The Great Resignation’s Impact on Lawyers: Solutions for Attracting & Retaining Talent
The pandemic has changed how we think about and approach work. Following lockdowns and a large-scale shift to remote work, our values have evolved, along with our willingness to put up with career trajectories that fall short of those ideals.
The result? An economic phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. Beginning in 2021 but accelerating in 2022, employees began to quit their jobs en masse. This occurred across all sectors and at all levels but has been particularly worrisome in the legal industry.
The Great Resignation at law firms has also been referred to as the Great Reshuffle, as those who quit are also quick to find work elsewhere. They’re enticed in part by promises of higher salaries or better benefits. On a large scale, this has created an upward spiral in which employers strive to outbid one another in hopes of attracting goodwill from the most qualified candidates.
This has certainly provided some significant benefits for young professionals who can command higher pay if they’re willing to jump ship. Employers, however, may struggle to keep staff members engaged. At this point, it will take far more than the simple promise of higher compensation to attract new talent and retain trusted employees. Beyond this, many law firms will need to get by with a smaller team simply because the cost of staffing is too high.
Staffing Woes in the Legal Industry
The scope of today’s legal staffing concerns was front and center in the Thomson Reuters 2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market. This report reveals that turnover rates have increased substantially in the past several years, exceeding 23 percent as of late 2021.
While turnover was a problem prior to the pandemic and the Great Resignation, it’s clear that such concerns have made the industry’s “road to recovery” a lot more complicated. After all, Thomson Reuters statistics from 2019 reveal a legal associate turnover rate of 18.7 percent.
Data from the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education paints an even more concerning picture: an attrition rate of 26 percent in 2021, compared to just 16 percent in 2020.
In law, as in the broader job market, high rates of attrition don’t necessarily mean that positions remain unfilled. Rather, staffing is less stable, with associates leaving sooner than they might have pre-pandemic, quickly finding work with competitors.
NALP Foundation data from 2021 revealed significant increases in hiring: 7,278 new associates in 2021, as opposed to 2,772 in 2020. Over half of these job changes represented lateral moves, with 10 percent of lateral hires both joining and leaving new law firms before the end of 2021.
Increased staffing instability has substantially boosted the demand for qualified job candidates. This, in turn, has forced law firms to enter expensive bidding wars that either compromise their long-term finances or force them to miss out on the best legal professionals. The aforementioned Report on the State of the Legal Market revealed substantial increases in associate compensation, with average pay rising by 11.3 percent between November 2020 and November 2021.
Meanwhile, Thomson Reuters’ analysis also shows that compensation alone will not necessarily improve turnover rates; practices highlighted as ‘stay firms’ have seen lower rates of turnover despite providing smaller pay increases. This suggests that the kneejerk effort to throw money at staffing problems may not be particularly effective.
How to Survive and Thrive Amidst the Great Resignation
High turnover is by no means an insurmountable challenge. With a layered approach, it’s possible to not only attract excellent job candidates but also to convince the best associates to stick around. Additionally, you’ll want strategies to make your firm more self-sufficient. This way, you can get by without large teams of associates, paralegals, or intake staff members. These solutions should help:
Encourage Work-Life Balance
Remaining competitive in hiring can be difficult from a compensation perspective. Smaller practices, in particular, are often unable to compete against large firms with vast resources.
Yet, pay is far from the only advantage would-be associates seek. Many are just as intent on achieving a reasonable work-life balance. This could mean maintaining a lighter caseload or taking on flexible work arrangements.
If you’re willing to meet job candidates halfway, you might outcompete major firms without offering substantially higher salaries. Similarly, you’ll find it easier to retain top associates if they feel that balance is a priority.
This is evidenced in data from The American Lawyer’s 2021 Midlevel Associates Survey in which just 27 percent of respondents claimed that they’d leave their jobs in search of higher compensation. Meanwhile, a shocking 60 percent of survey participants stated a willingness to depart current positions to seek greater work-life balance.
