Another take on associate retention rates

Most of the news about associate retention is cast in negatives — quoting, for example, that 60-62% of entry-level associates will have left their firms by the end of their fourth year in practice.  What if changing jobs more frequently is simply a fact of modern life? Or the result of dual career couples, the consequence of frequent moves from one city to another, or an indication of refusal to settle for a career or lifestyle?

Although the thoughts don’t transfer entirely to law, Penelope Trunk, the Brazen Careerist, has an interesting post today titled  Make Life More Stable With Frequent Job Changes.  The thrust of the post is that most new employees today will change jobs every two years (that’s what I find difficult to apply to a legal practice), will start adult life by moving back into their parents’ homes, and “will say that money is not their number one concern in evaluating a job.”   Trunk argues that the old paths to stability no longer work and that job-hopping is the new way to be stable, which she defines as “knowing you have a life where you can do what you love, during your whole life, not just at the end.”

Trunk identifies 5 ways to use frequent job changes to build stability.  Whether you change jobs once or repeatedly, most of these are excellent suggestions:

1.  Build up a strong skill set quickly.

2.  Get good at making transitions.

3. Make the most of the in-between-jobs time.

4.  Get out of paying your dues.  (If you find a way to do this in law, forget practice and write up your methodology instead.  If it really works, you’ll be a prize-winning author.  I’ll remain skeptical.)

5.  Keep your finances in order.

Watch for upcoming posts that will wrestle with the question of whether it’s possible to find career stability — meaning, satisfaction, rewards in whatever metric(s) apply to you — without changing jobs so frequently.  Perhaps it will surprise no one that I think the answer is unreservedly, yes!

Taking a short break

I suppose the flu is going around everywhere now — part of the last gasp of winter.  And, I’ve got it, and it’s hideous.

I’m going to get some rest and get well.  I’ll be back by Monday.

Until then, here’s a quote for your reflection:

“As a leader, you have to not only do the right thing, but be perceived to be doing the right thing. A consequence of seeking a leadership position is being put under intense public scrutiny, being held to high standards, and enhancing a reputation that is constantly under threat.”

— Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward
Firing Back

Escape the trap

Most of the lawyers I talk with enjoy practicing law, at least to some degree.  They may not love it, but there’s some part of practice that works for them, whether it’s the intellectual challenge, the stand-up work that can harness the acting bug, or even the money.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who thinks her practice is just perfect, with no need for growth or adjustment, but the majority of lawyers aren’t desperately searching for a way out of the profession.

I find that one trait is almost universal among those who are unhappy in practice, though: a sense of being trapped, with no alternatives, no escape, just a decades-long future in the same miserable position.

The source of the misery varies, of course.  Sometimes it’s working too many hours, with the accompanying pain of a distant or angry spouse/family, no time to develop a relationship, or feelings of burnout from trying to please clients, employers/partners, family, friends, etc., but lacking time to enjoy personal pursuits.  Sometimes it’s feeling trapped in a job that doesn’t fit, because of the practice type, clients, colleagues, the way the firm (or company) operates, or because the money is an insufficient reward for the effort required and there’s no passion to balance it.  And sometimes, it’s the result of years of academic competition without any particular direction, yielding a terrific but unwanted legal career.

Lawyers talk about golden handcuffs, and especially in view of law school debt, that’s a real phenomenon.  However, I stand for the believe that no one is ever truly trapped.  There’s always an option, usually a variety of them, though it may take the help of someone else to see what those options are.

Sometimes the choices only require an adjustment.  For instance, burnout can often be countered with rigorous energy management.  (If that intrigues you, read The Power of Full Engagementby Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz.)  Sometimes, the choices are much more difficult — a new job or practice, perhaps with a pay cut.  And sometimes, the path is undefined and the first steps of moving into it are exhilarating and also terrifying.

So, for anyone who’s wondering: the trap, though it looks real, is an illusion.  In Einstein’s words: “The significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them,” and One cannot alter a condition with the same mind set that created it in the first place.

Book Review: The No Asshole Rule

I’ve been intending to write this review for months.  What can I say about a book that so clearly describes the consequences of working with nasty people?  Or of being a nasty person?  It isn’t often that I feel gut-level resonance with a business book.  My best advice here: stop reading, now, and go order The No Asshole Rule.  Then, come back and keep reading.

Dr. Robert I. Sutton is a champion of the civilized workplace, created and maintained through careful enforcement of the “no asshole rule.”  Expanding and deepening his 2004 Harvard Business Review article entitled “More Trouble Than They’re Worth,” Sutton’s forthcoming book The No Asshole Rule (to be published on February 22, 2007, by Warner Business Books, but apparently shipping now through Amazon) offers valuable tips for eliminating or avoiding nasty people in business.  In less than 200 pages, Bob explains how to identify a workplace asshole (even how to tell if you’re the asshole) and describes the damage these assholes wreak on the organizations in which they work and the clients and colleagues with whom they come into contact.  He even addresses how to handle a workplace asshole, while warning of the dangers of “asshole poisoning.”  This is a must-read.  Seriously.

