Retaining and recruiting attorneys and professional staff remains one of the biggest post-pandemic challenges for law firms. According to the 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, associate turnover rates have increased to record levels, with the 2021 average turnover rate reaching almost one in four associates.
While many firms have increased compensation, law firms are still at risk. According to the 2021 Law Firm Business Leaders Report, recruitment and retention issues are increasing costs while cutting into profitability. This is magnified by competing firms poaching staff members with higher offers.
At the same time, compensation isn’t the only factor in play. The pandemic brought about a change in attorneys’ attitudes and expectations for their careers, causing them to reassess their professional commitments and priorities. Associates want to join and remain in firms where they feel their work is meaningful.
What is meaningful work to attorneys?
When you ask today’s attorneys about their job satisfaction, they’ll tell you about more than compensation. They want to feel there is value and meaning in their work while contributing to something larger than themselves.
Practice areas are often one of the most important factors to attorneys in considering where to work and whether to stay. This should come as no surprise since public interest organizations are often able to recruit top talent with ease despite offering far lower pay than the largest firms. In private practice, attorneys often want opportunities to explore practice areas that they are passionate about or the ability to focus on a specific niche.
Attorneys also value recognition that extends beyond money. Simply showing attorneys that they are appreciated and recognized for their work can help them feel valued and that their work has meaning. Giving attorneys opportunities to grow also helps to recognize their past successes while increasing their personal satisfaction as they see a clear progression in their careers.
What can law firms do to make work more meaningful?
When law firms are seeking attorneys and attorneys are seeking meaningful work, the answer to the recruiting and turnover problem seems clear — make work more meaningful. Adapting to the current job market means not just matching the going salary but also providing (and prioritizing) what attorneys are looking for in their work.
One of the key things for law firm partners to recognize is that profits, law firm culture, and lawyer well-being are all linked together. You can’t realistically focus on profit without also focusing on intrinsic values such as personal growth, relationships, and a sense of purpose. Each time an attorney leaves your firm, the costs include losing their productivity, often having to pay a higher salary to a replacement, and hours other attorneys spend training the replacement and bringing them up to speed on your cases. Focusing on attorney well-being and engagement directly boosts your bottom line by reducing your turnover while developing more dedicated, passionate associates.
Some practice areas fall more naturally under what people may consider meaningful work in terms of making a difference in the world, but this doesn’t mean that other practice areas should abandon the idea of meaningful work. A strategy that applies to any practice area is to encourage associates to find purpose by taking on more of the matters they care about. This can come through newly selected cases or by having associates who focus on becoming specialists on certain types of matters. The end goal might be to develop their personal brand, build skills that transfer to other causes, or create financial success that allows them to give monetary support to causes they care about.
Pro bono cases are another important way that firms can allow associates to give back to the community and change lives. These cases provide attorneys with a change in pace or a way to help the community in ways they can’t through your normal caseload. You might decide to partner with a local non-profit or take on individual cases where a person or organization wouldn’t normally have the financial resources to hire you.
Law firms can also look for ways to make attorneys more efficient at their jobs and to help them expand their work. For example, providing better research technology can allow associates to get up to speed quickly on new matters and practice areas that are meaningful to them but outside of what your firm has done in the past.
Learn more about making work meaningful
Law firm turnover and recruiting issues will remain challenges throughout 2022. Law firms will need to find ways to make work meaningful both to overcome these challenges in the short term and to remain stable in the long term. To learn more about what today’s attorneys find meaningful, read our blog The secret to keeping attorneys happy: It’s more than monetary compensation.