Relationship or one-night stand: How law firms view associates (and clients)

As those who frequently reads this blog know, I’m a proponent of planned disengagement from work to facilitate full engagement while working.  Tomorrow will be a regular working day (complete with client meetings and the regular Tuesday Shorts on the blog) but the rest of the week will find me cleaning, cooking, and spending time with my family.  So, you’ll find repeats of some past blog posts that you may have missed the first time around.  Today’s post follows on the heels of Friday’s review of David Maister’s Strategy and the Fat Smoker with a discussion of one of Maister’s articles that’s also featured in the book.

David Maister wrote a fascinating article titled, “Do You Really Want Relationships?”  He suggests that lawyers generally say we want relationships with our clients, long-standing interactions that tend to lead to more work in the future, more referrals, fewer challenges on billing, and more effective working relationships.  This, Maister describes as the “romance” view.  However, in practice, lawyers often act on the transactional view of client relations — “one-night-stands” — in which there’s little commitment beyond the immediate project, little trust, and an understanding on both sides that it’s “us” versus “them.”  Do read the article for a fuller discussion of this very interesting topic; it’s a terrific eye-opener.

What I want to talk about today, though, is a short section of the article that discusses viewing firm personnel in the relationship or transactional mode.

“Are you saying,” they ask me, “that I need to show an interest in my subordinates as people and care about their career ambitions?”

“Only if you want them to respond to you,” I reply.  “If your subordinates feel that you are prepared to work at a relationship with them, ensuring that both sides benefit, then they will give you more of what you want.  That’s human nature, not a political or religious point.

“But if they think that you, their superior, are just trying to get out of the deal more of what you want from them?  Harder work, more billable hours, whatever?  Then they will respond in kind.  They will view you as you are viewing them: useful only to the extent that they can get out of it when they want in the short run.

“There will be no long-term loyalty and no commitment to the larger interests of the firm, because you have set the patten that this is truly a temporary transation, not a relationship.  If you treat people as THEM, as objects, or as ‘other,’ they in turn will treat you instrumentally.”

And that, my friends, is the crux of the associate retention problem in big firms.  Maister nailed it, in my opinion.  Associates view partnership as a distant, likely unattainable goal, perhaps even a goal they don’t want to attain.  Firms offer money as the short-term benefit, “greedy associates” are born, and associates become eager to move on to the high bidder, to the firm where they can get the most short-term benefit, figuring that at some point they’ll end up in a firm where they can and will make partner — but that’s down the road after they’ve switched firms a few times.  (Of course, there’s nothing that will motivate a lawyer toward money like facing $100K or more in law school debt, but that’s another thread.)  According to a NALP study cited in “Law-Firm Life Doesn’t Suit Some Associates” (which I discussed here a couple of days ago), 60-62% of entry-level associates have left their firms by the end of the fourth years.

What can law firms do to encourage good associates to stay?  Create a sense of mutual loyalty.  Pay attention to associates’ professional development, career satisfaction, and concern for the person.  Make sure associates know that they’re not fungible, that they’re part of a team, that they contribute to something important.  Help them recognize meaning in their work — and I’m not talking the do-gooder kind necessarily (though that often keeps lawyers working in public interest despite low pay, lack of resources, etc.), but the kind that comes from practicing an an area of law that fits, taking on advancing responsibilities, receiving appropriate guidance that promotes professional growth.  Say “thank you.”

If law firms do even some of these things, I suspect that associates who fit in the firm will be motivated to do their best and that they’ll want to stick around.  Am I wrong?  I’d love to find out.

4 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    My experience offers a simple, but not easy-to play-out, mantra: take an interest in people and they’ll take an interst in you. Not an interest that comes only when it’s convenient, or when one needs something from someone (i.e, a “faux” or phony interest), but a deep and abiding interest. A personal interest. Unfortunately, the “this is a business” mantra often trumps (Trump? interesting word…hmmm) the personal interst and what’s left is the business/professional interest. Lots of folks maintain that one cannot and should not cultivate personal relationships at work; that professional relationships must prevail at all cost. So, what’s the cost? What’s right about not cultivating appropriate personal relationships at work? Something must be “right” about it as many choose not to.

  2. Julie Fleming-Brown
    Julie Fleming-Brown says:

    Peter, you make some terrific points. I think it’s possible to take an appropriately personal interest in people at work… A warm professional relationship. The tough part comes in defining where the line is between appropriate and inappropriate. And people will likely vary widely as to where the line is. Few if any of us would want to be regarded as working robots, so the question is how to draw boundaries. Not an easy task!

    Thanks for your comment, Peter.

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