How to keep associates motivated

As demands upon fee-earners increase and the mobility within the legal market is greater than ever before, the path to partnership remains a long one in many firms; and indeed it is not a route that the current generation of associates will all necessarily choose to follow. Therefore the question of how to keep bright, ambitious young lawyers motivated is one that many partners, HR and training professionals are currently grappling with.

One thing that is clear is that ambitious self-starters place great value on knowing how they are performing against expectations. Too often the only opportunity for associates to find out the answer to this is at their annual appraisal and, unless the relevant appraisers are skilled in giving feedback, even then this can sometimes prove to be a missed opportunity.

One of SJ Berwin‘s responses to this challenge was launched recently in the form of a development programme for the firm’s associates, named ‘Insight’. The aim of this programme is to provide each associate with three punctuation marks along their career path – at two years’ PQE, four years’ PQE and six years’ PQE.

At each of these stages the peer groups of associates are brought together for two days and are given a series of exercises to work through in small teams, in pairs or individually in order to benchmark their current performance in specific areas and receive constructive feedback.

For the Insight programme to be of value to the associates it was clearly essential that the exercises they faced were both challenging and appropriate to their experience levels. Before setting about creating the exercises there was therefore a great deal of groundwork to be undertaken in order to identify the skills and attributes that the firm expects its associates to be able to demonstrate at each of the relevant levels of experience and which they should be concentrating on developing over the next couple of years.

Differences between associates in different departments had to be taken into account, and as the firm has offices across Continental Europe the needs of associates in those other offices also had to be considered.

For each firm this matrix of skills and attributes, or development framework, will no doubt vary, but it is obviously essential to the eventual successful implementation of such a framework that there should be agreement between partners and associates as to the relevant component parts. Involving groups of partners and associates in the creation of the development framework for SJ Berwin was regarded as key to the eventual credibility of the Insight development programme.

Having undertaken such an exercise the firm was heartened to find that there was a high degree of uniformity of view between the partners and associates, and that the partners’ expectations of the associates were surpassed only by the expectations of the associates themselves.

Once the development framework had been agreed a series of exercises could then be created to test and challenge the associates in each of the relevant areas.

While a small number of firms run similar programmes for the purposes of assessment, SJ Berwin decided that the Insight programme should be purely for the benefit of the associates, and therefore all feedback generated on the programme would remain confidential to them. The aim in so doing was to create an atmosphere in which the associates felt able to experiment, to take some risks and even perhaps to make a few mistakes, knowing that the feedback they eventually received would be for their eyes only.

The first of these programmes concluded last month and the impact on the group of associates that attended has been positive. Not only have they each come away with some very specific and tailored feedback, together with a personal development plan for the next two years, but they have also reinforced a very valuable peer group network across the firm.

Ann Collier, head of training, SJ Berwin

(Please note that this article represents the opinions of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the views of The Lawyer or Centaur Media.)