People As Product: Managing Law Firm Talent

People As Product: Managing Law Firm Talent

By necessity, lawyers are deeply rooted in precedent and tradition — living and breathing case law in their working lives. This mindset is extraordinarily useful for navigating our legal system and making effective, evidence-based arguments, but it can also hinder law firms’ ability to adapt to changes in the legal world that have great potential to benefit or harm them. We’ve talked about Knowledge Management and how some law firms are following corporations’ lead in adopting effective KM policies, but what about attracting strong talent to acquire this institutional knowledge in the first place? Traditionally, a big paycheck and the potential to eventually move up within the ranks and nab that prestigious corner office were all the motivation that was necessary to entice and retain the most talented young lawyers. The times they are a-changin’.

As more and more of the Millenial generation acquire law degrees and enter the workforce, understanding what they are after has become vital for effective recruitment and retention at law firms. While compensation remains important, America’s next generation of lawyers highly values meaning, flexibility, and opportunities to develop themselves through training and leadership. HR and training departments can help, but senior attorney leadership is the key to providing the mentoring that young lawyers need to feel valued at their job. However, senior attorneys in leadership positions generally earned those positions by being extremely effective litigators, and thus still find themselves spending the majority of their time serving clients while the development and evaluation of the lawyers under them suffers. These leaders have the knowledge and experience to both set clear expectations and help new attorneys to learn and meet those expectations, and firms who neglect this side of the equation may eventually find themselves dealing with a vicious cycle of turnover among their young talent.

This problem is only exacerbated by the traditional system of partners choosing which junior lawyers work with them on projects, thereby creating a sort of tier system among young talent based on the subconscious bias of partners rather than objective ability. The lucky associates who manage to connect with a partner may get the attention and development they need, but the less fortunate young lawyers often find themselves relegated to assignments that make them feel under-appreciated. Their uneven mentoring also prevents them from improving their skills and better serving the firm. The high cost of investing in a young lawyer makes this sort of system unwieldy and inefficient, especially when alternatives are available for those firms brave enough to step outside of established precedent.

One meaningful step a law firm can take is to implement an evaluation system that offers detailed feedback across a range of areas and provides clear information on the direction of a lawyer’s career advancement. Staying with the same company or firm for an entire career is no longer the norm, so providing meaningful advice and making employees feel valued and secure in the steps they must take to advance can go a long way toward preventing the now natural desire many people feel to change jobs on a regular basis. Because law firms are essentially selling their own expertise — their product is the collective experience, knowledge, and minds of their lawyers — maintaining a long-term, dedicated force of attorneys could provide a substantial leg-up over the competition.

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