Develop a Strong Company Culture
Associates are far more likely to remain loyal to your law firm if they are passionate about their work — and if they’re on board with your practice’s mission in general. Strategies for strengthening your law firm’s culture include:
- Listen and respond to staff concerns. Employees will not feel valued unless they genuinely have a voice at your practice. This means that input should be regularly sought from staff members at all levels. Insight into your company culture could be especially valuable. Draw on a variety of tools — such as anonymous surveys or small group discussions — to gather feedback.
- Reframe by creating a vision for the future. If staff members are not presently satisfied with your law firm’s culture, determine which qualities are lacking and how they can be implemented in the future. This begins with a big-picture effort to define an ideal work culture.
- Build cultural concerns into all policies and practices. Take a top-down approach by developing (or adjusting) policies to ensure that they actually support your previously stated goals.
Be Careful With Remote and Hybrid Setups
Remote opportunities are among the best solutions in today’s evolving legal industry. This was a huge silver lining brought about during the early stages of COVID. Many legal professionals were shocked by the ease by which they were able to transfer to hybrid and entirely remote operations.
These days, associates are aware of just how effectively they can work on a virtual basis — and few are willing to move forward without at least some semblance of hybrid work.
With these opportunities comes a stronger need for strategic solutions that keep all types of employees in tune with the overarching law firm culture. Otherwise, remote work can actually lead to the very problem it so frequently seeks to solve: the increased potential for burnout in today’s demanding professional environment.
Rethink Your Caseload
With fewer staff members available, you must determine not only the size of your optimal caseload but also the proper niche. Cases outside your expertise will require a lot more time and effort, so every potential undertaking must be looked at carefully. Yes, you want to meet clients’ needs, but not every client is right for your firm. Hone in on one or two niche areas, allowing you to do more with less.
Offer Professional Development Opportunities
Do associates feel that they have a strong future with your law firm? Or do you primarily function as a stepping stone on their way to greater aspirations? Don’t assume they’ll stick around unless you provide obvious opportunities to ascend the career ladder.
Training programs should emphasize the skills so often neglected in law school. Many associates are woefully unprepared for case management or the business of law. Get them up to speed by offering workshops or seminars. When they’re ready to move beyond the associate level, they’ll be more inclined to look internally for compelling opportunities.
Implement Effective Legal Intake Solutions
Associates are by no means the only legal professionals in high demand. Skilled intake staff members can also be difficult to come by. This can be highly problematic, as there’s a clear link between expedited intake and legal conversions.
Thankfully, various solutions make it possible to manage intake without requiring extra personnel. This is a valuable opportunity for solo or small boutique law firms, which may not have the resources for staffing.
Effective intake and case management systems can help your firm respond promptly to queries from prospective clients. Drawing on real-time data and optimized workflows, Captorra’s trusted intake system is a great option for law firms of all sizes and across numerous practice areas.
These days, many leads seek information via chatbot instead of signing up for an email list or calling your practice directly. These automated systems can remove some of the burdens from intake staff by providing basic details while delivering a strong first impression. Ngage Live Chat is an excellent option for converting qualified leads.
Why waste clients’ and attorneys’ limited time on largely meaningless gatherings that accomplish little? Digital solutions ensure that only the most impactful consultations are scheduled and attended. eSign, in particular, is a valuable opportunity, as it keeps the intake process running smoothly.
Associates have made it abundantly clear that they want to spend less time dealing with non-billable administrative tasks. Automated scheduling — such as Martindale-Avvo’s TrueScheduler — limits that burden and frees up associates for more productive pursuits. Pre-screening questions determine the suitability of prospective clients, while online appointment-setting is built around lawyer availability.
Use Templates to Generate Documents
Don’t eat up valuable time creating new documents from scratch. Templates can streamline this time-consuming process. Centralized solutions for indexing and storage ensure that these templates are easy to use and retrieve.
The Great Resignation as Inspiration: Driving Change at Your Law Firm
The Great Resignation presents its fair share of staffing challenges for modern law firms, but the future remains bright. Reframed as opportunities, these concerns can actually spur long-needed changes that benefit legal professionals at every level — not to mention clients and your law firm as a whole.
With a layered approach that encompasses work-life balance, hybrid setups, a targeted caseload, and automated solutions, you can cultivate a strong and balanced work environment that attracts the best in the business.