Law Firm Survey: Work Quality Main Reason Associates Exit
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Summary: Why do associates leave high-paying jobs at law firms?

When law firms hire associates, the intention is usually to groom them and get them to stay. But sometimes, that doesn’t happen, and firms are left wondering–what happened?


According to a new survey by the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, associates leave because of dissatisfaction with their work. That’s a common reason given in other fields too, so what can laws do to address this problem?

Tina Cohen of the Chicago Associate Practice Group and Jennifer Henderson of Major Lindsey & Africa told ABA Journal that there were a few steps that firms could enact to increase work satisfaction. For one, firms can create a work coordination system to balance work flow for associates during slow and busy times, and secondly, they can minimize associate contact with difficult partners.

Cohen and Henderson also said to ABA Journal that training and making associates feel welcome at work was vital to keep them happy. They suggested firms assist associates with introductions to partners, their colleagues, and clients with planned activities such as lunches or events. They also advised that firms clearly communicate what associates need to do to get ahead and be transparent with compensation. This is all in addition to regular training and mentorship programs.

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“On average, for every 25 new associates hired, 17 other associates left last year,” Cohen and Henderson said, and this attrition rate can end up costing law firms millions, according to Harrison Barnes of BCG Attorney Search. 

“Numerous law firms have studied the “cost of human capital” in terms of associate turnover and determined the “hard and soft” costs to be in excess of $300,000 per lost associate in major markets, where the salary levels are highest. Since most large firms lose more than 15 percent of their associates per year, by this measure, a 400-lawyer firm is losing more than $12 million per year because of associate attrition alone,” Barnes said.

The NALP survey questioned 128 law firms in the United States and Canada. The associates said that they wanted to have work that was substantive and demonstrated their knowledge, and if they didn’t receive it, they would choose to leave.

The second reason associates said they would leave law firms is because they wanted to pursue a different practice area. Cohen and Henderson said that to prevent exits for this reason, firms should offer associates work on different types of cases or help an associate change practice areas within the company. They stated that a “retooling” was more cost effective than flat out losing the attorney.

Why do you think associates leave law firms? Let us know in the comments below.


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