As flocks of new lawyers entered the legal profession over the past three years, many law firms have faced challenges in training, retaining, engaging, and developing this new generation. The lessons that firms take from these challenges—and the solutions they develop in response—will have a lasting impact on the industry.
Today’s incoming associates often embrace a consumer mindset, and come prepared with a checklist of specifications they expect from their employers.
Young lawyers want to work for a firm where lawyers and business professionals represent a diverse set of political and social viewpoints. They look for a firm that embraces a culture of respect and inclusion, and that cares about quality of life. They’re thinking more about benefits — like generous parental leave, wellness plans, and mental health days.
Law firms are increasingly under a microscope. Preparing for the next generation of attorneys will require them to evolve, and there are practical steps that firm leaders can take as they work toward that end.
Learn What Drives Interest and Attachment
What do the associates you want to retain and attract want from your firm? These drivers and attributes will differ across firms, so consider surveying your associates to learn from them. The results might surprise you, but they’ll help you determine the steps you need to take to improve retention and engagement—and to build interest from top talent.
Think Beyond Compensation
Associates want a work-life balance—to work for a firm that thinks of them as a whole person, not just as a timekeeper. This means encouraging their hobbies, mental health, nutrition, and more.
With this in mind, firms should review their legacy policies. For example, they should encourage lawyers to rest, take time away from work, and fully unplug when they’re on vacation.
Foster Meaningful Relationships
The pandemic reinforced the importance of fostering meaningful relationships—both between mentors and more junior lawyers, and between peers. The connections we make at work strengthen firm culture and help us learn from one another.
Think of the minutes before a meeting when a partner tells an associate what to expect, and the minutes after when the partner shares insights on what took place. These moments are invaluable, and creating them is essential. Law firms need to encourage their partners to be intentional about one-on-one communications with associates, and to think of it as a firm-strengthening priority.
Similarly, think about the countless unscheduled interactions between peer lawyers throughout a day, asking advice or chuckling at a witty observation. When recruiting entry-level attorneys, we tend to seek and attract those who are looking to make meaningful connections—and indeed, friendships—at the firm.
Understand the Feedback Process
Associates want real-time feedback, and firms that provide it will retain more associates and develop better lawyers. At Vinson & Elkins, an attorney development team facilitates this feedback as an extension of the partners’ talent agenda. Embedded into our practice groups, every team member is a certified coach and a former practicing lawyer.
The team ensures that partners provide regular feedback and have meaningful career conversations with associates. Team members also work directly with associates to help coach and guide them in their careers. While they are not a replacement for the partner/associate relationship, they can help create a more valuable feedback loop.
Improve the Firm’s Mentoring Skills
Most lawyers are not born mentors, so it’s important to help them improve their mentoring skills. We do this by holding mentoring workshops for partners and senior associates.
In teaching mentors to be mental health first responders, we emphasize the value of listening with empathy. We want mentors to think of themselves not as a radar, but as a sonar that detects the signals of a problem before it becomes evident.
Reward Associate Training
Developing associates is crucial to law firm success. And in their evaluation of partners, firms should consider incorporating criteria that measure partners’ dedication to associate development.
We want partners to work with as many associates as they can, and to look for opportunities to work with those with whom they’ve yet to work regularly. Measuring and rewarding this behavior establishes a framework for encouraging one-to-one informal training.
Never Stop Onboarding
Law firms have long approached onboarding as a once-and-done type of effort. But thoughtful firms think of it as a long-term, continual effort. Lawyers constantly face changes, whether returning to work after a pandemic or being deployed to a new practice area. To reinforce core values, firms must constantly work to strengthen their cultures, and introduce new forms of training.
A Cross-Generational Challenge
The challenge for today’s law firms is largely cross-generational. While firms have always employed multiple generations at the same time, these generations now work together more closely, and may approach work with diverging expectations and mindsets.
One of the major differences is that the youngest generation is looking for more authenticity from partners and firm leadership, placing a higher value on transparency, candor, and clear and concise feedback.
This cross-generational challenge also requires leaders to be more flexible. For example, people may be back in the office, but those new to the profession may not be used to an in-person work environment, compounding the stress of a heavy workload.
Challenging the status quo can be uncomfortable, even painful. But it’s also essential. Only by evolving can law firms succeed in today’s new reality.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Hy Pomerance is chief talent officer at Vinson & Elkins, leading the firm’s human resources, reward and benefits, legal recruiting, talent development and DE&I functions.