How to Attract (and Keep) the Best and Brightest Legal Talent

  • July 18, 2014
  • Ann Macaulay

When reigning women’s national curling champion Jennifer Jones needs to take time off from her busy law practice to compete at the rink, her firm is behind her all the way.

Jones, an associate at Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP in Winnipeg, often takes time off work to compete in curling events for as long as two weeks at a time—most recently for the Canadian team in Paisley, Scotland. And while many firms are trying harder to accommodate their lawyers’ personal lives, Aikins has gone out of its way to allow Jones the flexibility she needs to practise law and compete in a sport at an international level.

“I honestly can’t say enough kind things about how the firm has treated me and how supportive they’ve been,” says Jones. Even when she’s in the middle of a major transaction, she says if she has to take time off to compete there’s never a question as to whether or not she can go. “They’re always excited for me and never make me feel that I’m letting anybody down.”

Traditionally, law firms haven’t been known to give their associates a great deal of flexibility. But that’s changing as the demands of the younger generation increase and retaining top legal talent becomes a more pressing issue. Meanwhile, more and more lawyers are looking for “the little things” that go beyond simple monetary compensation.

Generation Gap

There appears to be a huge generational gap in expectations from what the baby boomers—many of whom are now law firm partners—think and what Generations X and Y want and expect. The business world has been facing this demographic reality for several years and law firms, while slower to react, are now staring this reality in the face.

Many members of the younger generation are simply not as willing to put in the kinds of hours their predecessors did. While senior partners years ago may have considered billing 2,200 hours a year as the norm, newer associates are expecting to put in less time, often as few as 1,700 hours. They want more quality of life—which usually translates into fewer billable hours—and more perks.

“There are new challenges in managing this generation,” says Sameera Sereda, a recruitment specialist and managing director for the Prairies at the Counsel Network in Calgary.

Sereda adds that younger workers are motivated by personal development and work/life balance as opposed to money. She advises senior partners to give younger lawyers opportunities “where they can have work/life balance, where they can grow personally. Allow them to go off and take different types of courses, or develop themselves in other ways that isn’t necessarily related to the law. Those kinds of things are important to them.”

They want communication on a regular basis. “I know partners who say to me, ‘when I was practising, no one talked to me—I was expected to do my work and bill.’ But newer lawyers want people to talk to them and give them feedback. The young lawyers are being vocal by walking out. That’s how they’re making that statement. They’re leaving if they’re not getting what they want.”

“You’ve got to treat them like real people, not like worker bees,” says Duncan Jessiman, a partner at Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson LLP in Winnipeg. “It’s a matter of trying to develop good, interesting work that keeps them challenged. They have a life beyond the firm and recognize that it can assist the firm because it brings different ideas and thought processes from wherever they interplay outside of it.”

Sereda insists that younger workers will leave if they’re not treated well. “It’s not all about money. The biggest thing is promoting a workplace that provides them with a balanced lifestyle … and be shown that their employer values that flexibility. They don’t want to have to face the four o’clock emergency on a Friday and have their entire weekend shot. Whereas that was normal 20 years ago—you expected that—the new lawyers are just not willing to do that.”

Shift in Mindset

Law firms have had to make a real shift in mindset given the diverse generations that now span a law firm, says Sereda. “You’ve got these traditionalists, the partners, who are thinking about retirement. And these young 24-year-olds who are coming out of law school have a very different value system and a very different mindset as compared to the partners when they first started articles. So what I think firms are starting to do is first of all understand that this exists. You’ve got to accept that there is a generational difference or diversity within the firm, and that what motivates and attracts and retains lawyers from each of these groups is very different.

“Not everyone wants to bill 2,200 hours a year and make money and be a partner,” says Sereda. “It’s that some men and women—not just women—want to spend more time with their families and they’re willing to work a reduced workload.”

Smart firms are now starting to recognize that some lawyers are not wiling to sacrifice their personal time in the hopes of one day becoming partner. In turn some firms are offering a reduced workload and reduced billing targets at a lower salary, with the understanding that these lawyers are still valuable members of the team—they’re just taking a different track.

A Business Case for Law Firm Flexibility

In March, consulting firm Catalyst Canada released the results of a survey of lawyers across Canada called “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Building the Business Case for Flexibility.” The report lays out elements of the business case for flexibility in law firms.

The survey of more than 1,400 lawyers clearly outlines that the top two issues for associates are “an environment that’s more supportive of family and personal commitments and more control over the work schedule,” says Dr. Susan Black, president of Catalyst in Toronto. “Those were the top two for both men and women.” Not surprisingly, associates who had positive perceptions of the work/life culture at their firms planned to stay for a longer period of time.

Working fewer hours was found to be another major issue. Dr. Black says that retention can be increased if law firms are mindful and supportive of the fact that associates have a life outside the firm because “it communicates a genuine interest to view the associate as a whole person.”

Dr. Black has heard of firms becoming more progressive in offering “different kinds of support services, such as concierge services and back-up childcare services. There’s currently very little, but it indicates that they’re starting to look at ways to be more creative.” And they’re recognizing that although compensation and partnership are important to associates, “it’s not the whole ball of wax anymore.”

According to Dr. Black, one of the biggest challenges for firms—and service-sector organizations in general—is the notion of the path to partnership.

“In a law firm you make partner in seven or eight years; in an accounting firm it’s 12 or 13 years. Often that model conflicts with people’s life cycles.” At that stage lawyers are in their 30s and want to start a family, but “your family’s young and they need you a lot too. So the ability for service organizations to be more flexible in how they define that path can potentially be a huge lever around retention. It’s a big cultural challenge to move off that model. But if you can let people move off it for a while and then come back on without stigma—that can be very powerful.”

Younger people place a very high premium on their family life and their life outside the office. “That’s a demographic shift in attitude—it’s not going to change. I think we’re in the very early stages of it,” says Dr. Black. “What will distinguish law firms that can capitalize on this shift and have it work to their advantage in terms of attracting and retaining the best talent will be those that can move their while organization to actively grappling with it.”

The cost of losing legal talent is huge. “When it comes to retention, there is a business case for addressing the issue of work/life balance,” says Dr. Black.

Law firms make huge investments in identifying, recruiting and training people. Catalyst found that the average cost of an associate’s departure is $315,000—approximately twice the average associate’s salary—and the average breakeven point on an associate is 1.8 years.

Change of Atmosphere and Culture

To attract and keep associates, firms have to ensure that they offer good work and competitive pay. But more and more, “you need to create an atmosphere and a culture within the firm that associates want to be a part of,” says Joanne Poljanowski, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG) and a member of the firm’s management committee.

“All of us are faced with the challenge of how you find some balance, or at least how you can accommodate the demands on your professional time versus the demands of your personal life, whether they be children or parents or whatever.” In an effort to address some of those issues, BLG offers several things, including a mentoring program, a Professional Excellency Program, the Parents at Work Program and flexible work arrangements.

BLG’s Professional Excellency Program focuses on education and training at all lawyer levels. Some are geared towards practice areas and some focus on how to manage time and clients. Poljanowski says, “It’s an opportunity for associates to meet their counterparts from our other offices. They think it’s invaluable.”

The firm’s Parents at Work Program is organized by a company called mothering ’n more! which provides information, primarily through lunch-time seminars, on various parenting topics. It also provides an opportunity for the firm’s lawyers who are also parents to “get together in a casual setting to discuss amongst themselves the issues and challenges they’re all facing.”

Parental Leave

More and more young associates want to take time off the “partnership track” to spend time with their young families.

Simon Coley, legal counsel with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General in Victoria, took an eight-month paternity leave when his son was born. The chance to take such a long time off was a consideration when he took the job in 1999. Other factors he considered were what he terms “quality of life benefits”—a pension and the five weeks’ paid vacation he receives, as well as the ability to balance personal and work life by having most weekends off.

“There aren’t the same kind of billable hour pressures that there are in private law firms,” he says. “In my mind it’s all rolled up as part of a larger package. My pay isn’t as good as what it could be if I worked in the private sector, but then there are these other benefits that you have to consider too.

“One of the major benefits of doing a parental leave with the provincial government is that you get your salary topped up to 75 per cent of your regular pay. I don’t believe that there are very many, if any, law firms out there that do that.”

Coley describes his paternity leave as a tremendously valuable opportunity to develop a close relationship with his son and great insight into the challenges of raising a child. “It was a really eye-opening experience for understanding what it’s like to be the primary caregiver for a young child. And hopefully I have become a better person for it and I think I ended up becoming a better employee and a more understanding citizen.”

Many lawyers have opted out of private practice to work in government or as in-house counsel. Some lawyers can’t tolerate the pressure or the hours and leave law altogether.  Coley says, “There are a lot of talented lawyers that I work with who could be making a heck of a lot more money in the private sector but choose to stay with the Ministry of the Attorney General because they get more time with their families. They get time off on the weekends, they don’t have to work evenings, they can have a more predictable work schedule that doesn’t intrude upon evenings and weekends.”

The one thing law firms must keep in mind is that their people are their main resource—and keeping them at the firm means keeping them happy. As Poljanowski at BLG puts it, “The associate who joins us after being a student is not only hopefully a future partner but also a future leader of the firm.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto writer.