Recently, I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him. Why would I want somebody to hire his experience?                THOMAS J. WATSON SR.


How many lawyers have you watched move from one firm to another in the past year?  “The churn” as it has come to be known has become commonplace in the legal profession.

According to numerous reports, the average firm loses 20% of its associates per year.  And this is not a new phenomenon. This statistic seem to be relatively consistent for periods before and after the economic downturn.

The cost of the attrition, whether measured in terms of the bottom line or raw human drama, is extraordinary.  In term of dollars, on average, it costs law firms $200,000 plus to recruit, hire, train and replace the average associate. Compare this to the well run corporation, where turnover averages  2-3%.

The picture for partners isn’t any prettier. This article, by Michael Allen of Lateral Link, reports 2,000 to 3,000 lateral moves per year over at 5 year period. How successful have these moves been?  In short it is horribly unsuccessful. According to this post, a third of lateral partners leave their new home (for one reason or another) within three years. Almost half leave within five years.

The Reason For The Churn

There are a number of suggestions as to the root cause of such a high rate of attrition among law firms. These include:

  • The economy
  • Poor hiring practices
  • Overselling of individual value
  • Lawyers as managers
  • Overly aggressive recruiting from search firms

I’d like to suggest that something else is at play.

A Closer Look at Partner and Associate Attrition

I hear many law firm leaders talk as if they have come to terms with extraordinary attrition  as a “fact of life.”  The bottom-line cost, as well as the drain on productivity and the psyche of the firm are accepted as part of doing business.

But in a marketplace that has seen more than 10,000 partner moves in 5 years and an even greater number of displaced associates, are we really willing to accept this as a function of working in the legal industry? We certainly should not be satisfied to simply chalk it up to being a price of running a law firm.

Something is fundamentally wrong and I’d like to suggest something else is at play…..

The churn is the predictable and natural byproduct of a conflict between the direction and goals of a firm on one hand, and the career aspirations of an individual lawyer on the other.

Some may suggest that the right set of handcuffs would slow the rate of movement, and minimize its cost, but does any firm really want to build barriers that bind dissatisfied lawyers?  This approach doesn’t work with trade tariffs, and it won’t promote the creation of successful, stable law firms.

A more practical approach begins with management  acknowledging and understanding just how critical career aspirations are when it comes to determining an individual lawyer’s long-term fit in a partnership.

It is this simple: attentiveness to the things the majority of your lawyers value most will breed stability and provide a solid foundation for growth. A recruiting process – associate and lateral – that begins with a clear understanding of the firm’s common values and shared aspirations is one of the basic building blocks of stability. Firms that begin here are on the road to less waste and greater retention.

That said, in any enterprise there will be individuals whose professional desires are in conflict with the organization. Smart leaders in healthy organizations strive to identify a mismatch, and facilitate an orderly transition that fosters a collegial relationship and potential referral source.

How about this for a point of discussion: is it possible for  today’s law firm to grow an organization around common values and shared aspirations?  And will this speak to the incredible rate of partner movement, and reverse the churn game?