Thomson Reuters Institute

How to hold onto your lawyers

Most of us agree that a law firm’s primary inventory is its talent. Law firm leaders haven’t always behaved as if that’s the case, even if they endorse the idea. But there’s increasing pressure to do so.

Consider the evidence:

Lawyers and legal staff have been working remotely for approximately two years, and it’s affected their attitudes towards work. Some never want to return to the office, preferring permanent remote work, while others are eager to return to in-person work. And many want to split the difference, preferring a hybrid work life. There’s a fourth group: those who have quit, joining what Texas A & M Professor Anthony Klotz has called “the Great Resignation”.

The net result is that fewer lawyers are available to do the work when the work needs to be done.

This poses challenges for firms since the demand for legal services in the past six months has skyrocketed. Many firms are looking to hire additional talent as the availability of that talent has dwindled. Lawyers have more choices in when, where, and how much work they do than they’ve had in a long time.

Another complicating factor is the increasing recognition of the importance of physical and mental well-being. For many, the pandemic has been stressful. Research done just before the pandemic showed that the legal profession was already suffering from an alarming increase in loneliness, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Sadly, a follow-up study done last year concluded that the problems have only grown worse, affecting women more than men, and younger lawyers more than their more senior colleagues.

With this backdrop, it’s no wonder that law firm leaders are focusing more attention on what they can do to:

  • get their people back to the office;
  • increase their engagement and reduce attrition; and
  • hire more lawyers and increase the odds that they’ll stay at the firm.

Fortunately, advances in behavioral science research have given us some solid guidance about what attracts workers, what keeps them engaged, and what makes them stay.

In order to achieve the recruitment/engagement/retention goals noted above, law firm leaders must address three questions:

  1. How can we understand and counteract the negative consequences of uncertainty? This is the hidden elephant in the room, and if not properly addressed, the next two strategies will simply be ineffective.
  2. How can we understand and address the habituation problem? That is, over the past two years, our lawyers have adjusted to a new reality, and it won’t work to simply “flip a switch” and ask them to instantaneously shift to a different way of working.
  3. How can we harness the behavioral science principles that guide us in creating and sustaining an engaged workforce? The principles and practices discussed below are rooted in solid scientific evidence, and are very powerful. However, they will only work if you first address the uncertainty and habituation challenges.


We all have a threat-sensing circuit in our brain that operates 24/7. Its task is to scan our environment in order to detect any possible threats that could harm us. And the mechanism that it uses to identify possible threats is quite simple: change. When our brain detects change, it quickly analyzes the situation to determine if any threat exists.

Most threats that this circuit identifies are relatively minor and can be addressed without really disrupting your train of thought. However, threats that contain any one of the following three properties are considered more serious by your threat-sensing circuit and they will kick the threat alert up to the highest level:

  • if the threat is sudden and unexpected;
  • if the threat is perceived to be outside of our control; and/or
  • if the threat appears to pose a risk of serious bodily harm or death.

Further, when such a threat is detected, our brain tries to answer these three questions:

  • What’s the nature of the threat?
  • How serious is the threat?
  • What can I do about the threat?

To answer these questions, your threat-sensing circuitry borrows some of your cognitive resources, that is, your intellectual horsepower. When this happens, you may feel distractible, fatigued, irritable, or unfocused, studies have shown. In fact, (while I don't have data to prove this point) I suspect that a considerable number of lawyers have quit their jobs because they attribute their unpleasant feelings to an unsatisfying job, when the truth is that their negative experience is actually a natural response to the nonstop uncertainty they’re grappling with.

Most garden variety threats are usually resolved in a few minutes. By contrast, high-level threats are often complex and open-ended. As a result, the threat-sensing circuit never achieves closure. This means that your threat circuit is working overtime, and may become hypersensitive, simply making it much harder for you to be your normal self at work.

It's highly likely that all of us are suffering from an over-sensitized threat-sensing circuit. This must be addressed or none of the engagement-lifting interventions will be effective.

What can you do to manage uncertainty?

Fortunately, there are some simple steps that you can take as an individual, and if you’re supervising other lawyers, you can use these same ideas with them.

Set clear goals — Be very intentional about setting clear goals. A clear goal sets an outcome that is distinct enough that a third-party could observe your behavior and readily determine if you met the goal or not. A clear goal specifies a target date or a time frame or some other way of knowing when the goal is expected to be attained. A clear goal identifies specific action steps that you plan to take — it doesn’t just articulate the end point. A clear goal has a Goldilocks quality — it’s not so hard that it’s unattainable, nor so easy that it doesn’t produce a sense of accomplishment. In a sense, it’s just right.

