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Focus on Retention or Embrace Turnover? Discuss

It is a little surprising that the employee turnover in the legal profession pretty much matches the national average. Conventional wisdom would have that turnover of professionals would be lower than average and lawyers are no exception, having typically studied for many years, struggled to get that first step on the ladder as a graduate and working in a field that needs engagement and focus to achieve results.

The ALPMA/McLeod Duminy Salary and HR Issues Survey published in May this year, asked respondents for the first time about staff tenure.  The finding of an 18 percent turnover mirrors a national average that includes typically high turnover industries such hospitality and retail: often over 50%. They are both big employers in New Zealand and so have considerable impact on national turnover rates.

So this begs the question of what is behind the high rates of turnover in the legal field – while raising the possibility that staff mobility might be a new reality.

Given the survey also showed that the attraction and retention of talent were the top two human resources challenges for law firms, this shapes up to be a big potential problem. However, other findings provided some clues as to why people in the profession are relatively mobile.

Retention and attraction are two sides of the same coin because the best strategy is always to hire the right people for the role and the culture in the first place. The need to foster pride, through effective communication and mutual respect, and ongoing appreciation and recognition are universally important for the retention of staff.

Remuneration is also an important element and in general terms there is little differentiation in what law firms offer their employees. Most packages don’t go beyond salary, bonus and leave. That means those interested focused on attracting and retaining the best staff have an opportunity to get creative with perks and look at things like flexitime, non-financial bonuses and other benefits. It is worth noting that almost three quarters of millennial job seekers would like some ability to determine their own work schedule and that is still almost half of Gen X.

A further consideration is what young lawyers want from their career. They want recognition; transparency in how salaries are calculated; regular and timely performance feedback; and a better understanding of the business of law. But most importantly they want career development and meaningful work. If they don’t see it they have no qualms about moving on to find it.

The old adage that ‘people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers’ is also alive and well in the legal profession and is compounded by the partnership structure which leads to a lack of professional managers in law firms. Most partners wear many business hats and their people management can suffer as a result. It is an area that warrants more investment from firms.

Another symptom of the traditional structure of law firms is the relative lack of internal mobility, with the result that lawyers tend to specialise quickly – but that pigeonholing can cause discontent. A desire to move to another area of work is a common reason people leave.

These findings point to some obvious solutions for improving retention and thereby creating strong teams where skills, knowledge and experience stay with your company. However, none of that will address the elephant in the room. That is that higher job mobility is the new norm and average tenures have become shorter and shorter over the last 20 years – so we can’t just point at those pesky millennials!

Figures last year from Statistics New Zealand show that the average tenure for a lawyer in 4 years, but it is much shorter than that for Gen Y and Millennials.

Is it time to start recognising that turnover is inevitable and embracing the positive aspects of bringing new talent into the business. It could be shifting investment in training to newer employees in order to get them up-to-speed as soon as possible. This is one way of focusing on productivity rather than time served. Is it better to have a high flyer for a shorter period or an average achiever for longer?

Another approach has been dubbed a ‘Tour of Duty’ which places a set of goals on each new recruit. If they achieve those goals then the hire was a success even if they choose to leave. Even better they decide to stay for another ‘tour’.

And perhaps most importantly of all, when people leave, make it a positive experience for them and make sure there is an active and engaging alumni program. That way they will feel like their contribution and presence was valued. Not only is there an increased chance they will come back armed with the lovely experience they have gained elsewhere, you will also have a positive advocate out in the market who can recommend you as an employer.