Lateral leadership

In the age of legal turnover, how to train leaders, not your future competitors

In the age of legal turnover, how to train leaders, not your future competitors
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

When Linda Coberly, managing partner at Winston & Strawn’s Chicago office, started her legal career in the mid-1990s, the expectation was she would be there for the long haul.

“When I got my first associate job, there was an assumption that you interview with a firm in law school your second summer and that’s the firm you’ll stay at your whole career,” Coberly said. “I don’t know how true that was then, but [the mindset has] certainly changed.”

It’s almost a truism for veterans of the legal profession that the private firm landscape looks a lot different than it did when they started practicing. That younger attorneys are not as likely to stay with a firm, working through the ranks to become partner, is perhaps one of the biggest changes.

According to a white paper recruitment firms JD Match and The Right Profile released earlier this year, the annual cost of attrition for a 400-attorney firm could top $25 million, based on the costs of recruiting, training and promoting associates and partners who then find greener pastures. The study based its estimates on a National Association for Law Placement Foundation survey reporting an attrition rate of 17 percent.

The turnover trend poses a set of questions — and challenges — for law firms when they hire young associates. Perhaps chief among them: How do firms approach training with lawyers who are more likely to leave to go elsewhere in the marketplace than ever before?

Coberly said the increased turnover in the legal market is essentially a reflection of the change in labor markets in general.

Michael Renetzky, the Chicago office managing partner at Locke Lord, agreed.

Renetzky has spent all 21 years of his career at Locke Lord and considers himself a “lifer.” He was hired at predecessor firm Lord Bissell & Brook during the recovery following one of the economic downturns that negatively impacted private law.

“For my crop of lawyers, making partner was viewed as more of an opportunity than an expectation,” he said. “We were all a little less certain, and in some ways that’s not all that different from the new lawyers that are coming in today. There’s well-founded skepticism about making partner these days.”

Renetzky said that in the 20th century labor force, in general, there was an unspoken contract between the company and the worker.

“The company would basically provide a job for life and the worker would have a lot of loyalty as a result of actions from the business that kept them there,” he said. “That has changed in American society at large.”

Maurice Grant, founder of Grant Law, said when he was a young associate, it was “up or out” — an attorney stays on the partner track from six to 10 years, or they move on to do something else. He attributes the turnover in young lawyers to the diminished loyalty that Renetzky spoke of, along with what he perceives as simply taking longer to determine what they want.

“Most of the people I interview even several years out still have no clue what they’re getting into with this profession despite the internet being at their fingertips,” Grant said. “I find that their research skills are lacking.”

Grant admitted, however, that newer associates are approaching the job search from a practical standpoint.

“They’re coming out with so much debt, they’re just looking for a job first,” he said. “They hope that they can get the training and mentoring they need, but right now that debt is crushing and it’s the main priority.”

Honesty is the best policy

Turnover is happening, in part, because law firms are being more candid with newer attorneys about what it takes to become a partner, Coberly said.

“For a long time, the narrative a lot of law firms shared with their associates was that if they do great, they’ll make partner,” she said. “I don’t think that’s been true for a long time. The truth is, becoming a partner is a different thing than becoming a great associate.”

Renetzky agreed that firms have not historically been as overt about what it takes to become partner: Business development for a brand-new lawyer looks very different from business development for a partner who’s been around for years and more firms should strive to convey the message that being able to build a business is essential to making partner, he said.

“We used to feel that younger lawyers just didn’t need to know the ins and outs of career progression,” he said. “Now the onus is on the firm to let lawyers know if they have the opportunity to make partner and exactly what that requires. We’re better off being straightforward about that instead of complaining about a different mindset in newer lawyers.”

“I tell new lawyers that the first day is never too early to begin to think about how to develop a practice. There’s a great entrepreneurial effort to being a lawyer in private practice, but young lawyers may not recognize that something as simple as connecting with a former classmate from undergrad is a business development effort.”

Grant agrees that the transparency is necessary, and he conveys that when he trains new hires.