When you set clear goals, it quiets your brain’s threat-sensing circuit. Even though you can’t eliminate the external sources of uncertainty, by shifting your attention to goals that are within your control, you can begin to restore psychological equilibrium and normal functioning.

Set clear expectations In your interactions with others, particularly if you supervise others, be sure to set clear expectations. This is really the same as the goal-setting process I just described, except that you’re now applying those principles to another person instead of to yourself.

Focus on what’s stable — On a regular basis, intentionally shift your attention to those things in your life that are stable, predictable, and unchanging. I like to spend some time every day sitting in my garden — it has a natural rhythm to it that doesn’t change no matter what catastrophic stories are on the evening news. Look for any experience, process, location, or activity that you can count on to be predictable and familiar, and spend some time focusing your attention on it each week (or each day, if possible.) It could be a hobby, or a regular check-in call with a family member, or a regular volunteer gig that you do, etc.

Create routines — Routines involve doing a certain behavior in a predictable cycle. For example, having a meeting every Monday morning is a routine. Brushing your teeth is a routine. Think of other routines you can create. Having a couple of routines provides a sense of normalcy to your brain and quiets the threat-sensing circuit to an extent.

Create rituals — Rituals share some similarity with routines, but they have the added element of meaning and purpose. We create rituals in order to attach meaning to momentous events, rites of passage, or other important life experiences. We already have rituals for births, graduations, marriages, deaths, milestone birthdays, etc., but it’s fairly easy to create new rituals at work that have the qualities of a predictable moment plus significance or meaning.

Each of the above steps can help you to lower your brain’s “threat temperature” and restore psychological equilibrium and calm. This, in turn, paves the way for you to be receptive to the engagement-lifting interventions I’ll describe later.


When the pandemic first swept across this country in March 2020, it suddenly forced us out of our offices and into our homes. Most of us had been in the habit of commuting to work every day, and while some people had worked remotely periodically, for most people, remote work demanded sudden adjustments. We weren’t used to working from home, using video communications, or adjusting to not being in the same location as our colleagues.

However, after a few weeks of working in this new way, most of us accommodated to the changes. Human beings are adaptable, and we all eventually found ways to make the new way of working work for us. In effect, we all created new work habits, transitioning from figuring it out to developing a rhythm, a set of routines, for working remotely.

In the same way, those workers now being asked to return to work will require some adjustment. It’s not human nature to just flip a switch and return to the old in-person work routines. Some people have discovered over the past two years that they want to spend more time working remotely and less time in the office. Indeed, the number one most requested item from workers being asked to return to work is “flexibility”, according to a study cited by psychologist Adam Grant.

Some companies, notably banks, have tried mandating rigid return-to-work rules but have experienced enormous pushback, including unexpectedly high quit rates, protests, and social media attacks. In one study, 55% of Millennial workers questioned the wisdom of returning to the office.

One of my favorite YouTube video clips nicely illustrates why it’s hard for human beings to pivot quickly after having developed a habit. The narrator, Destin Sandlin, explains that his colleagues at work played a joke on him and jury-rigged his bicycle so that turning the handle bars to the right actually turned the bike to the left, and vice versa. It took him 8 months to master how to ride this tricked-out bike. He dared others to ride it, and they couldn’t. He also found it difficult (although it didn’t take him as long) to go back to riding a regular bike.

How can you address habituation?

Habits are tenacious and hard to change. However, there are things you can do to help people gradually shift to new habits that work, such as:

Offer lawyers flexibility when they return to work — Giving lawyers flexibility in where they work, what they work on, who they work with, and when and how often they work can go a long way to shifting to more positive habits.

Use a gradual approach in returning to work rather than a fixed target date — This type of gradual approach is more in line with how our brains work. A good example of this type of approach is the recently announced policy by law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman that gives practice and department heads the ability to decide when their team members should come into the office.

Reinforce new behaviors — Encourage your leaders to literally lead the way, because if they don’t adopt new behaviors, then your rank-and-file lawyers won’t do so either. Role-modeling is powerful and essential.


If you’ve restored some equilibrium to your firm by restoring some predictability, as recommended above, and you’ve adopted a flexible, gradual return-to-work policy, the final and most important step in retaining your talent is to infuse the principles of engagement across your firm.

