Most law firms fit into two distinct categories when it comes to how they view associates. Some shops believe associates are an integral part of their team, and partners try to mentor and support associates so that they will stay at the firm for a long time. These shops typically pay associates more money, invest in professional development, and allow associates to become involved with business development and other administrative efforts. However, other firms view associates as interchangeable cogs in a machine. These shops usually pay associates less money, and there is not much potential for associates to make partner at these firms. As a result, those associates usually leave for better opportunities after a few years, and there is accordingly a high associate turnover rate at these shops. Although firms may save money and other resources with this latter approach, associate turnover is very harmful for law firms. As a result, partners should invest in their associates so they will stay at a law firm for as long as possible.
Associate turnover can substantially impact the institutional memory of attorneys at a firm. For instance, it is not uncommon for litigation and some transactional matters to take a long time to reach resolution. It is not uncommon in one state in which I practice for lawsuits to take five or even 10 years to reach a resolution (I personally was involved in several 10-year lawsuits) and over the course of time, many nuances may develop about a file. However, each time someone leaves a firm, some of the understanding of the case is lost, and it is very difficult for other people to come up to speed on the file.
For example, I once worked at a law firm that had a case which was filed when I was a freshman in high school. In my first week at the firm, I had to start preparing the summary judgment papers (the first summary judgment motion I had ever prepared by myself). I looked through the file and realized that four or more attorneys had handled the case before me. I tried to get up to speed on the case by reviewing exit memos drafted by departing attorneys, but it was extremely difficult to understand what was going on. In any case, if associate turnover is reduced, firms may be able to deliver better legal services to clients because more institutional memory about a file will be preserved.
Attorney turnover can also lead to a smaller bench of experienced associates at a firm that can handle complex legal matters. It often takes months — even years — to properly train attorneys. Most of us understand how law school does not train individuals to practice law, and on-the-job training is critical to developing as an attorney. Before an associate is properly trained, they are more prone to making mistakes, and they cannot handle the same variety of tasks that an experienced lawyer can manage. Furthermore, even if an attorney has been practicing law for years, it can still take time for that lawyer to be experienced in a given area of the law. For instance, after I had worked at a few firms, I became an associate at another shop that specialized in a few mass torts matters. I had to learn a completely new set of rules in order to be effective in this role, and it took time.
In any case, constant turnover by attorneys means fewer trained attorneys at a firm. Moreover, it means that firms lose all of the investment they put into developing an associate. Of course, it takes time and effort to train attorneys, and not all of this work can be monetized. When associates leave a firm they take that experience with them, and their new shop will benefit from all of the investment that the first firm made in an associate.
Associate turnover is also really bad for a firm’s image. When associates at a firm leave constantly, it sends a bad message about the firm, because there must be a reason why so many people are departing so frequently. People are less likely to do business with a firm if they think that a shop is a bad place to work or doesn’t treat their associates well. Moreover, many in-house representatives understand the downsides of associate turnover. When someone in-house has to communicate with different people over the life of a matter, they can probably tell that newer folks are not as up-to-speed on a matter as the associates who initially worked on a matter. Moreover, it can be frustrating for in-house staff to lose contact with people at a firm with whom they have forged a connection during the life of a matter. Of course, associates communicate with clients to different degrees at varying shops, but associate turnover assuredly looks bad to clients and others.
In the end, some firms do not mind associate turnover, since it is an inevitable result of underpaying associates, subjecting them to a pressure-cooker environment, and other unpleasant conditions. However, associate turnover can be extremely harmful to firms, and more shops should take bona fide efforts to ensure their associates stay for the long haul.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.