By Patrick Moya (August 29, 2023)
As previously published on Law 360.
The last few years have seen changes in law firm hiring, retention and compensation, many of them resulting from the pandemic. Among these is a renewed emphasis on quality of life and firm culture, with attorneys, staff and clients driving the need for change.
Many law firms have been grappling with how to recruit lawyers who not only contribute to the bottom line but also help the firm create a culture that will appeal to sophisticated clients and top-level partners, and this article will focus primarily on the latter.
Three areas that have gotten the most attention are firms publicizing their diversity initiatives, mentoring and in-office attendance policies to attract and retain partners, associates and staff.
Diversity Initiatives in Hiring
The push to make law firms more diverse, particularly at the partner level, has been driven by changes in societal norms that influence the workplace.
While many firms are pursuing diversity by their own initiative, clients, particularly large public companies, are encouraging and often demanding that the firms they hire have their own diversity policies and measure up in terms of diversity expectations.
Notably, in 2016, the American Bar Association House of Delegates passed ABA Resolution 113, which urges all providers of legal services, particularly law firms, to expand and create opportunities at all levels of responsibility for attorneys from diverse backgrounds.
The passage of this resolution helped motivate firms to increase their efforts at promoting diversity in hiring. Law firms are using various strategies to attract candidates and clients, including seeking Mansfield Rule certification to demonstrate their commitment to diversity.
The Mansfield Rule requires law firms to consider at least 30% of underrepresented groups — including women lawyers, underrepresented racial and ethnic lawyers, LGBTQ lawyers and lawyers with disabilities — for leadership roles and activities that lead to leadership. A firm that achieves certification can promote it to clients and candidates.
Importantly, firms should not just think about diversity in terms of race, gender, LGBTQ+, age and disability.
Instead, considerations toward prelaw experience — including prior careers and military service — education, and socio-economic background are also important to enable firms to have a wide range of perspectives and skill sets.
An approach like this may be useful in attracting and representing clients while creating a culture where attorneys are free to do their best possible work.
Firms that want to attract partners from diverse backgrounds cannot just rely on stated policies though. When it comes to recruiting a specific individual, firms must be able to
explain to a candidate why the firm cares about diversity, what the firm has to offer a candidate and why the firm wants the particular candidate in question.
No one wants to feel like they are a token hire and an outsider — I speak from my perspective as a Latino. To recruit the best candidates, firms must focus not just on compensation, but on communicating their culture, their plans for diversifying the firm, and the quality of work and interaction the candidate will have with clients.
It is vital that the candidate understands that they will not just be used to publicize the firm’s diversity but will also be an integral part of the firm. Firms must also understand why and how diversity is truly better for their clients, their employees and their firm as a whole.
In other words, they must have a business reason for diversity. If they don’t, they won’t be able to communicate their mission around their diversity initiatives.
Further, by the second or third interview, candidates should be able to meet with other attorneys from diverse backgrounds at the firm on a one-on-one basis to get a candid opinion about the firm.
The demand for attorneys from diverse backgrounds has also created competition among firms and driven up compensation. It has become a vicious cycle with firms offering ever increasing amounts to attract partners away from other firms.
In some cases, diversity is having an outsized effect on compensation especially for firms that have few or no attorneys from diverse backgrounds, with firms willing to accept a smaller book of business for certain candidates.
The higher cost of compensation is justified because it can attract more clients and candidates and enables firms to demonstrate they are recruiting from a wider pool of candidates and are building an inclusive culture.
Diversity Initiatives in Retention
Many firms are losing partners from diverse backgrounds to other firms, perhaps because they focus too heavily on compensation as a retention tool without thoughtful and deliberate actions to promote an environment where attorneys from diverse backgrounds feel seen, heard and valued for their unique perspectives.
Firms should also encourage interaction among attorneys from diverse backgrounds, which can help in retention. When attorneys don’t feel like they fit in, they are likely to look elsewhere.
While compensation is a factor in retention, firms must regularly communicate with the attorneys they want to retain to ensure their input is being sought out and valued. Ensuring that diversity is achieved at every level of leadership and management is paramount to creating the space for every attorney to advance and obtain their goals within the firm.
Those that can foster a culture where attorneys from diverse backgrounds see the future they want playing out — whatever they want it to be — are far more likely to stay put and be huge contributors to the firm.
Those that don’t are going to create a revolving door and continue to see great talent move on to places that will. Representation matters. Give attorneys from diverse backgrounds a
seat at the table.
Put their ideas and feedback into action; don’t ignore it. Fulfill promises that were made during the hiring process. And finally, make sure new hires feel welcome and help them integrate through thoughtful introductions to the team.
Mentoring Policies in Hiring
In my humble opinion and experience, there is less mentoring now than before the pandemic. As a headhunter, I repeatedly hear firms say they need to hire new attorneys because one left to work with another firm that provided more mentoring and collegiality.
I also hear attorneys say they would only join a firm where they were challenged and could develop their skills. More people are working remotely, reducing those interactions that naturally become mentoring opportunities.
However, attorneys, particularly associates, are still looking for mentoring, and firms need to be providing it to attract candidates.
Mentoring is part of a firm’s culture and is a subset of collegiality. Firms that mentor best also tend to have a culture of collaboration. Partners are more likely to cross-market and cross-sell among themselves, which is also a great business reason to promote mentoring.
The best attorney is not necessarily the best mentor. But the best mentors invest in teaching and leveraging junior partners, associates, paralegals and other staff, and encourage attorneys at every level to do the same to their colleagues.