Doing so is easy to explain, but can be quite difficult to execute. There are many reasons for this, but one of the main barriers is the high level of skepticism shared by most lawyers. As many readers know, I’ve spent years studying the personality traits of lawyers, and atypically high skepticism is one of the most constant findings in my research. Lawyers are skeptical because it’s actually advantageous in the high-quality practice of law. But it comes with unfortunate side effects, one of which is that it’s hard to get lawyers to buy into any type of change process.

My research also shows that lawyers in general are atypically uncomfortable with emotional vulnerability, intimacy, and even a more anodyne focus on basic relationship-building tactics. As you will see, the science of engagement prioritizes all these things that so often arouse lawyers’ suspicions.

How do you build an engaged workforce?

The simple answer to building an engaged workforce is: create a culture in your firm that prioritizes bringing out the best in people. According to Jim Harter, the Chief Research Scientist at Gallup: “Leaders need a realization that building a culture that improves lives will be required to attract and retain great people.”

To achieve this goal, some lawyers will need to shift their mindset from “What can other lawyers do for me?” to “What can I do for other lawyers?”

Leaders in particular need to prioritize the following research-based strategies, which all have at least one thing in common — they activate your lawyers’ intrinsic values. As a result, they are uplifting and restorative; they bring out the best in people and foster a positive emotional experience. This is not only good science and good practice, but in a law firm in particular, it’s essential in order to overcome the built-in challenge of pervasive negativity. (I have written elsewhere about how certain personality traits make lawyers more negative than other people, and how that negativity can help them be good lawyers, but can also cause some very undesirable side effects.)

Note that engagement is not fostered by a “carrot-or-stick” approach. You can’t incentivize lawyers into being engaged, nor can you goad them into it. (“The firings will continue until morale improves…”) You can’t coerce them into it (for example, by linking deferred compensation to high engagement); and you can’t induce them by offering money or other things of value. All of these failed strategies share one thing in common — they’re extrinsic. They have nothing to do with bringing out one’s best, but rather they treat people as objects of manipulation.

The science is quite clear at this point. Here’s what works:

In fact, you may find it helpful to think about the desired outcomes of an engagement initiative, and then work backward to figure out how to get such a result. At the end of the day, if you have trained your leaders to treat people well and to bring out their best, and you have modified your culture so it’s similarly aligned, then you can do the following test:

Ask your lawyers about their ongoing experience of working at the firm. If the kinds of adjectives they use sound like those in Column A, then you’re on the right track. If the kinds of adjectives they use sound like those in Column B, then you have some more work to do:

Column A Column B
Valued Invisible
Cared for Incompetent
Seen Pressured
Competent Marginalized
Included Devalued
Connected Unfairly treated
Significant Excluded
Respected Alone
Proud Isolated
Appreciated Insignificant
Autonomous Like a cog in a wheel
Growing Stagnant
Engaged Checked out
Hopeful Cynical

In conculsion

There are two ways to activate intrinsic values, by changing i) how you treat people; and ii) the kind of culture or climate that you create within the workplace.

In order to ensure that your lawyers in supervisory roles treat others the right way, you can train these individuals in the specific traits of effective supervision. Teach them how to bring out the best in people. They also should be role-modeling desired behaviors themselves and controlling the firm’s messaging so all ideas are congruent with these teachings.

In addition to focusing on shaping the behavior of individual leaders, it’s equally essential to align the firm’s culture with the same values so that the actions of your supervising lawyers are congruent with institutional structures within the firm, such as compensation and other reward systems, leader role-modeling, acceptable stories and mythologies, top-down messaging, vision and values, and iconography.

Jim Harter, of Gallup, summarizes the core idea best: “People see this moment as an opportunity to choose what they want from work and are taking advantage of it.”

However, workplace leaders can truly stem the tide here by showing they intentionally and consistently care more about the happiness and well-being of their people, Harter explains, adding that when an employee has low engagement at work, Gallup has found that employee will jump at just about any job offer that pays them more money. “But when people feel engaged and supported, they’ll need about a 20% increase in pay to motivate them to leave.”

Dr. Larry Richard is Founder & Principal Consultant at LawyerBrain LLC, and is an expert in lawyer personality, managing change, and how to build up lawyers' resilience to today’s legal environment. © 2022 Dr. Larry Richard, LawyerBrain LLC – All rights reserved