Expansion is key to the continued financial success in the legal profession, and savvy law firms are always hungry for more matters, more clients, and more talent to service them
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. — While books of business have never been healthier, talent recruitment is currently so competitive that even the best law firms are grappling with replenishing their ranks — let alone expanding them. How are law firms keeping that hunger sated?
First comes the obvious: Many law firms have begun raising salaries for early career attorneys and extending benefits like vacation time and law school repayment. However, simply upping the monetary ante for new recruits will only go so far before turning into an arms race. The most successful firms are recognizing that the next generation of law firm leaders — junior partners — have very different views and values than their predecessors, and firms need to interact with them differently.
I moderated a panel discussion at Thomson Reuters’ recent 29th annual Marketing Partner Forum, that delved into how law firm leaders and their firms are specifically addressing the critical need to successfully recruit, on-board, professionally develop, promote, and compensate their junior partners. Among the biggest tips and takeaways was the value that junior partners place on a flexible, communicative, and transparent working environment.
“Within the last six months I moved firms,” said panelist Naim Surgeon, a partner in Stroock & Stroock & Lavan’s Miami office. “In addition to hearing what prospective firms were offering on the monetary side, I was curious to what extent firms were willing to collaboratively share in my ongoing success and how those firms thought about their contribution to that process. Once the recruitment process was complete, then what? What resources are already in place? What additional resources were necessary to ensure success, and is the firm open to my input on how we can effectively create success?”
The importance of a firm’s “atrium”
When Pixar planned to build a new headquarters, Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs, who funded the movie studio’s spin-off in 1986, pushed to create a one-building structure that boasted a massive atrium at its core. This atrium, where everyone — from a receptionist to an executive vice president — visited multiple times a day to retrieve mail, refresh a cup of coffee, or attend a departmental meeting, served as a casual, inviting space for unscheduled, human interaction. It was these interactions that Jobs believed would lead to exceptional imagination, job satisfaction and employee retention.
“From a cultural perspective, we still find meaning and value in getting attorneys in the office, interacting with each other face-to-face,” said panelist Adam J. Bass, the president and CEO of Buchalter, a 400-attorney super regional law firm headquartered in Los Angeles. “Some human interaction cannot be adequately replaced by technology. Oftentimes, younger professionals who think they need in-person interaction the least actually need it the most. We also host a variety of in-person meetings and retreats throughout the year to ensure our professionals interact.”
In the age of remote working, a firm’s “atrium” is more figurative than literal. More than anything, Bass said, it’s about making the firm’s professionals feel valuable and empowered.
“It’s not always a set program, initiative, or policy that’s going to resonate with everyone,” continued Bass. “Being flexible and intentional with everything a firm does is the name of the game. Understand what motivates your professionals and then do your best to deliver it so they stay loyal to the firm and continue to provide excellent client service.”
Another panelist, Amanda Bruno, global chief business development officer at the global law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said open and regular communication is more critical than ever, particularly when learning what motivates the workforce. In the last decade, Morgan Lewis has grown to more than 2,000 attorneys globally.
Bruno said that the feedback Morgan Lewis has been receiving from lawyers — even before the pandemic — was that they wanted more transparency into the promotion process, more support for their continued success after they transition from associate to partner, the ability to work from home more, more support for their health and well-being, and the ability to be more involved in giving back to the community.
Morgan Lewis responded to that feedback by hiring a dedicated business development and training coach and investing in multiple internal and external business development programs, Bruno explained, In addition, the firm undertook several initiatives, including:
- hiring a full-time director of employee well-being;
- supporting every lawyer in doing pro bono work (every Morgan Lewis lawyer spent at least 20 hours on a pro bono matter last year);
- piloting a remote working program long before the pandemic hit;
- launching Mobilizing for Equality, a social justice initiative made up of 14 working groups, to develop substantive projects in different aspects of the racial justice space and in which every employee is invited to participate;
- creating multiple affinity groups including a parent-lawyer network;
- formalizing expectations of their lawyers with written core competencies; and
- creating a thorough on-boarding and integration process for laterals that includes having a partner act as a sponsor, rather than a mentor, to new lateral partners. The sponsor is responsible for that lateral’s success — both structurally and culturally.
“It’s important that everyone feels that their voice is heard,” noted Bruno, adding that it helps to have the firm’s top leader, Chair Jami McKeon, make herself accessible to every employee at Morgan Lewis from the receptionist in a far-away office, to the junior partners, all the way up to the Advisory Board and Management Committee. That level of openness and accessibility creates a collaborative and inclusive environment where many people stay for a long time, Bruno said.
Boutique firms have similarly benefited from open levels of transparency as it relates to recruitment, on-boarding, and professional development. Panelist Peter McGlynn, head of the trial department for 25-attorney Bernkopf Goodman in Boston, said his firm has recently stepped it up to better involve younger partners in firm leadership and rainmaking pursuits.
“We are vested in developing an upward path for junior professionals to be successful at the firm,” said McGlynn. “We won’t say ‘after 4 years, here’s exactly where you’ll be.’ Some attorneys may develop quicker than the typical partner track timeline, while others may take longer. But we want to work with everyone individually to leverage their highest and best use. That model works best for the firm and for our clients.
“We incentivize all of the firm’s attorneys — junior and senior alike — to build relationships that will lead to business,” McGlynn continued. “We believe everyone plays a critical role to ensure the future financial success of the firm.”
Panelists all agreed that the new generation of partners require an atrium-like environment — one that appreciates flexibility in work schedules, delivers transparency in advancement opportunities, provides true mentorship from senior practitioners, and considers new ways to foster colleague and client interaction.