Revolving Doors?

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on associate retention

Most business jargon derives its usefulness less from the idea it contains than from the issue it avoids. We talk of ‘human resources’, for example, so as not to be derailed by the consequences of choices affecting people – their livelihoods, relationships, ambitions or wellbeing.

Likewise, when those humans choose to withdraw their resources, we use the word ‘retention’, to accentuate the positive and gloss over the circumstances of departure.

 

This abstraction provides a commercial framework for thinking – reminding us, if you like, that business is the pursuit of a purpose for profit, rather than for people. As Marx would put it, the role of ‘human resources’ in business is to provide labour, deploying the ‘means of production’ to create surplus value. Whatever ‘human resources’ may do by way of desiring, fretting, complaining, suffering or leaving takes place outside the scope of this capitalist framing.

 

Legal business

Legal services, however, require a special kind of proletariat. The product is knowledge; the process is intellectual; the labours are of the mind; the instruments of production are highly-conditioned thoroughbreds. This is not an enterprise you could run like a Dickensian sweatshop. Could you?

In essence, this depends on how you categorise the labours of the mind. According to Hannah Arendt , there are three kinds of human activity: labour, work and action. Labour is a means of survival; work builds something of lasting value; and action expresses identity and purpose.

 

Mixing cocktails

The practice of law seems to be a cocktail of all three: there can be drudgery; there can be outputs of lasting value; and there can be self-expression sufficient to mark it as a vocation. Ask any bartender for his cocktail secret and he will tell you that it’s all in the proportions. Were you to order a ‘Dickensian Sweatshop’, however, you would taste the bitters whichever way it was mixed.

So, if associates leave with a bad taste in their mouth, they might have concluded that they were little more than human resources providing labour for your capitalist enterprise. Whatever their work builds, they may themselves not last to see. Whenever they act, it is to assert a client’s identity or their firm’s purpose. They might think that they practise a vocation without agency, except in the act of resignation.

To be considered good enough for partnership these days, associates must shuffle down an elongated funnel, complicated with salaried antechambers and labyrinthine assessment gateways. 20 years ago, partnership might come 10,000 billable hours after qualification. Nowadays, it is more like 20,000. Such double measures would be enough to make many people question the wisdom of their labours.

 

Self-replenishment

Such questioning poses an existential threat to law firms not because it challenges them to pursue a different purpose for profit, or to pursue the same purpose for the benefit of people instead, but because their pursuit cannot continue without the partnership replenishing itself from the ranks of associates. It is this need for self-perpetuation that necessitates firms being run with an eye to the interests of successors as well as incumbents. But it’s doubtful if that many firms would pass an audit against this measure of their decisions on billing targets, promotion and reward.

The solution is not simply to revert to the status quo ante. It is to accept that the actions of your firm’s lawyers unfold an identity that alters as one generation hands over to the next. Self-perpetuation entails each firm becoming whatever its future partners want it to be.

 

Future generations

The standard caricature of Gen X – those currently occupying leadership positions – is that they are driven, self-reliant, pragmatic, non-hierarchical and perhaps a little cynical. The caricature of Millennials – your current associates – is that they are team-oriented, optimistic, demanding, fickle and perhaps a little self-regarding. If these short-hands are at all true, it supports the idea that current conditions favour the former over the latter: that partners are more suited to working alone, from home, than their associates; that they provide less management oversight, feedback and support than associates want; and that they are unrealistic (and maybe even cynical) in expecting associates to wait longer and work harder for promotion than they had to themselves.

As firms have learnt, the solution to this problem is not money. Loyalty comes at a cost, not a price. Earning loyalty costs a meaningful reallocation of time away from fee-earning and towards activities centred around associate well-being. None of this time need be considered unprofitable, however, as long as the measures of profit are extended beyond the merely chargeable.

Instead of asking what role associates can play in the life of the firm, firms should be asking what role they can play in the lives of their associates. Their aim should be to build a culture of mutual recognition, in which reciprocal praise and gratitude are normalised. Currently, associates have to fill out their own appraisal forms, volunteer their own self-criticisms and propose their own stretching objectives. These should be scaled back in favour of conversations designed primarily to recognise good work, as an explicit counterweight to the gratitude, praise and thanks that is all-too-often left unsaid by clients. The logic of this extends to partner performance management too.

 

Employee listening

For leaders, this is a task that requires labour, work and action – hard toil to ensure the firm’s survival, build something of lasting value and rearticulate the firm’s identity. The question of what a partnership fit for its future should look like can only properly be addressed to those who may inhabit that future. If the caricature fits, Millennials will view themselves as essential to these discussions. But it cannot be an exercise in faux-engagement: what you would be offering up for negotiation in any ‘employee listening’ exercise is the very culture through which your firm currently expresses itself, in exchange for one which can perpetuate itself better through retention.

Expect your associates to have views with which your partners disagree on subjects that they might prefer to brush away – such as the value of office attendance, the speed and thresholds for promotion, the responsibilities of management, the kind of clients for whom it is desirable to act, the possibility of spreading the same amount of work among a greater number of people, and the way the cake is divided.

All Managing Partners know that they can only lead where others will follow. The causes of associate attrition are, perhaps, obvious to anyone with open eyes, however carefully they may be sheathed in jargon. The real issue, maybe, lies in persuading partners to do something about them. What is called for is a different kind of revolution, comrades – a radical shift in the way partners engage with their teams. For this, jargon will have to be dispensed with, and replaced with plain speaking.