Exploring How to Retain and Lead Associates
Recent press has emphasized the marked increase in first year associate salaries and the challenge of associate retention. Compensation is only one piece of the puzzle in cultivating a happy, engaged associate. Let’s explore how marketing professionals can help engage and retain associates.
In the past, attorneys could do good work and, as a result, more work would materialize. However, the legal market has changed, as have the needs of the clients, and the skillset needed to grow a legal practice is more diverse and complex. Robyn Charles, director of practice development for Miller & Martin PLLC, explained, “The days of IQ as a standard of excellence have faded over time — it is just the entry point to business development. Today, what sets one attorney apart from another is their emotional intelligence. This is why a growing number of firms have made the investment to develop this skillset; they understand clients want a relationship, not just an attorney.”
Successful rainmakers respect that business development is expected and appropriately invest in developing the soft skills that are foundational to building relationships that result in a strong book of business.
So, shouldn’t we facilitate the soft skills learning process while our associates are new — before any bad habits develop? The benefits of associate-level business development training are multi-faceted and vary from firm to firm. However, two benefits are consistent when training begins early in associates’ careers: 1) associates begin to think of business development as a necessary part of a successful practice, rather than an optional extracurricular activity, and 2) attorneys have the advantage of the content being foundational to their practice, rather than remedial.
Firms have been investing in business development training for years, but few have formalized associate programs. This was the situation in 2013 at Steptoe & Johnson PLLC when we created our STEPin program. This 12-month program features webcast sessions on topics including networking, communicating effectively, utilizing business and trade organizations, and work-life balance. A program graduate said it “provided an excellent foundation and support structure for my personal marketing efforts as an associate.” The sessions associates participate in teaches the importance of seeking lasting relationships with both prospective and existing clients, and develops relevant skills to land new clients. They also emphasize the importance of following up to maintain relationships once they are established.
The program is more than a training module; it’s also a library of business development resources specifically geared toward associates. We provide an avenue to ask questions and create an environment in which associates are comfortable asking for advice. I had a senior attorney tell me that business development coaching can carry a negative stigma, similar to being sent to detention. The inclusion of coaching as a component of an associate program can help remove that stigma and create a culture where input from business development professionals is appreciated rather than shunned.
Associate retention increase when they feel engaged as a valued part of the firm and see the firm’s investment in their success. The jury is still out on the long-term impact of STEPin on retention, but the short-term impact of associate engagement can be felt firm-wide.
Associate programs come in all shapes and sizes with the challenge being how to figure out what will work for your firm. You are likely wondering, “How can my firm get started?” The logical first step is to engage with your associates and explore what training and coaching needs they may have. This can be done in a variety of methods; however, consider having a series of investigative conversations with new and seasoned associates as well as with the partners who assign work to associates. Once you uncover the training and coaching needs, arm yourself with statistics, a proposed budget and anticipated outcomes. From there, approach firm leadership with the plan, and obtain their buy-in, which is critical to adoption and success of your new associate program.
The next step will be unique for each firm and will be strongly tied to the newly uncovered needs. Consider starting with a pilot group consisting of associates in a particular department, practice group, year of practice or geographic area. Through the initial phase of the project, actively seek feedback from the pilot group and retool as necessary.
Once your pilot group is complete, remember to communicate the outcomes of the experience to firm management and present a plan to expand your program to a larger audience. Don’t forget to have a little fun with your associates and realize that the investment of your time will be worth the impact on the firm’s associates and your firm as a whole.
When you see one of “your associates” become partner, you will beam with pride and know that the benefit of your work went well beyond associate retention. You know that you had an impact on their success.
Bobbie Conklin is the business development manager at Steptoe & Johnson in West Virginia, where she works closely with the marketing team and attorneys to implement business development strategies across the firm.