The American Lawyer article about recent attrition at Kirkland & Ellis gained attention in no small part because Kirkland’s reputation for success runs counter to the idea that people want to leave. While departures from even the most successful firms is inevitable, the depth of attrition at Kirkland reported by The American Lawyer was surprising. According to The American Lawyer article Amid Defections, Kirkland Extends Notice Period for Departing Partners written by Susan Beck and Anna Ward, Kirkland’s exodus is happening even as the firm adds more lateral talent. Making generalizations about the reasons for the Kirkland departures may be unwise but for some of the émigrés it was new additions and the strategic direction behind the new additions that was cited as a motivating factor to leave.
As headline grabbing as the Kirkland departures are, there is nothing unique about Kirkland, its policies or direction that explains its turnstile experience. The factors behind its losses are largely the same kind of things that can cut into any sized law firm. Indeed, attrition at law firms, whatever their size, often is attributable to a few common issues.
For law firms only wanting to emulate Kirkland for its positive attributes and not the negativity of attrition, taking a look at the frequent issues that drive law firm attribution is useful. Recognizing that there can be many issues that drive attrition, it is still possible to note four frequent ones:
Bottom-Line Orientation. Many law firms experiencing a revolving door have an orientation that focuses heavily on the bottom line. Such an orientation is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many firms inattentive to financial strength find themselves suffering attrition as lawyers leave for greener (as in money) pastures. Nonetheless, even a thoughtful bottom line orientation can sometimes come at the expense of team focused conduct, can create the anxiety that goes with a “what have you done for me lately” environment, and foments a culture where score keeping between attorneys and between the firm and attorneys permeates. Thus attorneys may feel under appreciated given their “numbers” and may get antsy. Conversely, some attorneys performing below standards may be asked or encouraged to leave. A bottom line orientation creates a culture susceptible to departures that can come from both ends of the performance spectrum.
Lateral Growth, Limited Loyalty and a Sense of Mobility. Firms that see significant lateral growth may be hiring a mercenary army that may march off to the highest bidder at a later date. Moreover, an attorney induced to join a firm laterally already knows how to move, often has already learned to silo his practice and has shown that loyalty was a subordinate consideration when leaving his or her last law firm. That said, lateral hiring can be effective but requires a serious integration program to counteract the negative tendencies that can come from lateral growth.
Unrealized Owner Expectations. If owners have certain expectations about their law firm and those expectations are dashed, the disappointment can create uncertainty. Substandard performance by the firm will seldom be received well. As such, it must be addressed with the owners directly and a solution agreed upon. Whistling past the graveyard abdicates leadership and causes many attorneys to begin their search for a new home. Unrealized owner expectations, allowed to go unaddressed, often stimulate happy feet.
Competitive Marketplace. Lateral movement might be tamped down a little were it not for the fierce competition among law firms for legal talent. Law firms are motivated to add expertise, clients and revenues that often are more easily achieved if lawyers are added. A more conservative approach premised on organic growth takes too long for most firms. Virtually any firm with successful lawyers is susceptible to having its talent lured away by another firm willing to pay more, offer an enhanced platform or promise things not available at his or her current firm. And every law firm that gets poached may react in kind by trying to replace its losses by raiding other firms. Even the most conservative firms can be adversely affected by the feeding frenzy in the market.
Kirkland’s attrition is not unique in today’s legal services industry. Because of the four dynamics described above, its experience is being replicated at firms across the country. Preparing to address the effects of these dynamics requires good leadership that recognizes the challenges and responds accordingly. If your firm begins to see a revolving door, can it respond in the face of these four common issues?