Keep law department staff happy and engaged through the Great Resignation

Katie Walter

After more than two years of continual change, new professional challenges, and the grind of balancing upheaval at home with upheaval at work, your legal department team may be tired and just not happy.  Some may be on the verge of joining the so-called Great Resignation.

Monthly voluntary separation numbers hit record highs in 2021 and the trend continued into 2022. According to the consulting firm McKinsey, “In the United States alone, there were 11.3 million open jobs at the end of May — up substantially from 9.3 million open jobs in April 2021. Even as employers scramble to fill these positions, the voluntary quit rate is 25% higher than pre-pandemic levels.”

The trend has hit the legal profession as well. According to the Thomson Reuters Institute’s 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market, some firms are facing associate turnover that exceeds 25%. That trend extends to law department teams, with the 2022 State of Corporate Law Departments finding that 14% of general counsel identified maintaining and developing talent as a key priority.

Ask your employees what they need to be happy

Employers can solve some elements of low engagement with company-wide offerings. But individual managers can influence their teams, too. Consider having legal department managers ask some direct questions at their regular one-on-ones to uncover opportunities to support their employees and re-engage them in the work. Ask people:

  • Do you understand how your work contributes to our company mission and strategy? If not, how can I help you see the vision and align your work to it?
  • Do you feel like you have the resources to do your job well? What other tools would help you?
  • Are you able to set boundaries to focus on your most important work? If not, how can I help you protect your time?
  • Do you have sufficient separation between work and home? If not, how can I help you?

General counsel may have to start with their own direct reports before cascading this practice down to line managers. Have your vice presidents and directors model listening and responsiveness before asking managers to engage in these conversations. When you’ve gathered the data, work as a leadership team to respond to what you’ve learned.

Communicate the ways the legal department contributes to the company mission

For many people, the Great Resignation is a time of reckoning with their professional purpose. They want to be sure they are doing work that has meaning. In fact, one Thomson Reuters report found that attorneys who are likely to leave their current firm noted intangibles like the quality of work they were offered as most important to their decision to stay or go. 

Legal department leaders can help contribute to employees’ sense of meaning by communicating clearly and often about what the organization is trying to accomplish and how the legal team contributes to the company’s purpose and mission.

Clear the barriers that distract legal professionals from their most important work

A few years back, McKinsey estimated that 23% of a lawyer’s work could be automated. Initially that may have sparked fears of redundancy; now, many would like to take advantage of that automation. In fact, 46% of legal employees say that legal tech improves their well-being. Rather than competing with the technology, they’re looking to use it to do their jobs better. . Rather than competing with the technology, they’re looking to use it to do their jobs better.

Explore legal technology that can help automate repetitive or mundane tasks for your team. Before you implement new technology, though, you may want to look at roles and responsibilities to see if the attorneys are focused on legal work. It may make sense to create legal project management or other roles that don’t require a law license to help the team work better.

Support employees stretching into other areas that interest them

Many professionals want to know they work at a company that makes a difference in the world and that shares their values. Talk with your team about how you see the company living its stated values. Support team members who want to get involved in initiatives outside of your department.

This might mean using volunteer time off for pro bono work, helping organize events for employee resource groups, or mentoring junior employees. Acknowledge how this work serves the company overall and thank them for their service by being flexible with day-to-day work commitments.

Respect your team’s ability to work remotely

Be thoughtful about requiring workers to come into the office. Make sure the in-office work truly helps the team perform better. People have different roles, different levels of need for collaboration, and varying tolerances for the office environment. 

Take note of where your workers feel most comfortable and most able to do their best work. Then, evaluate your need for them to return to the office. Technology, clear role descriptions, and open communication between management and staff can go a long way to alleviating some of the challenges of remote work and making them happy. 

People are changing jobs at a significant rate. Companies have an imperative to assess their policies and practices at the organization level. Department heads — like general counsel — have an opportunity to connect with and engage their employees at a more personal level to meet the specific needs of a legal team.

Read more about the Great Resignation and how legal industry leaders can help engage and retain their employees.