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Talent Acquisition and Retention

To solve the under-performing associate problem, firms must first understand the cause

Respondents to the Thomson Reuters 2019 Law Firm COO and CFO Survey ranked “under-performing lawyers” as the third-largest risk to their firms’ profitability. For those of you keeping score at home, it was surpassed only by “lawyer recruitment and retention” at number two and “downward pressure on fees from clients” at number one.

When looking for a solution to the under-performing associate issue, it can be easy to blame the attorney’s education or general ability to do the job. But, most law firm leaders would agree that any attorney who was good enough to earn a JD likely has what it takes to fulfill the basic responsibilities of a first- or second-year associate.

So, what’s the actual cause?

If it’s fair to assume that the perceived under-performance lies with some of the firm’s millennial attorneys—there could be a couple of different issues in play.

The first is simply not having the support they need. If you look back to your first associate job, what were the things that kept you from completing an assignment? Lack of information, knowledge, skill? Nobody to ask for guidance or advice? It could be that your firm’s under-performing young associates are in largely the same spot.

The second issue is related to the first and involves cultural differences in the way millennial attorneys work. Could a few tweaks to the way the firm operates provide the solution? Let’s look at a few that could directly contribute to a solution:

  • Does the firm have the most recent technology? Millennials are known to strongly favor using cutting edge technology as a way to get things done. Depending on the type of work they are doing, associates who have easy access to the best information are much more likely to thrive compared to those who struggle to find the answers they need.
  • What is the firm’s onboarding process like? Take a look back at the under-performing associate’s experience when he or she first joined the firm. Was there any mentorship involved? Millennials tend to work best in an environment where they have a mentor or at least a specific person they can go to when they have questions. In the absence of such a mentor, some millennials can find it difficult to get “unstuck” and become frustrated when questions go unanswered.
  • What kind of work is the associate doing? One last millennial culture trait that is worth looking at in this discussion is the feeling that their work makes a difference. Millennials are by and large driven and socially aware, and those traits resonate strongly in their professional lives. They want to do engaging work that has a purpose and that excites them. If it doesn’t, they can lose interest and take longer to complete assignments. It might be easier said than done in a law firm setting, but make an effort to give them more challenging, high-impact assignments from time to time. After all, they will need to handle more complex work eventually. And getting them accustomed to it sooner than later goes directly to the goal of full performance.

If you want to improve the performance of your firm’s millennial attorneys, appealing to their cultural preferences could provide the boost they need. Upon closer examination, it could be argued that a focus on these types of considerations could help firms address both the “under-performing lawyers” and the “lawyer recruitment and retention” risks mentioned above.

There is no doubt that millennials are the future of the legal profession. Firms concerned with hiring attorneys that will become profitable contributors need to take steps to ensure that they provide an environment that not only attracts millennials but also makes them want to stay.

Learn more about how you can make your firm an attractive employer for millennials.

Download our white paper, How to Become a Law Firm Where Millennials Want to Work.

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