Retention survey

Careers at BigLaw firms can be nonsensically short – but they don't have to be. Associates rate their firms on the factors that prevent juniors rushing for the exit.

June 2018

ONCE a firm has decided its associates aren't a dispensable part of its pyramidal structure, keeping an associate interested relies upon a potent mix of factors: ensuring juniors can see a realistic, and prosperous career path; ensuring that they're not browbeaten by the hours, expectations, or sterile/hostile environments that law firms are prone to; and ensuring that the grass seems greener on this side – a firm's current prestige, or its lofty goals will make a lateral move less tempting.

The firms who topped our survey each provided their own solutions to these problems. At the very top sits White & Case. The international prodigy did excellently in our survey for its market reputation (its ambitious growth strategy has clearly trickled down to associates). Long hours weren't a foreign concept to the top firms – but the key, as at White & Case, was that they were motivated to work hard. “I'd rather work 2,300 happy hours than 200 at a place I was unhappy with.” A “team-orientated environment” provided a more human approach: “We had a big filing a month or so ago so we broke out the ping pong table to lighten the mood.” And, crucially, frequent training and mentoring ensured associates felt they were progressing towards something more long term. “There’s a good sense of nurturing people to become one of us. Part of that involves putting you on the spot with partners and asking you what you think. People here want you to succeed.”

Our recent study of associate retention found that the quality of training and development corresponded most closely with associates' intent to stay. Fourth placed Allen & Overy (another candidate ripe for future growth) offered quarterly feedback sessions, as well as second year “'make your mark' training, which gives an introduction to how things operate and the firm's strategic focuses.” Second placed IP maestro Finnegan impressed with, among plenty of other formal training programs, its legal writing course, which “dives deep into grammar and writing style to make sure everyone's up to speed.” Fifth placed Katten Muchin meanwhile, ensured its associates could see a future for themselves because of its entrepreneurial mantra. “If you're motivated and want to make your mark you can take it as far as you want. If you try to take the lead, nobody's going to say you're too junior.”

Trusting associates, and demonstrating commitment to them, was key. For some, it's placed at the forefront of their offering. Ninth placed Thompson & Knight “attracts people who want to be in it for the long haul – they want people who want to make partner here. It's very rare to see people leave.” Likewise eighth placed Cozen was described as “a young, energetic, creative law firm that cares about developing its young lawyers and investing in them.”

The top firms are a mixed bunch, but the presence of IP magnates Irell & Manella and Finnegan is notable. They are both market leaders in their specific fields. Associates' perception that their work is the very best they could be doing means there's less motivation to move. The other noticeable point is a striking absence of the very largest firms (Kirkland & Ellis and Gibson Dunn aside). Size does not typically lend itself to the personal touch. And that, we think, is all important when considering associates' careers. It's a complicated issue, because it's a very human issue. There's no strict formula for success, but across the board, combining the investment of care and attention, and time and money, into the aspirations and welfare of associates pays off – big time.


We asked associates to rate their firm on how much value the firm's name added to their resume, their intent to stay at the firm, how it matched their perceptions before joining, the level of responsibility and client contact, their autonomy over work acquisition, their opportunities to establish themselves in a practice area, the quality of training, their contact time with partners, and how much partners were nurturing future leaders. The firms listed showed strong performance across these topics.

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