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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

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Managing For Retention And Productivity - Part II

In Part I, I discussed how professionals are self-motivated based on job control, continuous learning and growth, teamwork, and psychic rewards from feedback and achievement for clients.

Here I will cover specific strategies effective in other fields that, like the legal profession, require intense work, as well as examples of what law firms can and are doing to increase satisfaction and retention.

The self-investment that professionals and staff are willing to make in professional/career development must be matched by management and partners in the firm to convince people to stay. The implicit contract between employer and employee is the core of what encourages people to remain contentedly at a company or firm. Since the downsizing phase in the 1980's and early 1990's, this has been neglected, with a clear shift to money as the perceived savior and solution. Yet while salary increases and perks can entice people who are unhappy to move, people may stay for the opportunity to sharpen skills and develop strategic positions in the organization. According to findings by Radford Surveys, a division of Aon Consulting, the primary reasons people leave a company are a poor relationship with their supervisor and poor career opportunities. These findings correlate with the desire for job control, learning and growth, teamwork and feedback – the “intrinsic motivators.”

The results of two multi-year studies by The Gallup Organization regarding what employees need from their workplaces can be divided into five categories. Below are suggested specific strategies and tactics for successful management of attorneys for retention.


There are general ways to help people feel more involved and in control:

  • Tell lawyers what is expected of them strategically and then allow them to create their own way to solve a problem. This means giving guidance but avoiding micro-managing. It means providing challenge for bright, active minds.
  • Recognize individual attorney talents and employ them to their fullest potential, rather than stifling them or engaging them in things that underutilize their talents. Less challenging work should be delegated, as should work better suited to someone else.
  • Make people feel that their opinion counts by listening and trying to involve them at some level in decisions that will directly affect the firm environment and their future.
  • Convey a consistent firm mission and sense of direction that enables individuals to see themselves as an integral and contributing part of the whole. Give them a role in shaping the future of their practice group and the firm.

Los Angeles based Latham & Watkins, for example, has maintained a tradition of associate involvement in firm management. The Associates Committee provide input regarding partnership decisions and associate compensation. New York based, Cleary Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton has made selection of associates on a wide variety of committees a prestigious and coveted badge of recognition.


Associates rate interesting work and the chance to learn more as the most compelling reasons for them to stay at their firm. They also want to feel that the firm, or, at least, specific influential individuals within the firm, encourage their development.

Since training is a concrete and substantive thing, firms are more comfortable knowing what training entails than with the concept of “treating people well” or giving feedback and emotional support. Some firms are following the lead of corporations and large accounting/consulting firms in establishing “universities.” These learning experiences are cited by associates as important elements in making their firm a better place to work – and to stay. The trick is to provide them when the associates can see a near-term use for them, i.e.“just-in-time training,” and to make those experiences engaging.

The best firm universities provide courses beyond substantive law and include practice and group management as well as business development and client relations. Detroit based, Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone is one example. Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles and its other offices have a “University” for first through fourth year attorneys, focusing primarily on substantive legal skills. Dallas' Godwin White offers training and participation in actual depositions and trials. New Yorkbased, Shearman & Sterling built an extensive training curriculum over the last decade and more recently has encouraged senior associates to take one-to-three month sabbaticals to prevent burnout and broaden their outlooks. Shearman's long-time Director of Professional Development and Training, Stephen Armstrong, has moved on to New Yorkbased, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and established a broad-ranging professional development program there.

Elsewhere, learning and growth are fostered through a combined program of training, recognition and balance. For example, digital wireless service provider Cellular One, a Silicon Valley company that doesn't offer stock options, developed a program for its highly sought after finance department members. (The finance department has been holding down the turnover rate.) It consists of learning opportunities, blending home and work life, creating a fun work environment, and five different, non-financial, recognition programs. Each employee receives an individual training matrix, and cross-training within a variety of finance disciplines. Notably, training, development and retention benchmarks have been made a part of the finance supervisors' performance evaluations.

Related comments regarding the importance of learning and growth opportunities and its relation to satisfaction and retention from the Gallup studies were: “There is someone at work who encourages my development” and “This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.”


One comment from the Gallup studies that hits home with professionals is, “My colleagues (associates, fellow employees) are committed to doing quality work.” People want to be surrounded by co-workers who are committed to carrying out the firm's mission and individual projects' goals. Beyond that, they want a frequent reading on how they are doing. Regular progress reports that help lawyers see where their best talent are, how they can grow in the organization, and where they stand in regard to the goals are highly valued. A person who can say “In the past week I have received praise or recognition for doing good work” is a prime candidate for a long-term commitment to the firm – or at least to the individuals extending the praise.

The keys to retaining employees, according to Arthur Knapp, Jr., CFO of Calico Commerce, an Internet company in the San Jose, California, are: communicating what the future can bring; making people feel they are valued; and thanking them for a job well done. “If you recognize people and make them feel they are contributing, they feel they have ownership in the company,” said Knapp.


Said an intern in an international law firm, “It is incredibly important to me to be myself and to be respected as myself . . . within a group of people who are great.” The respect refers to both what an individual contributes professionally and respect for one's personal life.

An important statement related to retention from the Gallup studies: “My supervisor (or other influential) seems to care about me as a person” and gets involved in my growth and success. A reminder of the importance of collegiality and opportunities for building supportive relationships in the workplace is the feeling that “I have a good friend at work,” which helps people deal with continuing and unavoidable change at work.

Referring again to findings on successful companies that promote employee loyalty, the Radford Surveys conclude that these companies emphasize professional growth, continuous learning and the freedom to innovate. Their cultural values include respect, trust, openness, integrity, achievement, teamwork, flexibility, innovation, customer focus and commitment to work/life balance.

None of the strategies described in this article are revolutionary. What is revolutionary is for law firms to pay attention to these human desires and motivations and make positive accommodations an integral part of firm culture.

To view Managing for Retention and Productivity, Part I click here.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2000


This article appears on and was posted there October 20, 2000.