How to keep your associates happy

YouGov and The Lawyer have conducted the biggest survey of the legal profession that has ever been undertaken, and 51 per cent of respondents selected associate retention as one of the biggest issues facing the legal profession today. Even 30 per cent of in-house counsel see it as an important issue.

The issue has dominated the agenda for law firms since The Lawyer revealed in October 2005 that Allen & Overy had an assistant attrition rate of 25 per cent – news that prompted an overhaul of the firm’s partnership track.

When The Lawyer followed that up with its first assistant attrition rate survey in November 2005, it became clear that many firms were suffering the same problem, with SJ Berwin also suffering a 25 per cent rate and Ashurst losing 26 per cent of assistants.

As the M&A boom has taken hold, the battle to keep and also to recruit associates has intensified. And the crucial battleground has been associates with between three and five years’ PQE. This survey provides a snapshot of their hopes, fears and desires.

Seventy one per cent of associates with three to five years’ PQE believe that associate retention is the biggest challenge facing the legal profession, compared with 51 per cent of all those surveyed.

It is the mid-tier firms with turnover between £100m and £250m (from Wragge & Co to Simmons & Simmons in The Lawyer UK100) where associate retention matters most. Sixty nine per cent of respondents from those firms ranked this as the most important issue.

Eighty two per cent of two to five year-PQE associates believe the best way to retain them is by offering a flexible working scheme, while 66 per cent just want more cash.

Half of them believe that an alternative career path is a viable retention tool.

Despite the desire for cash, only 11 per cent of these associates believe that a US firm is the most appealing option. However, that is the highest of any demographic, with only 6 per cent across all groups believing that.
By far the most attractive employer was a global UK-based firm, which took 31 per cent of the vote.

The survey reveals a stark contrast between the views of management at law firms and their associates. Most understand the issues involved in retaining associates, but do not reveal the overwhelming response of the associates.

Sixty per cent of associates believe that higher salaries are among the best ways to retain associates, compared with only 42 per cent of management. The contrast remains when you look at bonuses, with 38 per cent of associates and only 22 per cent of management deciding that this is the best form of retention.

An overwhelming 82 per cent of associates tell us that flexible working schemes are the best way to keep them happy, while just 67 per cent of management realise this.

Interestingly, and perhaps reassuringly, managing partners and chief executives seem to be more in touch than senior partners and chairmen on the issue of flexible working schemes. Seventy seven per cent of managing partners and chief executives recognise the importance of such schemes compared with just 60 per cent of senior partners and chairpersons.

Only 21 per cent of management think that lower chargeable hours targets would encourage associates to stay put. Forty two per cent of associates believe this is a valuable incentive.

But the associates surveyed are not slackers. Forty two per cent of associates surveyed would take a pay cut to ensure a better quality of life, compared with 38 per cent across the profession.

This is one of the main areas where men and women differ. A third of men would take a drop in salary for this reason, compared with 45 per cent of women.

And diversity is a difficult issue. Law firms got extremely edgy when the Law Society and the Department for Constitutional Affairs demanded diversity statistics.

Men and women are in general agreement about associate retention being important, but more women see it as an important issue, while men are more worried about competition.

Fifty four per cent of women think associate retention is important compared with 48 per cent of men. And when it comes to ways of retaining associates, women vote overwhelmingly (86 per cent) in favour of flexible working schemes, compared with 69 per cent of men.

More men believe money is the way to keep them at a firm. Forty eight per cent of men believe that higher salaries are among the best retention tools and 31 per cent believe the best way is bigger bonuses. The comparative figures are 44
per cent and 28 per cent respectively for women.

This survey was conducted using an online interview. The sample is a list of 2,980 subscribers to the publication or to the daily news alert service.

The questions were supplied by The Lawyer and modified by YouGov to work with best practice market research methods.
An email was sent to those in the list inviting them to take part in the survey and providing a link to the survey. The results were then compiled by YouGov and analysed by The Lawyer.

The Lawyer and YouGov plan to launch TheLawyer/YouGov Think Tank, the first regular authoritative survey of the legal profession. Subscribers will receive an email about the next survey soon, so to make your opinions heard, click on the link that you receive.