Five Things Associates Tell Me (That They Don’t Tell You)

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Frequently in the course of law firm strategy and organizational projects, I have the opportunity to meet with groups of associates and talk with them about life in their firm and their thoughts about its future and their own. Following are five themes I frequently hear from associates – things they tell me that they may not be telling you.

1. They are not sure where the firm is going or how they fit.
This is the most common theme: associates want to understand the firm’s long-term plan and their place in it. I rarely come across an associate who can clearly articulate their firm's vision and direction. It may surprise you to hear that they care very much about big-picture strategy. They have decisions to make about where they want to spend their careers and want to know whether your firm's fortunes are trending up, whether firm leadership has crafted a thoughtful path forward, and whether there is capable leadership in place (and in the pipeline) to achieve the long-term goals. If those answers appear to be yes, then they want to know whether their practice area is a good bet and whether your firm will provide a conducive environment for building their practice.

Associates understand that firm leadership is not going to share detailed financial information with them, but they reasonably expect to receive regular status reports on the general state of the firm, its apparent trajectory, a vision for the future, and progress against the plan. An annual associates meeting or leadership roadshow is an easy way to make this happen. Some firms invite associates’ questions in advance and address them at the meeting.

A note to Baby Boomer partners: Keep in mind that today's associates have not witnessed the stability in law firm partnership that you grew up with. Instead they have seen extensive lateral movement and the dissolution of well-regarded firms. Their generation does not have the same expectation of partnerships that last a lifetime – and justifiably so.

2. They want to see extraordinary rewards for extraordinary performance.
It is extremely demotivating to an associate when he or she works 400 hours more than another associate and receives a $1,500 bonus for the extra effort. More so than the absolute dollar amount, they want to know that there was a significant variance in bonus awards between high performing and low performing associates. This doesn’t mean they should know what each associate made, but your stars should know that most of the bonus dollars went to them (to the extent that your bonus system permits such discretionary awards). They want to know that others are noticing their extra effort and that their contributions are impressing the right people and positioning them well for advancement in the firm.

On a related note, I've had many associates tell me that their firm's associate bonus program is not motivating, or is even demotivating. They perform the mental calculations and decide that the $5,000 they stand to receive for billing another 200 hours (say, from 1,800 hours to 2,000 hours) is not worth the substantial incremental energy required and the negative quality of life implications. They might not tell you this for obvious reasons, leaving you frustrated at year-end because most of your associates billed 1,802 hours.

If you ask associates whether the bonus program is motivational and fair, they’ll usually tell you. If not, they’ll certainly show you, sometimes at great cost to the firm.

3. Associates are not clear how to make partner in your firm.
At this, many partners shake their heads and exclaim, "How many times do we have to explain this?!" Apparently the answer is: at least one more time.

Usually the problem is not so much a lack of communication as that the associates hear different things from different partners. One partner tells her associates they need to consistently bill 1,800 hours, collect a certain amount of fees for a certain number of years, generate a certain amount of business, be a good corporate citizen, and demonstrate consistently high quality lawyering skills and client relationship skills. Another says basically the same thing − but with different numbers. Another partner says, “Just align yourself successfully with an influential equity partner and you'll get in.” It is common for associates to hear different things from different partners in different practice groups, offices or levels of seniority or influence. No wonder they are confused!

Associates have heard (or directly experienced) that the path to equity partnership in most firms has gotten longer (which is true) and the gate into the equity ranks has narrowed (also true). But that doesn’t tell them what to reasonably expect in your law firm. Ideally, firms should have clear, written criteria and standards for progression as an associate, for entry into and retention of non-equity partner status, and for entry into and retention of equity partner status. The documented standards should be explicitly referred to in each associate’s professional development plan and in all partnership discussions about candidates for non-equity and equity status. In my experience, firms have gotten better in recent years about documenting the standards and criteria but frequently could improve in the consistent communication and application of them.

4. They are not sure they want to be equity partners.
Associates are not necessarily saying they don’t want to buy into your law firm, they are usually saying they don’t have enough information about the benefits and costs to be able to make a rational decision. To them it seems like they are being asked to give money and assume risk for a marginal increase (if any) in compensation as a new partner compared to their compensation as a senior associate. They may have the impression that they will be burdened with ever-increasing demands and still have no real voice at the table.

Along with providing clear criteria for making partner, make sure your associates understand what law firm ownership is all about. Paint a realistic picture of the obligations and benefits of equity ownership and explain why you wanted it and the many ways in which it has paid off for you and others.

5. They don’t think they get enough feedback or training.
It is true in all types of businesses that people don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses, and that every job is about as good as one’s immediate supervisor. So be a good boss and make it a requirement of all partners and mentors. Explain to the associate not just what the work assignment is and when it is due, but why you gave it to her rather than to someone else. Provide regular, timely, specific feedback. Be encouraging and constructive. Where there is a serious problem, be clear regarding the problem, its seriousness, and the fix.

Business development is a great mystery to many associates. What is it exactly? How much of it is expected? How do they know if they’re doing the right things? What resources and support are available to help? How do they know whether they are measuring up in this area, and who is going to tell them?

General standards and expectations should be communicated, with particular application to each associate through his or her mentor or practice group leader. Mid-level associates will frequently benefit from group training and individual business development coaching. One associate told me recently that he knew business development was important but wasn't getting good direction from his firm so he hired his own coach. I admire his pluck, but it should never have come to that.

I assure you I’ve heard these themes repeated more than a few times. Fortunately, a little communication will go a long way toward alleviating your associates’ anxieties and grooming them to become your future partners.  


Eric A. Seeger is a principal with Altman Weil, Inc., specializing in law firm strategy and management. Contact him at 610-886-2000 or eseeger@altmanweil.com.

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