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The First Rule of Getting Out of Holes: Reducing Attorney and Staff Turnover

by Erik Mazzone |

When you find yourself in a hole and you want to get out, as the saying goes, the first rule is to stop digging.

Nowhere is this more true than in digging out of an altogether too common hole among law firms today: reducing attorney and staff turnover. Employee turnover is expensive, disruptive to workflow, frustrating to clients and damaging to team morale. Not to mention soul-sucking when you have to sit through hour after hour of terrible interviews seeking gamely to replace the person who just left with someone – you are getting the sinking feeling – who won’t be quite as good.

I’m in and out of a lot of law firms in across North Carolina and a lot of firms that I meet with are struggling with attorney and staff turnover. Usually this presents in our consultations as difficulty in filling positions, but much of the time the empty positions aren’t new ones created by growth but rather empty seats that some valued (though perhaps not valued enough) employee recently occupied.

Recruiting is hard, especially outside of the major urban areas. Training new lawyers and staff members is hard. Finding team members who gel with your existing group, bring a solid work ethic, and have the basic attributes of honestly and diligence is hard. The odds of getting all this right in any given new hire are not great. You have to kiss a lot of frogs, as it were.

So, the most efficient thing to do here – and this, it should be noted, is a solve for the long-term problem of building and managing a team – is to make sure you are keeping the folks you want to keep in the first place. Doesn’t matter how fast you bail water from a boat if it is leaking faster. 

Most of the time, we believe as a business owners, that employee relationships are purely economic. That it is simply a trade of time for money and that if you want to keep someone longer, the only lever you have to pull on is the one that dumps more money into an employee’s pocket (up to the point that it is sustainable for the firm’s budget, of course).

But we vastly overestimate the impact of money on employee retention and vastly underestimate the other stars in the constellation of things that a make a job worth staying at and a firm feel like a family. 

This is especially true as firm owners grapple with a new generation of lawyers, as Gen Z (who comes up with these names? Can’t we just start naming them sequentially like hurricanes?) attorneys take their places in the profession. We can’t count on them wanting the same things that Millennials valued, let alone Boomers (or my own largely missing Gen X cohort). They have values and concerns and ideals all their own, and the firms that win the war against staff attrition will the ones who learn what their team members care about and figure out how to give it to them while still providing excellent legal services to clients.

I’m not going to join the growing chorus of voices telling everyone what Gen Z wants and values – in part because nobody needs to hear that from a gray-haired fellow like me and in part because I don’t believe the answers will be reliably the same from practice area to practice area and region to region.

Instead, I want to offer a few skeleton keys for you to use in your firm to figure out the answers for your team: 

  1. Transparent management practices: share as much management data as you can with your team, share it regularly, give them context, and rely on them to appreciate the trust and respect you are showing by involving them in key firm strategies, decisions and results. 
  1. Regular feedback and performance reviews: as regular readers of this column will know, I am a fan of weekly one-on-one meetings with direct reports and regular coaching well beyond the bounds of a yearly performance review. Help your team members grow in their jobs, their professions, and lives. Make your firm a platform for them to do their very best work.
  1. Flexible compensation plans: help your team members, especially the attorneys, get aligned with firm goals by creating flexible compensation plans that reward them for excellent performance (in predictable and transparent amounts) and allow the firm to reduce spend on compensation in the unfortunate down months. Not every lawyer will appreciate this transparent approach to the risk of aligning compensation variably with performance, but at its core, this is owner-like compensation. And like transparent management practices, it is showing team members trust and respect by treating them in owner-like ways; you hope in return to see owner-like behavior. 
  1. Innovative technology: from case management, to mobile friendliness, to internal communications, bring your firm into the present by adopting technologies that boost productivity and signal to future and current team members the firm is a place that believes in investing in its people as well as its systems, processes and tools.
  1. Exit interviews: when you lose a key team member that you would have much rather kept… talk to them. Have an honest conversation about why they are leaving and what things they think you can improve at the firm to make it the kind of place that keeps the talent you want to keep. Try hard to listen with an open mind and not slide into a defensive posture; the departing team member is doing you a favor by speaking honestly. Treat it that way, even if it is hard to hear. 

All five of those skeleton keys follow the same through-line of treating your team members, from the newest and youngest to the most seasoned, as valued professionals whose opinions should be solicited and listened to. To lean into transparency and trust and building a team that rewards those investments with bringing their best work to the firm every day. 

Staff turnover is a particularly un-fun hole to find yourself in. Stop digging and start climbing; you’ll be glad you did.

As always, if you want to talk about staff turnover or any other aspect of legal technology and practice management, LM Practice Management offers insureds three complementary practice management consults per year. You can schedule one at this link. I look forward to speaking with you.

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