Retention: A business case for now

Law firms go to tremendous lengths to attract, develop, and retain their talent—ultimately, their working capital is only as good as the talent they retain. Firms have been right to make efforts to find ways to retain their talent, even amidst market uncertainties; as business has picked up—and indeed exploded in some practice areas—having the right talent on hand has been indispensable.

In the midst of this most challenging of years, many firms remain aware of the need to manage expenses. And while law firm attorneys may be particularly keen to remain employed by their current firm given the general slowdown in hiring, these trends don’t tell the whole story.

Practices that improve retention can fall by the wayside in the face of upheaval. Professional development programs are often the first in line when firms need to make cuts, but any immediate savings may produce a pyrrhic victory—the legal industry loses about $9.1 billion dollars a year to turnover costs (according to The Right Profile).

Investing in retention at your firm may be one of the most important initiatives you can undertake to secure success—both now and into the future. Read on for six approaches to increasing retention of the talent your firm has so carefully curated.


6 ways your firm can retain talent now 


1. Remain transparent by communicating openly and often

Any horror movie director will tell you that whispers are scarier than screams. You can see the principle in action at every workplace these days—employees are acutely aware that the market is volatile, and they’re on high alert for information about changing conditions. If your leadership remains mum on the subject of how the firm is navigating this environment, you can be certain that fear-inducing whispers are traveling, even in virtual corridors.

Rumor, speculation, and uncertainty can create a toxic mix of anxiety—a culture of fear that can profoundly dampen productivity, motivation, and morale. And that’s the kind of environment that spurs top talent to start casting about for more certain pastures—even if only by putting feelers out.

Transparency—genuine, ongoing (even if somewhat repetitious), and from the top—clears the air. People feel confident when they know where they stand and have a picture of the future. Even if you have bad news or don’t have all the answers right now, your people will feel more engaged and loyal if you give it to them straight. Share your firm’s plans, the trends you expect to affect the business, and the ongoing changes to your trajectory. Your top talent will be far more likely to stick with you—even through choppy waters—and your workforce will be more productive and effective overall when they’re not keeping one ear to the ground for the whispers of danger.


2. Offer resources that your attorneys need now

It’s always been true that your firm’s talent needs support to perform at the highest level. What they need right now may be different, but what hasn’t changed is the importance of providing that support in order to retain attorneys. Instead of cutting programs, firms must innovate and reallocate resources to give attorneys the tools they need to thrive in a changed environment. And because many people are experiencing disruptions to their personal lives, it’s crucial that firms offer a variety of support options that meet people where they are.

No more office or practice group happy hours? Put that budget toward funding virtual mental health counseling. Professional development conferences canceled? Invest in a virtual summit. No need for gym-membership subsidies? Offer those funds for home childcare services or exercise equipment.

Your attorneys are the best authorities regarding which resources serve their needs now (and, consequently, drive productivity and retention). Ask for their input. You may even find that existing programs are working excellently—perhaps attorneys see your firm’s mentorship program as a crucial lifeline these days, so all you need to do is ensure it remains strong.

 The old “grow where you’re planted” adage fails to account for the fact that your attorneys, unlike trees, can pull up roots and find another spot to thrive if the soil lacks nutrients. Keep your attention on the resources that nurture your workforce, and you’re more likely to retain the talent that helps your firm flourish.


3. Support effective management at all levels

Firm leadership has a vital role to play in creating a culture that supports retention. However, the quality of an attorney’s day-to-day experience is determined largely by individual supervisors—and how attorneys feel about the quality of their relationships influences how they feel about their firm as a whole. Poor management practices are a sure-fire way to demoralize talented attorneys and undermine retention.

Leadership and management skills aren’t taught in law schools—and many leaders lack opportunities to develop these crucial competencies. New partners are often left to their own devices in learning to effectively delegate, communicate up and down the chain, manage projects, and develop their teams. Those who are naturally inclined to such activities (or who draw on management skills developed prior to entering BigLaw) often thrive, but many supervisors have skills gaps in these areas that, if left unchecked, can result in diminished team morale, decreased engagement, and increased attorney attrition.

