What Attorneys Really Want From Their Law Firms

September 7, 2016

Law360, Boston

By Jacqueline Bell

What makes attorneys stay with a law firm, and what makes them go? While many attorneys certainly feel their compensation could be better, it’s far more than just money that pushes them to seek out new opportunities, according to Law360’s 2016 Lawyer Satisfaction Survey.

Attorneys who said they are “very likely” to look for a job at other firms in the next year were primarily unhappy with leadership and advancement opportunities, not compensation, according to Law360’s survey. For these attorneys itching to switch firms, 46 percent said they were “very dissatisfied” with law firm leadership, and an identical percentage, 46 percent, said they were “very dissatisfied” with opportunities for advancement at their firms.

Compensation was less of a sticking point for those unhappy attorneys — with 34 percent saying they were “very dissatisfied” with their compensation.

On the other hand, attorneys who told Law360 they were “very unlikely” to go looking for a new firm to call home in the next year were more satisfied with everything but their compensation, particularly firm leadership, with 60 percent reporting that they were “very satisfied” with their higher-ups. Opportunities for advancement, billable hours requirements and benefits also got high marks from these attorneys who are happy to stay put.

While many attorneys who responded to Law360’s Lawyer Satisfaction Survey did seem to feel they could stand to make more money, clearly it’s more than just the size of their paychecks that keep talented lawyers from jumping ship.

“Compensation is always a factor. But in terms of lawyers that are practicing at law firms, it is less of a factor than many would expect. It’s really more about the quality of life and quality of the experience that one has as a lawyer,” said David S. Garber, president of Princeton Legal Search Group LLC.

Here’s a closer look at what lawyers really care about — and what they’re looking for in a law firm.

Strong Leadership

A law firm ecosystem can be a delicate balance and smart attorneys know that it takes good leaders to make it all work harmoniously.

And when there are failures at the top, things can go wrong — fast. Top-of-the-market compensation can’t insulate an attorney from leadership failures if a law firm dissolves. So savvy attorneys know that their law firms need strong leaders that not only give their practices the support they need, but also have clear visions of how to grow and strengthen their firms.

“How many firms have we seen where people were getting top-of-the-market pay scale, and there were leadership problems and those firms no longer exist,” said Valerie Fontaine, a founding partner of legal search consulting firm Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith.

Partners particularly consider the quality of law firms’ leadership when making career decisions, and that question can be far more relevant than the exact dollar value of their compensation. For many partners, the legal market is so competitive that their compensation will be more or less the same no matter where they end up, so leadership ends up playing a much larger role in any decision about where to set up shop.

And if partners in particular are starting to lose confidence in leadership, that can spell trouble for a firm very quickly, as defections pile up and recruiters start to circle.

“A firm can get very weak in a hurry if partners start to lose confidence, because they don’t want to be a part of a firm dissolving. People understand that the law firm model itself is very fragile. It doesn’t take a lot,” said Larry Watanabe, founder of Watanabe Nason LLC.

Opportunities for Advancement

In any job, employees want to feel that they have the prospect to grow, learn new skills and advance in their chosen fields. Having those opportunities improves job satisfaction and helps workers feel more motivated.

And for attorneys, it’s not top-of-the-market salaries but rather those opportunities that keep them content — and keep them from job-hopping, Law360’s Lawyer Satisfaction Survey shows.

“If you’re making a lot of money but you’re not advancing, you’re not growing, then you’re not going to make more money down the line,” Fontaine said. “So if you have strong leadership and opportunities for advancement, you have more opportunity to make more money over the course of your career.”

Attorneys will often head to other firms and even take pay cuts if it means they have a better chance to do the work they’re truly interested in, get hands-on experience or have more opportunities to engage with clients, Fontaine said. In other words, it’s not just money that makes people jump ship.

For partners, the question of opportunity can take a slightly different form. Partners with established practices have to continually be asking themselves if their firms are the best home bases for their particular practices, and if they are supportive of the work they are able to bring in.

For some BigLaw partners, moving to different firms where they are able to cut their hourly rates slightly will ultimately give them the ability to attract far more clients and bring in more work for their firms. For others, firms might stop prioritizing their practices they start looking elsewhere to find firms that provide them with the support they need to continually grow their books of business.

“Partners these days know that in order for them to be competitive and be gainfully employed, they need to have business. And they’ve got to be on the right platform, and believe that they are at the right place to be able to enhance their opportunities to develop and maintain their client base. That’s key,” Watanabe said. “Because if they can’t and they fail, it limits opportunities to do virtually anything.”

Reasonable Billable Hour Requirements

The definition of a “reasonable” billing hour requirement is going to be different for every attorney, legal job market experts say. But all attorneys have to find the levels they can sustain and still have lives, too.

Quality of life matters and can be more important for many than money, particularly if attorneys feel like they spend more time making those billable hours than they do anything else, including sleeping.

“I can’t tell you how many people come to us and say, ‘I would be happy to give up some of my top-of-the-market compensation if I just had enough time to spend some of that money. I’d like some time to work out, to see friends and family, or even just go to the dry cleaner,'” Fontaine said.

That may be a question more BigLaw attorneys will soon be considering. Several firms have revised their associate salary pay scales upward this year, and some havealready confirmed that they are raising their billable hour demands.

Depending on attorneys’ preferences and where they are in their careers, adjustments to billable hour requirements may have an effect on job satisfaction.

“Every time that law firms increase compensation, increase starting salary, there’s a price that comes along with that. And oftentimes, it’s an increase in billable hours to justify the additional salaries being paid,” Garber said. “Sometimes the balance gets so skewed, people stop and step back and say, ‘I really need to find someplace where I’m going to be able to strike a better balance. And sometimes that means less money.'”

Good Benefits

Health care, 401(k)s, vacation days and coverage for parking fees or continuing legal education expenses might best be described as the boring part of a compensation package. It’s necessary and important, but rarely a motivating factor for anyone looking to make a leap to a new firm. In other words, nobody gets fed up with their benefits package one day and starts calling legal recruiters.

But a great benefits package can be a powerful force at a law firm and help keep good lawyers right where they are.  It can make attorneys feel valued and help smooth over other job-related issues that can crop up as a firm grows.

Benefits do vary considerably from firm to firm, so they are something that savvy attorneys look at carefully, even if they aren’t the deciding factors, legal market experts say. And good benefits can be particularly important if firms can’t pay top-of-the-market compensation but are looking to provide value that might still attract and retain talent.

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