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Retaining Top Legal Talent Requires Letting Lawyers Shift Practices

May 24, 2022, 8:00 AM

Most law firms herald their people as their most important asset. Empowering them with more autonomy and support to pursue the practice of their choice, as opposed to being stuck in one silo forever, goes a long way toward evidencing that claim.

And it’s not just the right thing to do to help lawyers derive more satisfaction from their jobs. It’s also, in this recruiter’s opinion, good business.

Let’s dive in and discuss why that’s the case, and how law firms can help lawyers find the right fit.

Practice Area Flexibility Benefits Both Lawyers and Law Firms

In my experience, the highly competitive job market has made many law firms more flexible in allowing associates—both existing and new hires—to shift or modify their practice areas. With talent in short supply, firms have found success in identifying and hiring talented attorneys with a mix of experience who they can “retool” for a different practice area, industry, or sub-specialization.

This allows firms to get the resources they need, and lawyers to make a shift to a practice that better suits their interests and passions. But will this trend, like remote work, sustain once the job market cools down? Will it again become difficult for lawyers to shift groups within a firm or when joining a new one?

Time will tell. However, forward-looking firms who want to build and maintain a positive culture and attract and retain top talent would be wise to continue focusing on helping people find the right practice area fit.

Indeed, the negative consequences, including dissatisfaction and burnout, of a mismatch between individuals’ abilities and interests and the work they do are too great to not allow for more flexibility. And there’s more than just a moral case to be made.

Despite record salaries and bonuses, law firms continue to struggle to attract and retain talent. According to data from a 2022 report, associate turnover at law firms reached almost 25% through November 2021 on a rolling 12-month basis. In addition, the top risks to profitability in 2022 cited by law firms “all involved talent and the intense competition reflected in the currently raging talent war.”

One of the most striking features of the crazy legal job market over the last few years is that while money is undoubtedly important, it’s just one factor among many that lawyers consider when evaluating current and prospective employers. Therefore, one way law firms can be more competitive in the hunt for good people and, perhaps more importantly, in retaining good people, is to embrace flexibility as a core value.

Steps Law Firms Can Take to Enable Practice Group Switching

There are a number of actions law firms can take to empower and enable lawyers to effectively shift or modify their practices.

Provide Clarity. Most firms don’t highlight the fact that they may allow practice flexibility, nor do they explicitly state they won’t. The general approach is to say nothing and consider the issue on a case-by-case basis.

But if a firm is serious about attracting the most talented lawyers, irrespective of practice group experience, then it should open the discussion around practice flexibility and support it in situations where it makes sense. It’s the type of thing that can give a firm a competitive advantage in the war to attract and retain talent.

Don’t Penalize. Back when the job market wasn’t so hot, I would typically tell candidates looking to switch from one practice to another as part of a lateral move that they should expect to get dinged in compensation or partnership class year—or both. During this time when associates have had more leverage with law firms, taking this sort of hit has been less common.

Instead of treating this as a temporary feature for when demand for candidates outstrips supply, firms looking to differentiate should consider making it permanent.

Provide Training. One of the most important things a firm can do is to provide training and mentorship to help those who are retooling or transitioning to a new practice. Firms should ensure that the associate is matched with an engaged mentor, is introduced to others in the practice, and provided training, such as paid-for access to CLE courses.

Also important is that firms should not penalize lawyers for a temporary dip in billable-hour production as they work to become a productive member of a new practice.

Reexamine Prior Beliefs. In order to become more flexible, a law firm must undergo a culture shift, and individual lawyers must shift their mindsets. The shift involves re-examining beliefs about the core skill set required in a successful lateral hire—particularly for more junior needs. In short, it’s more about evaluating the person versus the prior practice group experience.

Admittedly, not all retools are effective for an associate or wise for a firm. A shift from litigation to corporate may not be as feasible as, for example, a shift from oil and gas to renewable energy. And I typically see the most successful shifts at the junior level.

That said, openness to practice flexibility now, and in the future, can differentiate a firm in the never-ending war for talent. In some cases, it just might be a firm’s secret weapon.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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JB Pullias is a senior director with VOYlegal, a leading national legal search firm specializing in high-level associate and partner placements with top law firms. He previously spent six years in private practice in Houston.