According to Bob, an asshole is one who oppresses, humiliates, de-energizes, or belittles his target (generally someone less powerful then himself), causing the target to feel worse about herself following an interaction with the asshole.  (And, as his examples prove, this behavior is not by any means limited to male perpetrators or female victims.)  These jerks use tactics such as personal insults, sarcasm and teasing as vehicles for insults, shaming, and treating people as if they’re invisible to demean others.  Sutton distinguishes temporary assholes (because, as he notes, we all have the potential to act like jerks at times, particularly when we’re stressed) from certified assholes, who routinely show themselves to be nasty people.  The latter, he argues, must go.

Having diagnosed the problem, he then recommends how to implement and enforce a “no asshole rule,” how an asshole may reform himself/herself, and how to survive working in nasty environments or with nasty people.  Finally, Bob discusses the dangerous topic of the benefits of assholes (such as motivating fear-driven performance and perfectionism), describing his trepidation in doing so as a concern that an asshole might seize on the benefits to justify her behavior.

Wondering whether you’re an asshole?  Take the self-test on Guy Kawasaki’s blog. Have a few co-workers (lawyers and staff) take the test for you.The American Lawyer has, according to Bob, published an article on The No Asshole Rule, but it isn’t available online.  Check your library.

It’s easy to identify the asshole partner in a law firm – the kind of lawyer who berates less senior lawyers and staff, the kind who’s prone to throwing things, the kind who goes red in the face, the kind who makes cutting comments thinly disguised as “humor.”  Those are the partners (or occasionally associates, but quite rarely so) who are labeled difficult, possibly aren’t permitted to interact with summer associates, and are tolerated only to the extent they bring in the business or the money.  Lest anyone think the choice is between being an overly polite wimp or a raving jerk, Bob specifically addresses the value of healthy, even noisy, conflict that is constructive for all involved.

Although the asshole partner is, unfortunately, almost an archetype in law firm life, it’s just as important to identify asshole clients – or better yet, asshole potential clients.  Those are the clients who will demand and demean, who will push good lawyers to make bad arguments, who will cause their lawyers untold stress.  Lawyers must know when to refuse a case, and evaluating the cost of representing an asshole is a critical underlying skill.

Predictions following the salary bump

Has anyone missed the news about the recent salary bump?  Somehow, I doubt it.

Plenty of questions remain, such as to what extent salaries increases will spread to other parts of the country and what increased expectations, if any, will be imposed on the anointed associates.  I’d like to make several predictions about what’s likely to happen following the raises:

1. In-house hiring will go up.  I’ve talked with several in-house lawyers who’ve been a part of strategy meetings on how to cope with the trickle-down effect (or the anticipated trickle-down) of the bump.  The consensus seems to be that it’s time to bulk up in-house, since it may be cheaper for corporations to keep their routine legal work rather than sending it to highly priced outside counsel.

2. Midsized and smaller firms will be even more competitive with large firms.  Again, clients will expect (with good reason) to see higher legal bills from large firms following the salary increase.  Associates will likely need to bill more hours, hourly fees will likely go up, and so on.  Midsized and smaller firms may feel a need to raise salaries a bit, but the chance of starting salaries coming even close to $160K in these firms is remote.  Accordingly, clients may be interested in retaining these firms for the same reasons that they will be bringing more work in-house: to reduce legal bills.  This is a real opportunity for midsized and smaller firms.  Those firms can capture additional work, and they’ll have a chance to wow the client and perhaps increase the range of services to the client.

3. More senior lawyers (i.e. partners, especially those who experienced the market bubble and burst of the 1980s and late 1990s/early 2000s) may brace for a market drop.  What that tendency may mean is anybody’s guess, but it’s reasonable to expect that this will happen.  They may also resent the associates making these stratospheric salaries, making office camaraderie somewhat dicey.

4. Significant increases in lateral moves.  Given these huge salary increases, associates may be more easily tempted to jump ship.  Will the bumps stem associate attrition?  Doubtful, since the increases have been fairly well-matched within markets.

So, those are my predictions.  What do you foresee?  Comments welcome, as always.

WSJ Blog takes on work/life balance; will salary bump stem associate attrition?

In early December, the Wall Street Journal started a new blog, The Juggle, dedicated to work/life balance issues.  The tag line limits the discussion to “choices and tradeoffs people make as they juggle work and family,” and I’ll be curious to see whether the posts will continue on that line or whether they’ll broaden out to entertain other reasons for a juggling act.