Management training for leaders at all levels—from new supervisors to established managers—can have an enormous impact on retention throughout your firm. Not only will attorneys with effective supervisors be more likely to perform well and remain committed to the firm, those who manage others will be more satisfied in their work. Supporting supervisors with training and resources to grow managerial skills will help your firm hang onto those leaders and recoup your investment in their development.


4. Maintain professional and career development offerings

In the midst of massive uncertainty (in the economy, the legal industry, and many other aspects of life), your attorneys naturally want to feel that their jobs are stable. But there’s a big difference between stability and stagnation; a job that feels secure right now doesn’t necessarily promise a thriving career in the future.

A position that offers no clear path for ongoing professional growth—no matter how secure that position may be—is ultimately unsatisfying. And while the simple fact of stability may have been a primary concern for attorneys last spring, it won’t keep top talent from looking elsewhere in the future.

Professional development is always key to retaining talent and developing attorneys into strong performers. And it’s more crucial than ever right now; the high degree of uncertainty in the world fundamentally disrupts everyone’s sense of what the future may hold. Professional development programs give your attorneys a crucial tool for mapping their futures—and for mapping those futures with your firm.

Furthermore, professional development activities do more than just retain top talent—they also create it. Investing in attorneys’ growth cultivates the kind of talent of high value to your firm, while cementing engagement and loyalty.


5. Commit to diversity and inclusion for the long haul

While there has been a welcome increase in focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) among many law firms recently, the topic of diversity has long been important in BigLaw. And as this issue has become more prominent in the world, it has also become more essential to retention.

Having a broad spectrum of perspectives—from people of many different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds—creates a more rich and rewarding culture in a firm. Such an environment leads to better business outcomes and a more engaged workforce.

Keep in mind that DEI is not only of concern to attorneys of under-represented identities. The values of diversity and inclusion are of primary importance to attorneys from all walks of life—and younger attorneys, especially, routinely cite a diverse, inclusive culture as one of the primary qualities they look for in an employer.

Demonstrating a genuine commitment to DEI is a powerful way to ensure your talent feels supported, included, and valued at your firm. There are many ways to go about this, including DEI training programs, affinity groups for attorneys and professionals of marginalized identities, regular DEI audits of firm leadership, equity-focused recruiting programs, robust DEI retention goals and more. Crucial to these efforts, though, is that they be systemic and continuous.

When hiring a diverse workforce, providing equitable opportunities for success, and including everyone’s voices are core tenets of your operations, you set the stage for increased loyalty and retention. At the same time, you create the conditions for nurturing even more talent among your attorneys—and wind up with a larger pool of top performers.


6. Enable innovation

One mark of an effective leader is a future-oriented, strategic mindset. Attorneys at all levels—from those early in their careers to those already in leadership positions—must innovate to drive success for themselves and the firm.

That innovation is one of your firm’s most valuable resources—if you tap into it. Changing conditions call for novel approaches and new ideas. Your best talent is brimming with innovative potential that can help your firm solve problems and open new opportunities.

Encouraging and enabling innovation is also fundamental to retention. When you enable attorneys to develop their ideas, share them with leadership, and have a hand in enacting them, you set the stage for increased engagement. Make space for innovation, and your talent will fill it with transformational thinking that gives your firm an advantage—and they’ll stick around to see their ideas through to fruition.


Retention: A business case for the future 

Whether your firm is currently growing, needs to reduce staffing in reaction to current circumstances, or is in the midst of pivoting with the winds of change, retention of your attorneys and staff is vital to ensuring their morale remains high and productivity doesn’t suffer in an atmosphere of anxiety.

When one takes the long view, there’s an even stronger business case for remaining attentive to retention right now. Firm reputations are built over the course of years—even decades—and the resources you put into talent retention now are the foundation of maintaining and evolving your long-term reputation as a place where the best attorneys build their careers and succeed over the long haul.