Read the full article in the November/December issue of ALA’s Legal Management magazine.
As employees gain the upper hand in the job market, watch out for these warning signs of departure.
Here’s a tough but critically important question: Does your firm know when it’s at risk of losing its employees?
As many companies are finding out, the Great Resignation isn’t just a new buzzy phrase — it’s here, it’s happening and it seems no industry is immune. In fact, one survey found that 55% of workers anticipate looking for a new job this year, with flexibility being a key driver. The pandemic shifted priorities for many, and they aren’t eager to go back to the way things have been.
Legal isn’t immune. Even long before the pandemic, a study conducted by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa found that for every 20 associates hired by law firms, 15 left, with an average attrition rate of 18% a year (2012–2018).
Indeed, despite increases in salary, incentives and flexible work hours, firms are struggling now more than ever to retain new and diverse talent — including both attorneys and professional staff. The cost of turnover is expensive.
There are many reasons why firms struggle to understand when they are at risk of losing employees, but here are a few commonalities shared by firms:
1. No direct line, many dotted lines: Unlike other companies, law firms generally lack a traditional “org structure” where every employee has a direct report. Instead, lawyers and professional staff often report to and work with multiple people and teams. Without the structure of a “direct-line” supervisor, it’s easy for employees who are struggling or unsatisfied to get lost in the shuffle.
2. Lack of modern tools: Another contributing factor is the absence of a system allowing firms to collect information and feedback that gives them an insight into their employees’ state of mind, what is working — and what is not. Without the tools, firms cannot successfully intervene to help a struggling employee or set in motion other changes that would lead to progressive culture shifts at the firm.
3. Lack of supportive cultures: Traditionally, law firms have struggled to adopt a workplace culture that incentivizes slowing down, checking in with individuals and teams and promoting professional development and other resources that make people feel invested in and that keep them engaged.
This is in part due to the billable hour model (“For every hour I spend checking in with my team, that’s an hour more I have to work tonight or over the weekend”), but it’s also directly related to the systems and resources the firm puts in place to incentivize these kinds of practices.
HOW TO PINPOINT WHEN EMPLOYEES BECOME DISENGAGED
When trying to identify at-risk employees, one of the key indicators to look to is engagement.
A recent report released by Quantum Workplace found that disengaged employees were 3.3 times more likely to leave their companies within 90 days of taking an engagement survey, as compared with highly engaged employees.
“Working with employees consistently as they enter the firm in an effort to truly understand their goals and aspirations is a critical part of the process.”
As a starting point in understanding how to identify disengaged employees, here are four indicators to focus on:
1. A rocky onboarding process: Onboarding is a critical stage for employees — it’s the bridge between the recruitment process and giving a new employee a clear view of the firm’s expectations and how they can succeed.
In short, a well-curated and intentional onboarding process lays the foundation for an employee’s entire work experience. As a result, firms that don’t have a well-organized onboarding process in place are at risk of immediately starting employees off on the wrong foot.
2. Employees are not “showing up”: If an individual stops “showing up” — physically, emotionally or cognitively — this could be a sign that they have one foot out the door. Missing work, lack of enthusiasm and low-quality work product can all be indicators that your employee is at risk of quitting. It can be hard for firms to identify when someone is not “showing up” consistently if there are no structures in place to gather real feedback and keep touch with the employee (more on that below).
3. They stop talking about their future with the company: Home in on things like whether employees share their progress, their goals and their future at the company — either through informal discussions or as part of the review process. (Again, though, firms must provide the proper mechanisms, tools and resources for their teams to verbalize these issues effectively.)
4. Lack of engagement in surveys: A lack of participation in surveys that directly impact the future or day-to-day experience of employees can also be an indication that they’ve lost interest, or that they are experiencing a disconnect between where they are and where they would like to be professionally.
HERE’S WHAT FIRMS CAN DO
If you’re looking to address attrition, identify at-risk employees and get out ahead of these issues, here are a few things you should consider.
