People go to law school, fall in love with the law, work for a firm and hate being lawyers. Then, these same people leave and take their intellect and abilities to other professions. Law firms can and should mitigate these losses. It hurts not only the firms but the profession as a whole. While it is not always easy, it is possible to create work environments that maximize employee engagement.
One of the most important issues for associates is equal access to challenging assignments. Senior partners usually choose whomever they want to work on their projects and often gravitate towards people who remind them of their younger selves. The firm’s talent pool develops unevenly as patterns emerge where certain members are favored over others. Often this selection process is due to unconscious bias—yet, studies show these structures are significant barriers to success for women and minorities.
A recent study of women’s leadership issues commissioned by AIGA and conducted by sociologist, Dr. Leyla Acaroglu found that across all industries, women in particular, are subjected to a large framework of unconscious bias. There are expectations of “soft work,” meaning cleaning up after meetings, arranging meals, etc.; burdens not placed on male colleagues. They are also viewed as inherently lacking leadership ability, as leadership is equated with masculine traits.
Leadership development for women in particular, is a critical issue to address to retain a higher percentage today’s talent pool. Associates often complain their reviews are perfunctory and lack substantive feedback or career advancement direction. Even worse they sometimes receive criticism based on work that is months old when little can be substantively done to address it. Granted, partners have extraordinary demands on their time balancing client demands. Yet, a law firm is a business that is completely dependent upon the intellect of its workforce and to not cultivate 50% of it is bad business.
All businesses today are competing to be “an employer of choice.” If law firms are going to effectively vie for the best talent, they will have to rethink their current model as Boomers age out of the workforce. Studies have shown that people in general are rarely motivated by money alone and that is especially true of millennials. Millennials thrive on training, development and especially workplace flexibility.
Twenty years ago, clients demanded more diversity from their firms; they will continue to demand diversity in senior leadership—and that will include women. Managing, developing and retaining talent is a challenge for all businesses. But when people are in essence your product, then leadership development is not a cost but an investment in future success.