Associates are leaving your firm. The reason why might surprise you.
Updated: Apr 19, 2018
It is happening at every law firm. Seemingly out of the blue one of your associates announces leaving the firm. Sometimes to go to another law firm, but often to go in-house or leaving the legal profession altogether. These are typically not the associates that under-perform and would have had to leave anyway. What I am talking about are those considered a ‘regretted loss’.
Recently I had a conversation with one of the market leaders in legal recruitment and headhunting. She comes across these ‘leavers’ on a daily basis. So we started a discussion as to their motives. Not surprisingly ‘work life balance’ is mentioned a lot. But it is hard to believe that this is dominantly the real motive as a significant number seems to come from law firms that require around 1500 billable hours a year. ‘Work life balance’ however is a politically correct motive as the desire to have a fulfilling personal life is hard to dispute.
“Business development stress might well be the prime reason for associates to leave”
Business development stress
Having analyzed hundreds of interviews with associates who decided to leave a firm, it became clear that business development might well be one of the prime reasons. Many ‘mid-tier’ law firms expect their associates to generate new business. Besides having to work on matters that are originated by the partners, the associate has to find new clients and originate personal revenue.
Graduates who embark on a career as a lawyer with a ‘mid-tier’ firm are typically driven by the ambition to become really good legal practitioners. They tend to thrive on delivering a technically perfect legal product. Predominantly this type of lawyer tends to be more introvert than extrovert. Being pressured to go out and hunt for business goes deeply against their nature. They never wanted to be ‘sales people’, that is why the studied the law and became lawyers in the first place.
The mid-tier/top-tier juxtaposition Those law students with great talent and a burning ambition to become a ‘mover and shaker’ as a lawyer will typically join one of the top-tier firms. Surprisingly we found that also in this segment associates are leaving because of business development. Not because they feel forced to solicit new business, but because they are forbidden to do so… Top-tier firms focus on high value high end matters which are beyond the capabilities of an associate to attract. At top-tier firms new business is the ‘privilege’ of the partners. This leaves the eager associates frustrated.
So here we have it: in the mid-tier associates are expected to generate business of their own while the lawyers joining these firms desire to be just legal counselors, not sales people.
At the top-tier, associates are forbidden to develop new business, while the lawyers joining this type of firm have a burning ambition and would very much like to go out independently to find new business.
Business development angst Once, decades ago, being a lawyer was a ‘nobile officium’ and lawyers were forbidden to solicit for work. Today is very different and we have to recognize that law firms are a business. Developing new business has become key to survival and success. Every lawyer needs to master the basic BD skills.
Across the spectrum, law firms struggle with how to improve the business development skills of their lawyers. In general it is best to start working on reducing ‘business development angst’. Young lawyers who feel pressurized to attract new business often have a misconception of how business development really works. The have this ‘nightmare’ vision of having to ‘work the room’ during receptions and seminars, handing our business cards to complete strangers. This vision embodies almost everything a serious content driven professional does NOT want to do.