One of the most interesting posts so far is More Money, Fewer Problems.  A first-year associate at a New York firm, who’s also the mother of a 16-month old child, apparently wrote the blog recently to share the effects of the recent bump in her salary to $160K: “That salary bump has significantly affected my thinking as to how long I will really stay at this job. It also, interestingly, for better or worse, made me feel better about getting home late last night. I felt that at least I was getting paid for it. And when I heard the news of the raise, my first thought was, OK — now preschool won’t be such a struggle to pay for.”  At the time of this writing, the post had generated 82 comments, many of which (not too surprisingly) criticize the “greedy associate” mentality.  Put on your seatbelt for this read.

The news about the salary escalation prompted me to wonder about its effect on associate retention.  No question that salary increases are necessary to keep large firms on a level playing field, and no question that associates benefit in some ways from those increases.  (I still remember my delight in making X in June 1999, X+11K in early January 2000, and X+11K+20K in mid-January!)  But I question whether money alone is sufficient to keep associates.

After all, if the pay is competitive among firms, wouldn’t an economically rational lawyer jump from one firm to another to retain the same pay (or to get the bump that often comes with a new position) and to search for a good fit?  (This assumes that the attrition stats, such as NALP’s report that 37% of BigLaw associates leave a firm by the end of the third year in practice, are valid and that the attrition isn’t driven solely by associates seeking more money.)  That leaves the associate in the same economic position (or, depending on perspective, with a new pair of golden handcuffs)  and the firms with significant attrition and the attendant costs.  I’ll be curious to see how this plays out, but I don’t think increasing salaries will promote retention, particularly given the increased expectations that firms will place on associates to fund the pay bump.

On this point, visit the Up to PAR blog for commentary about a recent ABA Journal article that reported “overwhelming” associate feedback that they’d take a pay cut to work fewer hours.  The post, titled Associates v. Partners v. Clients, effectively skewers those who argue that associates who bill fewer hours are less committed than those who work more.  (PAR’s rebuttal: “You have to be extremely committed to the law to try to be a lawyer while also meeting obligations outside the office.”)  Interesting ABA article, and PAR’s examination is even more interesting.

I have to note, though, that I don’t believe any one initiative will promote associate retention.  After all, not all lawyers do want to work fewer hours — and there’s certainly a tension even among those who’d prefer fewer hours when considering how much pay is necessary to maintain the desired standard of living.  So if the solution isn’t money or reduced hours, what is it?  Practicing law is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all endeavor, and law firms may be hard-pressed to find ways to focus on client service and remain profitable while retaining associate “talent.”  Perhaps the future will allow firms and associates to cut individually-based deals that benefit both sides.  This is a trend that seems to be bubbling up now; if it’s successful, it could change the way firms operate.   More on this another day.

One final thought about The Juggle: I’m surprised that a couple of posts describing the experience of a professional caring for a parent (blog author Sara Schaefer Muñoz’s grandfather) attracted no comments.  I find it hard to believe that blog readers aren’t members of the sandwich generation, and I’m curious that this post, at least, didn’t stir up some reaction.

The Cheat Sheet for women lawyers

The New York City Bar Women Lawyers Committee has put together a “Cheat Sheet”for women lawyers (or law students) interviewing legal employers or seeking to evaluate a current employer’s commitment to women.

Geared toward gender issues, obviously, the Cheat Sheet is largely applicable for evaluating any diversity issue.  It’s an interesting document, not least because of its comprehensiveness.  The 9-page document includes questions on the “six key indicia of an employer’s commitment to women’s retention and advancement,” including “(a) statistical and background information, (b) partnership and advancement, (c) leadership and accountability, (d) business development and networking, (e) workplace flexibility (including time management and work/life balance), and (f) mentoring,” and also includes recommendations for law firms and law schools.

In addition to the Cheat Sheet, the Committee’s website includes an interesting video documentary entitled Changing Lives: Pioneering New York Women Attorneys and a report on the Best Practices for the Hiring, Training, Retention and Advancement of Women Attorneys.

It’s been about a year now since the New York Times published its article “Why Do So Few Women Reach the Top of Big Law Firms,” citing a NALP study showing that only 17% of big law partners were women in 2005, a small gain from 1995, when 13% of partners were women.  (For a somewhat depressing follow-up, visit this page, which offers subscriber-only links to articles that address mandatory retirement for older lawyers, ask why African-American lawyers are less successful at major firms than their white counterparts, and tout a client-initiated diversity push.  The abstracts give the flavor.)

I appreciate the Cheat Sheet because it provides questions that any lawyers/law student can ask, perhaps at carefully-selected times, or to which they may determine answers through observation.  Although having the questions doesn’t by any means guarantee a smooth path for women or any other group (middle-aged or younger white men included), it does level the playing field by granting some information about the likely expectations and biases of the employer as exhibited through current behavior.  And, really, I’m not sure it’s possible to ask for much more than that under current circumstances.  Perhaps the knowledge gained will assist individuals in creating change in law firm partnership ranks.