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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

April 8, 2016

The 9 Secrets To Retaining Your Top Performers – A Playbook for GCs and In-House Hiring Managers

Julie Q. Brush

We’re all living in an age of professional mobility…whether we like it or not.

20+ years ago, the average seniority of a law firm associate before leaving the firm was 8 to 9 years (failure to “make partner” was the primary reason). Today it’s 2 to 3 years. In house tenure averaged between 8-15+ years. Today, an in house lawyer will leave for greener pastures after 2 to 4 years in his/her role. This is a marked decline from the days of legal profession old. So what has caused the slow, but steady shift in shifting? A series of factors include:

  • The new working generation’s value system
  • Corporate and law firm comings and goings (i.e. M&A activity, start-ups, IPOs, bankruptcies, etc.), which force mobility and provide candidates with more “legitimate” and understandable reasons for leaving their roles.
  • Increased mobility in other corporate verticals (sales, marketing, finance, HR), which has created a higher tolerance for multiple moves in Legal
  • Law firm and company layoffs during hard economic times
  • Growth of the in house legal department
  • Fiercer competition for legal talent
  • Lack of loyalty perceived by both employer and employee
  • More strategic career planning and execution among lawyers

Given this market reality, employers are struggling to create the secret sauce that will keep their best performers in place. So many are frustrated and feel like there are no solid solutions. While there are no guarantees of a pledge to lifelong employment (on either side), there are actions GCs and hiring managers in every type of organization can implement to improve retention:

  1. Manage Your Expectations

If you are to improve your attorney retention, the first step is to accept that the legal profession – as you once knew it – has changed. And your legal colleagues (whether newly hired or existing) will likely leave your organization within two to three years if you maintain the status quo. If you are proactive, you could increase their tenure by an additional two to three years, but you won’t score the rest of his/her career. So your retention goals must be realistic and your angst adjusted.

  1. Care…More

So many professionals are all about “Me” and managers don’t spend nearly enough time on genuinely caring for the development of their people. A good place to start is to schedule individual “career development” meetings. These are meetings that are separate from reviews, check-ins or standard weekly/quarterly meetings. They are geared towards learning about your colleague’s goals – and collaborating to help achieve them. By doing this, you can play a supportive role in his/her efforts and mitigate any surprises as time goes on. It’s also a forum to understand what’s important to each employee and determine his/her currency. Knowing these will enable you to manage each person more effectively. Encouraging transparency and maintaining an open line of communication is key as well. If you can create mutual trust, there will be greater opportunity to manage issues before they become broken.

  1. Create a Fluid Department

Today’s lawyers like to learn new things and diversify their legal experience. Doing so keeps them interested, challenged, engaged and able to increase marketability for their next role (yes, they are thinking about their next role). Statistics show that lawyers who are provided the opportunity to cross-train and learn new skills are happier and remain with their employers longer than those in siloed roles. When lawyers get bored or feel like the challenge has diminished, they begin plot their exit. So creating a more “fluid” department will go a long way towards achieving your retention goals.

  1. Provide Leadership Opportunities

When people are provided an opportunity to “be in charge”, it increases self-esteem, makes them feel appreciated and empowered. Providing your team – whether it’s your #2 or your admin – with the opportunity to lead is plain ol’ good management. But often GCs and hiring managers only see two extreme ends of the leadership spectrum and feel limited in their ability to offer such roles/tasks – leaving many team members excluded. This need not be the case. Think outside the box on what tasks include a “leadership” component and how they might apply to each team member – then provide accordingly.

  1. Keep the Department Healthy and “Functional”

As the legal team/group leader, it is your responsibility to facilitate healthy and functional relationships amongst your team. One rotten egg can compromise the entire group. Low morale is infectious. Incessant bickering between two colleagues can be demoralizing. So make your core values clear around these issues from the beginning…and from this point on, only hire legal professionals who align with them. If problems arise, be a good listener and work to resolution quickly. If a person is the continual eye of a hurricane, manage him/her out. When professionals work in unpleasant environments, they leave…And you look bad.

  1. Express Appreciation

It’s an easy fix…and costs nothing. A thank you, a public/private acknowledgement for a job well done, more responsibility, an award etc. Many employers have no idea of the positive impact a simple expression of appreciation can create. When I work with lawyers who are seeking to move, an overwhelming number feel underappreciated by their current employers. So incorporate more thankfulness into your management style and you’ll see results quickly.

  1. Money and Titles

Lawyers care about money. Lawyers care about titles. And as a GC, it is important to ensure that the department’s compensation/titles accurately reflect the market. They don’t need to be at the top, but they need to be competitive. If they are not, there will be employee discontent and then…departure. It isn’t always easy – as GCs and hiring managers often butt heads with HR and have to argue with frequently inaccurate comp and title data derived from companies like Radford and Compensia (which are usually off the mark on lawyer compensation). While money and/or title are not always the drivers, they can often be at the root of employee defections. So fight as hard as possible to get the financial and naming support you need for your team.

  1. Follow Through

Supporting a promotion, promising more money, pledging more responsibility, offering a flexible schedule. Whatever it is that you commit to doing…do it. You may run into challenges and success could be compromised, which is natural. It will be ok as long as you communicate the status and reasons to your colleague/s. What they need to know is that you care about their lives and careers and are making an effort on their behalf.

  1. Offer Job Flexibility

In today’s professional world, there is a stronger emphasis on “flexibility” – work hours, work schedules, telecommuting, family responsibilities, and hobbies. So the need for some workplace breathing room is at an all time high. If you want a competitive advantage with retention and recruiting, offer some flexibility. You don’t need a formal policy, but steering away from militancy as long as work is completed in high quality fashion is the way the wind is blowing in the vast majority of in house legal departments.

Employee retention is a hot button issue and universal topic for companies and law firms around the globe. And while there are no perfect solutions, greatly improving your retention stats is doable by creating an environment with greater staying power. You’ll undoubtedly come across some roadblocks and may not be able to offer your people the moon and the stars. But that’s ok – because most don’t require them.

At the end of the day, all you can do is your best to control what you can. An employee driven to leave…will fly the coop. But by creating a home that is supportive and communicative with recognition and opportunity – you’ll produce happier team members who won’t want to leave the nest.

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