Start at the Beginning: Focus on a Successful Onboarding
Given the importance of the onboarding process, start by looking at how you are introducing employees to your firm and what you are doing to set them up for success from day one. This includes things like making sure that your employees know what is expected of them, that they understand their job responsibilities, and that they have the proper support and channels to ask questions at this key point in time.
“The best onboarding processes offer opportunities not just to meet new people but include milestone events intended to support building meaningful relationships over time,” says Jessica Sisco, Director of Talent for Scale LLP.
Working with employees consistently as they enter the firm in an effort to truly understand their goals and aspirations is a critical part of the process, too.
“Ongoing and regular check-in meetings beginning as soon as an associate joins to find out what their goals are, and how we can connect them with the resources they need in order to pursue those goals, are great first steps,” says Amy Tenney Curren, Director of Attorney Learning and Development and Morrison & Foerster LLP. “Associates join a new firm for any number of reasons, and the more we know about their goals, aspirations and needs, the better we can advise them about how to get there.”
“Despite increases in salary, incentives and flexible work hours, firms are struggling now more than ever to retain new and diverse talent — including both attorneys and professional staff. The cost of turnover is expensive.”
Don’t neglect your non-attorney staff, either. After all, it’s expensive and time-consuming to recruit, hire and train people for support and business roles, as well. Formal check-ins — whether they’re conducted by the legal administrator, the managing partner or another authority figure — can go a long way toward uncovering gaps between the employee’s expectations and their current experience.
Provide Individualized Support and Gather Feedback
Set up a structure that ensures someone at the firm is responsible for supporting each employee, understanding their goals and helping them to invest in their professional development. This relationship should be more than someone simply being “available” — it should entail an intentional structure of check-ins, opportunities for discussion and re-evaluation of goals and priorities.
Similarly, to gain insight into where your employees are and to identify those who may be struggling, consider investing in employee feedback software. Platforms like 15Five, Officevibe or Engagedly, for example, provide firms with a way to add structure to the micro- and macro-view feedback that is an essential part of identifying challenges and supporting employees. Many HR software options integrate employee engagement alongside records and payroll.
“We can also make sure that we have well-thought-out guidelines available on what the firm expects at each level of practice, and on how to solicit and receive feedback throughout the year so that they can stay on target as necessary to keep up that trajectory toward long-term success,” Tenney Curren says.
Emphasize Professional Development
In addition to relying on supervisors and feedback for support, firms would be wise to proactively invest and incentivize employees becoming active participants in the trajectory of their career through a more intentional focus on professional development.
Many lawyers mistakenly equate professional development with timely completion of continuing legal education (CLE) credits. As a result, what should be a steady diet of opportunities to incrementally work on themselves and their practice often take a back seat to fitting in a few more billable hours.
But if the goal truly is to get out in front of at-risk employees leaving, firms have a huge opportunity to address these issues through shifting their focus to professional development and encouraging lawyers to work closely with those at the firm who are tasked with providing professional development support.
“One of the most important things we can offer is an open-door policy so that associates always know there’s somewhere they can go for guidance, career coaching or just to raise an issue that they’re not sure where to take,” says Tenney Curren.
“We can also make sure that associates know where to find the resources that are available to them, whether that’s just-in-time training that they may need to advance their skill sets and careers; individual coaching; our employee assistance program, where they can find mental and physical health resources or other supportive options; or help finding the right contacts within the firm to consult on a wide variety of issues.”
If They Do Leave, Understand Why — and Take Action
If someone leaves the firm, it’s critically important that you take steps to understand why — and then turn that information into action. Many firms have exit interviews, but conducting the interviews is not enough on its own. The information collected during those interviews is of little value unless it’s connected to action steps; it must be shared with key stakeholders and integrated into various aspects of the employee experience.
This might include things like taking the feedback to change the onboarding, support or professional development practices at the firm (or creating them if there currently are none); creating new policies or resources; or adjusting the review process in a way that speaks directly to the feedback provided.