Millennials and the Associate Revolving Door: How to Motivate and Keep a New Generation of Lawyers

Most law firm leaders recognize that millennials will soon dominate the legal profession in numbers. They also recognize, however, that millennial associate attrition is an industry-wide growing concern from both a financial and non-financial standpoint. Employing millennials appears to go hand-in-hand with profitability, and each lost associate is incredibly costly (between $200,000 and $500,000, all factors considered). Yet a very small number of firms successfully address this issue or even take the steps to fully understand the true reasons associates are leaving. Low associate retention has become so common that it is both expected and accepted.

It is important to understand millennial lawyers and better evaluate what they want from a firm, why they leave, and how to best work as a productive team.

Many millennial lawyers are burning out. Millennials struggle with work-life balance, suffer from higher rates of depression and alcoholism, refuse to agree with the "adapt or get out" approach, and leave to go in-house or to legal “disrupters.” Most associates say that they want to become partner at their current firms, yet nearly three quarters end up staying less than six years. The track record for lateral associate hire retention is shockingly low, evidence of a clear disconnect in employer/employee expectations.

It is a common assumption that associates predominantly leave for more money. While having a competitive salary is critical, this is just one piece of the puzzle. Components such as lack of training, mentorship and development opportunities, high workloads and billable hours, poor treatment or lack of contact with senior leaders, and low firm morale can carry more weight. While increasing pay may lower churn, it doesn't always improve employee satisfaction.

What do millennial associates actually want in a law firm, and how can firms reasonably accommodate?

  • Better integration for new employees. This is a weak area in the legal industry compared to outside corporations, and it is noticed by new attorney hires. Investing in a strategic onboarding program shows that a firm is investing in their people and their careers.
  • To be told exactly what is expected of them. Many young associates have been taught how to understand the law but not how to develop a practice. Assign a mentor that takes an active role in providing oversight and guidance.
  • Not to be measured and judged for face time in the office. Millennials are natives to a digital era in which one can work from home or on the road with relative ease. Embracing flexibility and placing importance on getting the job done right will be seen as a benefit.
  • Credit for the time invested in building business and help doing so. Millennial associates may feel they don't have the time or the budget to network and self-market. Helping with introductions, making connections, and training on how to close a deal provides millennials with the support they need in building their practices.
  • Consistent support staff. Too much of associates' time is spent on administrative tasks. Firms need to remember that losing any staff member, including legal assistants and paralegals, is costly, and the additional work usually ends up on the associates.
  • Strong training and continuing education within and outside the firm. Both lead to individual growth, which is a key factor in job satisfaction. If your firm is not already holding lunch-and-learns, one-on-one coaching, and encouraging millennial associates to pursue other avenues of continuing education and professional development, even if that means time spent outside of the office, consider enhancing these efforts.
  • Values and a company culture with which they identify. Corporate social responsibility demonstrated by diversity, pro-bono and sustainability efforts, transparency, part-time and family leave policies, and reasonable work hours are important to millennial associates. Time demands and toxic company cultures are key reasons lawyers at all levels leave.

Seasoned lawyers may have trouble recognizing or accepting these issues – and for valid reasons. They may have been associates when success was defined by overworking and standing out above the competition. They may have worked nights and weekends and took charge of their own destiny without a lot of hand-holding. They may have been taught it was their job to adjust to management and senior leaders, not the other way around. And it may sound as though current associates want more benefits and less work. Even if this may be true, it doesn't matter.

There are generational gaps that need to be bridged. Firms need to work with, not against, millennials. Law firm leaders can make retaining associates a priority and strive to create change, or they can keep losing top talent in this increasingly complex and competitive legal market to alternative practice companies and firms that are doing a better job at it.

Naturally, every firm has its own set of challenges, and the millennial associate profile is not universal. Firms should conduct their own research, either formally or informally, to identify their specific needs. Marketing and business development professionals can support these types of initiatives and help associates overcome challenges with self-marketing, organize substantive trainings and brainstorm creative strategies. For inspiration, The Ultimate Law Firm Associate's Marketing Checklist by Ross Fishman provides specific examples of what associates can do to build their own practices throughout the first five years of their careers.

Author's Note: There is content in this article that stems from Cubicle Fugitive's recent "Young Lawyer Survey" that was shared at the 2018 LMA Annual Conference along with information obtained over time through reading various articles and studies. The article is not a direct reflection of personal opinions and experiences pertaining to working with associates or any particular firm.

By Janessa Shaikun, Marketing Director, Franklin & Prokopik P.C., for the Second Quarter 2018 LMA Mid-Atlantic Region Newsletter

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