Silicon Valley's Secrets to Retaining Legal Talent


We’re sure you’ve seen it. You spend time and money finding, interviewing, and selecting the right new associate to join your team. You invest an average of two years of training, mentoring, and resources to bring them up to speed. They work for a few years, and then - they leave and you’re caught in the same cycle of hiring and loss all over again. So why is it so hard to retain legal talent? A survey of attorneys in charge of hiring discovered that 64% of them find it challenging to find the right legal talent. The National Association for Law Placement Foundation reports that “the rate of associate attrition is the highest it has ever been—37% of associates are leaving within the first three years and 77% leaving within five years. And the senior associates are leaving when they are most valuable to their firms—when they have enough experience to know what they are doing and when their rates are profitable.”

This trend will persist. Most millennial switch jobs at least four times within their first decade out of college - that’s double the rate of the generation before them.

Your biggest investment is your biggest flight risk. But why are they leaving?

They’re unhappy. According to Janet Ellen Raasch, law firm associates are disillusioned with the partner track and are increasingly interested in achieving work-life balance. Candidates are also being lured away by alternative employment opportunities with shiny technology startups promising bright futures and business roles with growth potential.

You might think attorneys are unhappy because they are working long hours, in demanding circumstances, with tight deadlines. You might think that that’s why they leave their firms. Yet employees at tech startups work incredibly long hours and in highly competitive environments with high stakes, just like employees at law firms. And yet, tech startup employees are working 80-90 hours a week and loving it.  

What’s their secret?

Culture Fit. Technology companies hire based on culture. It’s true that education and experience are necessary factors to consider. But uniform pedigree across a department will never ensure 100% retention, and pedigree is a questionable prognosticator of success. “In the early days, the founders of Google favored grads of Caltech, Stanford and Berkeley. But over time, the company learned that [the] prestige of graduate school was a poor predictor of job success. Because Google lives and dies by its outputs, the company changed its hiring model to attract the most qualified engineers.

Companies like Zappos, IBM, and Google strongly believe that creating and “nurturing a creative environment and helping to find a way to innovate” is paramount when it comes to building a culture that can retain top talent. Tech companies also give a piece of the company to each employee, literally giving employees ownership of the company’s success.

What does that mean for law firms?

To start, it means law firms need to establish core firm values and stick to them, promote them, and then screen and hire based on them. That means knowing what your firm culture is, and knowing what backgrounds and experiences a candidate should have to fit the culture.

Then, sell your firm’s culture to attract top talent.

The most successful tech companies are able to attract top talent because they have been able to identify, develop, and promote their firm’s culture in such an organic way that candidates are able to get a clear picture of what working for the company will look and feel like.

In the law firm context, it might be a strong focus on employees who prioritize well-being and holistic living. Employees can be reimbursed for their gym memberships, provided with high quality, healthy cafeteria options, and enjoy extra incentives like standing desk, exercise balls, and thoughtful snacks.

Alternatively, firms that attract competitive adrenaline seekers can structure their culture around healthy competition, provide incentives for winning including a healthy dose of public recognition, and balance this attention with team-building events to promote unity.

Some law firms are learning from the siren call of the tech world and are stepping it up with startup-inspired programs and perks. Cooley LLP holds dance-offs and karaoke, and offers table tennis, ice cream sundaes, and weekly beer/pizza gatherings to celebrate team and individual successes. Other firms like Hogan Lovells LLP and WilmerHale LLP, offers attorneys the option to telecommute, while firms Hanson Bridgett LLP and Benesch, Friedlander, Copland & Aronoff LLP offer massages.

Alternative Solutions: Tech & Flex

With how difficult it is to find and retain legal project help, it may be wise to consider going flexible to meet current needs so that you can avoid hiring and investing in one of the 77% of associates that leave by year 5 because you’re in a pinch.

Hire an Esquire provides perfect matches with flexible freelance attorneys with a shorter turnaround time and lower overhead. With an on-demand network of vetted, verified freelance attorneys, we take the time to understand your firm’s unique business and culture and leverage our technology to find the best match for your current hiring needs.

Want the full guide on how Silicon Valley ethos can elevate your firm’s staffing strategy? Click here.

For more information on how Hire an Esquire works, click here.