Catch a rising star

One of the themes that has risen to prominence in recent months has been the high rate of attrition among assistants and associates. While this phenomenon may be most marked in firms where the surge in demand for assistants has been at its highest, such as those currently benefiting from the boom in M&A work, the trend is by no means confined to this part of the market.

Firms may take the view that a certain level of defections are inevitable – and perhaps not wholly unwelcome. However, a recent survey by The Lawyer showed that, among the top 50 firms, the proportion of assistants leaving in 2004-05 varied from 2 to 32 per cent. There can be little doubt that attrition rates at the higher end are costly in terms of wasted investment and disruption to client service, and ultimately put the firms affected at a competitive disadvantage.

The increase in defections may have been given momentum by inflating salaries, but other factors can be equally important, such as perceptions of the day-to-day working environment, the quality of experience being gained and longer-term career prospects. A number of firms have therefore embarked on consultation exercises, often in the form of focus groups. By providing assistants with an opportunity to express grievances, management teams hope to identify initiatives or adjustments that will help firms retain their rising stars.

The difficulty is that assistants may be most unwilling to speak openly about these matters to partners or others within the firm who are in a position to affect their careers. As the editor of The Lawyer Catrin Griffiths put it: “I rather doubt associates’ candour in such set piece meetings. Lawyers are not at the confrontational end of the spectrum when it comes to organisational psychology.”

It is becoming increasingly common practice for firms to use third parties to interview clients as a means of eliciting their views on the service they receive. In many instances this leads to a more candid, and therefore more valuable, assessment than would have been possible if the interviewers had been drawn from within the firm. If this technique works with clients, it is likely to be effective with a firm’s own staff, which has potentially more to lose by expressing opinions openly. Management teams would be wise to consider using consultants to gauge assistants’ feelings about the firm, explore the issues that underlie potential departures and identify the best means of engendering loyalty over the longer term.

The ubiquitous focus group, incidentally, is not the panacea it is often assumed to be, as in this forum it is possible that the consensus will be distorted by the most vocal contributors. There is a role for group discussion, but this should be complemented by one-to-one interviews among a cross-section of assistants.

While participants would be assured that their comments would be used non-attributably, it may also be necessary to provide a mechanism by which opinions can also be expressed on an anonymous basis. The firm will be able to reach more definitive conclusions about how the firm is perceived by its junior staff by comparing the findings generated through these various conduits.

Carrying out an independent review of this kind could provide valuable insights into what assistants are thinking and the steps that may be necessary for a firm to retain its best talent. And, while the firm may not always be able to meet its assistants’ expectations, the review would at least help to show how serious it is about the subject.

John de Forte is principal of legal and professional services consultancy De Forte Associates