen great success from firms that mentor new talent and stated, "Mentorship and access to managers that are accessible, reasonable and advocates of personal growth through training and education has been an important driver." She has applied these same growth techniques, which have helped Torrey Pines Bank retain valuable employees.
Rachel Cantor with RJC Associates, a consulting firm that provides leadership, career and team development and selection services to law firms, says, "law firms, particularly larger firms, invest heavily in recruiting new associates—only to find that those associates often leave the firm within a few years before they are truly productive." Tips from corporation hiring managers include:

  • Take a systematic approach to the onboarding of new employees, identify their goals and aspirations and put together a plan to motivate and support their performance.
  • Assign a more senior-level mentor to help the new hire become a functioning member of the organization. Law firms that want to convey the importance of nurturing, developing and integrating new hires to the firm's long-term success should offer incentives for positive behaviors. Cantor states, "Simply praising the importance of activities will not change behavior."

Law firms often invest heavily in technical skills training but may not pay much attention to relationship management, which can have even more of an impact on client retention, satisfaction as well as on individual career success.


Legal firm owners may look to ways to provide flexible work environments and hours, where possible. Flexible arrangements may offer new parents and others the ability to accept an offer and stay with the firm longer, because they feel that their needs can be accommodated through benefits and policies.
Finally, Price suggests, "While positive relationships, competitive salaries, a flexible work environment and value for opinions can help to retain top performers, realize that some individuals may always feel an entrepreneurial pull to break away on their own, and no matter how hard you try, it is often a decision they need to make on their own."


While experienced law firm owners look to retain good employees, the intrinsic values and entrepreneurial spirit of many millennials show that they do not fit into traditional job roles and typically only retain jobs for about 3-5 years. Many business owners have streamlined internal onboarding and training processes in order to utilize their skills and increase productivity before they opt to move on to another firm, start their own practice or do something completely different.
As a group, millennials tent to be very entrepreneurial, according to an article titled, "Millennials are Born Entrepreneurs" by Maria Contreras-Sweet, the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which states, "Between one half and two thirds of millennials aspire to start their own business." They're the most diverse and educated generation and are the first to have grown up with the Internet and social media; they are the largest generation in our country right now, 86 million strong.
With younger lawyers looking to start their own firms, baby boomers may be at the point in their careers where they're ready to step down from leadership positions and work for someone else. This shift in roles could be a win/win for both groups, as more experienced law professionals could share their knowledge and experience and help the millennials through the growing pains of starting a new enterprise and avoid costly mistakes that they may have made themselves.


According to a recent Gallup survey of over 1 million employees, the #1 reason employees quit is because they feel "a disconnect or poor relationship with their boss or immediate supervisor." One of the most significant characteristics of a boss or leader is the ability to create a strong connection and having mutual accountability. The study states that this builds a foundation of trust leading to good working relationships and long-term employees. Oftentimes if there is high turnover, it may be time to evaluate the boss.

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