How to Avoid Attrition

Five ways to ensure that diverse lawyers won't leave.

Large law firms struggle to retain diverse associates. A cursory review of "big law" retention data or the anecdotal observations of anyone who works in or interacts with a large firm bears out this reality. While most law firms don't typically struggle to recruit diverse lawyers, retaining those high potentials is another matter. According to National Association for Law Placement (NALP) data, though women make up roughly half of new law school graduates, more than two-thirds of all female associates leave major firms by the fifth year. Minority associates in the aggregate don't fare much better, often never reaching the senior associate level and hence a partnership vote.

Why should we care? Every time we hire a law firm, we make an investment in its human capital. Invariably, we pay firms so that its young talent can learn our company's business, its processes and personnel to better protect our interests. This investment not only enables legal problem solving in the instant matter, but may also be leveraged in future matters. All firms promise their clients the benefits of a long-term relationship that builds on past work. But how can long-term "relationship building" occur when a firm can't retain the associates? It can't.

So, I came up with some suggestions for associate retention to pass on to your law firms. I call them the "Top 5 Ways to Ensure that your Firm's Diverse Lawyers Won't Leave."

First, make personal investments. We all look for signs that our contributions are valued and that we have a future within our organizations. The young diverse lawyers are reading the "tea leaves" to determine what unspoken impressions have been formed about them. Spend time getting to know your firm's diverse lawyers' career ambitions and interests, and explore how the firm might help with their developmental needs. Leverage the firm's collective influence to identify community volunteer, bar leadership and internal firm leadership opportunities.

Second, capitalize on their affinity contacts. Along with their educational credentials, diverse lawyers bring a rich tapestry of contacts, life experiences, cultural insights and perspectives that might be leveraged to drive firm objectives. Therefore, involve diverse lawyers in critical strategic planning discussions.

Third, give them opportunities for "heroism." Through rigorous recruiting and hiring standards, big firms have hired the best and the brightest diverse lawyers available. There must be a focus on return on that investment by purposefully ensuring that they have work that is challenging. This will communicate to diverse talent that the firm is willing to give them a "shot" at the work upon which professional reputations are built. When an act of heroism occurs, be sure to recognize and celebrate it.

Fourth, give hard, honest, constructive feedback. Potential is realized not just through hard work, but also through feedback. All attorneys need this feedback to improve. It tells the firm whether the young lawyer is teachable. It tells the young lawyers that the firm wants them to develop. It builds bridges for dialogue on important issues. So, establish a rapport and then give the gift of candor regularly.

Fifth, debrief departing diverse associates. When diverse lawyers leave (even on good terms), perceptions that are not necessarily apparent to management can be shared. Feedback drives cultural change in the firm. Unfortunately, many firms do little in the way of debriefing exiting diverse lawyers. The exit interview is usually done by a nonlawyer administrator rather than the senior lawyers with whom the departing associate worked. Thus, the firm continues to make the same mistakes, and retention opportunities for future diverse lawyers are lost.

Working together, we can build a robust and diverse pipeline of skilled lawyers to support our companies.

John Lewis Jr.

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