“I tell everyone that we hire that they will be trained not just to be a good lawyer, but to be a leader,” he said. “The key is, I find that many aren’t really ready for that type of training.”

Training in the modern age

Chiara Wrocinski, senior director of Firmwide Legal Recruiting and Development at Kirkland & Ellis, said her firm gears training toward making effective attorneys by utilizing the latest technological advances and learning methods, without concern for potential turnover.

“If you look at industry trends, learning and training and development are one of the top three drivers for talent acquisition decisions,” she said. “Associates are looking at their learning opportunities as a key decision-making factor in choosing a law firm.

Winston & Strawn conducts formal programming for associates, and Coberly has a quarterly meeting with all associates to discuss how they can lay the groundwork for future career success. The firm also hosts an associates-only business development event in Chicago — no partners allowed — for which associates are asked to invite their contacts from law schools, other firms and in-house counsel.

“Participating in bar functions and associations and investing in activities that go toward developing your business skills is important instead of just doing billable work and going home are skills we can all teach to support our associates in learning,” Coberly said.

Renetzky said Locke Lord focuses on presenting opportunities for new lawyers who desire a long-term relationship with the firm, but insists that the firm doesn’t tailor training to perceived levels of turnover.

“I think it’s incumbent on us as the firm to make it clear how to get down that path and to provide all of the tools to help them do so,” he said. “A whole lot of mystery is solved by simply being straightforward and honest about expectations and how to get from Point A to Point B.”

“As a law firm, we have our own goals to provide good training and substantive legal opportunity. They can choose to take as much or as little of that as they desire. We won’t create some sort of separate opportunity for those who declare they want to exit within a couple years.”

For Grant, it’s essential to provide a degree of training for lawyers of color that he knows aren’t receiving it elsewhere. He said that was the case with his own legal upbringing as the first black hire at Much Shelist. He added that law is one of the least diverse professions that requires secondary education and a license.

“Few get on the partner track, and when they do, they find that there are no sufficient mentors or sponsors and people who are willing to invest in them,” he said. “We have to establish those things through mentorship, training and investing both time and finances and effort into young attorneys. It’s very difficult for minority attorneys to find that, but we do offer it here.”

Dollars and cents

In general, firms contacted for this article aren’t especially concerned by the economics of training attorneys that might depart before getting on the partner track.

Kirkland & Ellis, for example, functions with a “colleagues for life” philosophy that allows the firm to not only train new attorneys for whatever their future may hold, but to also keep in touch with alumni who have left.

“We’re thrilled with any success that our alumni have, whether they stay with us and become partners and leaders of the firm or they exit and become ambassadors for us in the marketplace,” Wrocinski said. “Whether you spend a year with us or 30 years us, you are a colleague for life at Kirkland, and that translates into everything we do.”

Grant, who oversees only five other attorneys, hires people hoping to groom them to take over the firm once he retires.

“I’d like to believe that everyone that has come through here is a better individual and a better attorney because they worked here,” he said. “We invest resources to make sure that’s the case. When we set our hands to do something, we do it 100 percent.”

Coberly said that Winston & Strawn works to make the training experience for young attorneys “as rewarding as we possibly can make it,” with no financial concerns for attorneys who might move on shortly after training.

“I talk openly in our offices about the fact that many of them will make their careers here and many will not and go on to do fantastic things elsewhere,” she said. “We want to make sure we do everything we can to prepare them for success in whatever they choose to do.”

Coberly also doesn’t view the higher likelihood of turnover as a bad thing for the industry.

“Any professional services firm is set up more like a pyramid than a square or oval, and it is appropriate from a financial perspective for law firms to be like that as well,” she said. “Now, law is much more like every other industry because people are quickly becoming used to the idea that you make several moves in your career. We’re just now catching up in that respect.”

Renetzky agreed, adding that the turnover isn’t a good or bad thing so much as it’s a challenge that firms need to work a little harder to surmount.

“It’s simply a reality for young lawyers coming into the marketplace today that we need to be responsive to,” he said. “Any challenge in this business gives us the opportunity to differentiate, adapt and create situations that these lawyers find enticing.”