During the interview process, I encourage those interviewing the candidate to make sure the partner candidate is someone who is willing and able to teach, mentor and develop other attorneys. One is able to do this in many ways, but here are the most valuable.
First, if the partner has a robust practice, and would be joining a similar firm, then see who is coming with the partner — no followers equals a red flag.
Next, ask them about some of the successes the people they’ve trained and worked with have had.
Finally, whenever mentoring is discussed, ask them the how and why to truly understand their mindset. As the old adage goes, the past performance is the best indicator of future performance. This is all a teachable. Willingness, though, is a hard behavior to modify.
Lawyers want to continue to learn and develop, and mentoring provides the job satisfaction, intellectual challenges and prestige that money can’t buy. Providing attorneys with a strong tool kit also gives them a sense of security, both with their current firm and with their clients.
Importantly, firms also need to communicate the benefits of mentoring to all partners so they are willing to commit the time to it. Good mentoring allows those at a more senior level to more effectively staff cases and delegate responsibilities to those lower down the chain.
This is true at each level; the more senior person can focus on the higher-value work while the junior person continues to learn and advance. Mentoring should result in a better work
product, a more productive team and potential cost savings for clients.
Mentoring can also directly affect compensation. Partners who spend time mentoring have less time to bill clients, which is arguably a valid justification for paying lower compensation to new hires. In addition, the firm is promising to provide growth opportunities making the firm more desirable to candidates.
Mentoring Policies in Retention
To improve retention, firms need to communicate effectively with attorneys and ask them what they want to learn and how they want to participate in the firm, and then follow up and do what they promise.
They must take steps to foster a mentoring culture, provide concrete opportunities to mentor and be mentored, and solicit and act on the feedback they get.
When communicating the business reasons for mentoring to partners, firms should lead with the carrot and not the stick. Mentoring improves client retention because clients trust there will be continuity in service and the firm’s knowledge base when a senior partner retires.
Finally, firms should realize that when an attorney is considering making a change, and doesn’t have a trusted mentor at the firm, who or what is going to keep that attorney from leaving?
I like to think of law firms as brick walls — each attorney represents a brick, and mentoring and collegiality are the mortar that makes individual bricks into a wall.
In-Office Attendance in Hiring
Remote work was a necessity during the pandemic, but it has become a lasting, desirable job benefit. In some cases, it has also allowed firms to reduce their office spending, and save money.
Many attorneys who like working from home do not want to return to the office and are seeking firms that will allow them to do so.
However, there are other attorneys who want to be in the office because they want to feel connected to their colleagues and firm. Consider the experience that many laterals or new hires had during the pandemic: pretty lonely and not connected.
Law firms are still concerned about productivity and the loss of training and mentoring opportunities. As a result, many firms want everyone to return.
At this point, law firms are generally still allowing hybrid work, with attorneys told to come in at least one or two days a week, usually midweek. Some firms have gone to four days in office. Support staff and attorneys who do not deal with clients directly may be permitted to work remotely more often.
In hiring, it is important to explain the firm’s policy to candidates, including why the firm is or is not requiring in-office attendance.
There should be a valid reason that is not based on a lack of trust in those working remotely. Utilize common sense when it comes to hiring people who will have difficulty making it to the office regularly, provided it doesn’t violate laws and regulations.
Regardless of the policy, firms should also discuss onboarding. I would encourage firms to have new hires, including laterals, come into the office more often when first hired.
Firms should also strongly encourage the close colleagues of the recently hired attorneys to be in attendance for the same reason, to help ensure that the new hire can effectively acclimate.
Since the time it started, the pandemic taught us that working from home can work, and the majority of us are just as productive and oftentimes more productive — after all, we grew up doing homework — but if it doesn’t fit your work culture, then be transparent and hire those who are willing to come into the office.
In-Office Attendance in Retention
Requiring attendance in-office has been a divisive issue at many firms with attorneys pushing back on mandates. To avoid losing people, firms must explain why they want attorneys or staff in the office.
Importantly, if senior partners do not want to allow remote work because they do not trust people are being productive at home, then they need to evaluate whom they have working at the firm, including both junior and senior partners.
In my opinion, in-office attendance should only be required for cultural and business reasons that have been clearly communicated to everyone at the firm, unless you want a mass exodus.
In addition, firms should consider ways they can address both the need to build a collaborative culture and be flexible to those who feel they are more productive working from home.
For example, firms should have designated days when team members must all come into the office to build relationships and collaborate. When in-office attendance is required, there should be matters or tasks that need to be addressed in person so people feel they came into the office for a reason.
Firms may also want to have projects that allow colleagues to get to know each other better at work.
Firms can also encourage in-office attendance by offering other types of benefits — including snacks in the kitchen, food at meetings, resources that are only available in-office, training and networking opportunities. If you’re going to pick a policy, build it and run with it, or someone like me is going to help your colleague leave.
An attorney deciding where to work will consider more than just the compensation package. As a result, firms should consider nontraditional criteria in attracting and retaining lawyers.
Law firms that provide desirable workplaces because of their mentoring or attendance policies may be able to recruit and keep attorneys at lower compensation than those without those policies.
However, firms must be able to communicate specifics about what they offer and how candidates or employees benefit and follow through on their promises if they want the top talent. They also have to explain the rationale behind their work-from-home policy.
With respect to diversity, firms may have to offer high compensation as well as cultural and workplace benefits because of fierce competition for candidates. To hire or retain the best candidates, it still comes down to effectively communicating what the firm is offering and demonstrating an ongoing commitment to those goals.
Patrick Moya is president and principal at Quaero Group.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.