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

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.)

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.

3 replies
  1. David Maister
    David Maister says:

    Thanks for spreading the word and supporting the argument. It is amazing to me that, even though the rest of the business world long ago accepted the economic wisdom (not the moral virtue) of investing in employee’s development, it is still necessary in a so-called “noble profession” to make the case that business involves people.

  2. lifeatthebar
    lifeatthebar says:

     Thanks for your comment, David!

     I'm curious whether this wisdom has ever been accepted in the law, or whether its acceptance has fallen off as law firms have become more business-oriented. Talking with more senior lawyers suggests to me that there used to be more of a sense that young lawyers were to be nurtured and grown, whereas now there's a sense that it's up or out and up often isn't an option because "up" is filled and needs more downstream bodies to prop up those profts per partner. Maybe it's rose-colored reminisence, but I'm not so sure.

    (And a disclaimer — of course, not every firm sees its associates as coldly as I'm suggesting here. Fortunately, I'm well aware of that.)

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] necessarily elevate blogging to author status, I certainly have my favorite posts.  One of them is Relationship or one-night stand: how law firms view associates(and clients).  It’s a favorite for two reasons: first, it draws on an article about client development by […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply