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What to Do about Associate Turnover

I Quit Note

Recently, I pontificated about the hopelessness of trying to get some clients to pay their overdue bills.

If you haven’t had enough of my fatalistic approach to the universe, then I’ve got some more for you.

Today, we turn our attention to the issue of associates coming to work for you, building relationships with clients, and then leaving your firm and taking those clients with them.

I’ve heard story after story about this scenario, and the attorneys telling me about it are angry. They feel like they invested all of their hope, dreams, and energy in these young lawyers, only to get stabbed in the back.

These lawyers come to me and ask how they can find a good associate who won’t screw them by running off.

Can it be done? Can you hire an associate and count on his or her loyalty and longevity so you can recoup your investment?

Sorry: here I go again.

Nope, you can’t count on them sticking around. They’re going to leave most of the time. You’re going to end up disappointed if you’re counting on them making a career out of being your employees.

Yep, you can come up with partnership track schemes, bonus structures, and incentive plans, and some people will still leave.

It’s an uphill battle.

So what are you to do? Should you hire associates? Should you just give up and hire paralegals?

Nope, keep hiring associates.

However, use them differently than you have in the past.

Use them while anticipating their departure.

Don’t invest gobs of time and money in their training if that’s going to lead you down a money-losing path. Train them efficiently using audio, video, and online training that can be recycled for subsequent associates. Create an amazing manual providing step-by-step instructions. Work collaboratively with other small firms to compile training materials. The JAG corps does an amazing job of training lawyers to litigate with a systematic approach and the understanding that many of these lawyers will leave at the end of the obligation.

Limit the associates’ role to assignments that allow immediate profitability. Think through what they can do that will affect the bottom line right now rather than a year or two from now. Think of it like you’d think of hiring a temp to photocopy exhibits for an upcoming trial. You wouldn’t hire the temp and pay the $150 for the day if it weren’t going to make money for your practice. You’re doing a cost-benefit analysis when you hire the temp. Treat the evaluation of the associate in the same manner. Assume the associate is leaving soon. Can you still justify the cost?

Build a compensation system that assumes the associate is leaving. Consider a plan that provides for payment at the conclusion of the matter rather than as the case moves along. If the associate leaves before completing the case, you’ll still have the funds you need to compensate yourself of the next associate for wrapping up the file. Be sure your payroll dollars are compensating for results rather than effort, and you’ll go a long way toward protecting yourself.

Keep interviewing all of the time in anticipation of the departure. That way, you’ll always have a candidate ready to jump in where the last associate left off. Make yourself interview a candidate every week or two so you’ve always got your hook in the water.

The key to hiring associates is anticipating their departure. It’s not the leaving that drives us nuts; it’s the expectation that they’ll stay. If you’re mentally prepared for the relationship to last a year or two or three, then you’ll treat the situation differently than you will when you expect it to last a lifetime. You’ll plan differently, and you’ll seek an immediate return on your investment. That shift in your expectations will drive your behavior and change your results.

Keep hiring: just do it with realistic expectations, and you’ll come out on top.

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  • Scott Morgan

    Fantastic post Lee! Having only had one associate who has been with me now for about two years, it really made me think about the possibility of having to train a replacement if she left. Since she was the first, the training was very much one-off and hands-on training by myself with no documentation or training resources produced. I am working on growing my practice so I am definitely going to take your advice to heart about creating evergreen training materials to use again and again.

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