Millennial Dream or Oxymoron

Associate Retention Today: The Truth – by Mauricio Velasquez

As a Diversity Consultant and Trainer to law firms I am often asked by our clients “help us stop the bleeding.” Firms invest so much in sourcing, recruiting and developing their talented associates and to see them leave prematurely can be disastrous. One of my clients had lost nearly a dozen partners and associates (too many were women, minorities, not all) in a particular practice area in a several week span and they called DTG for help.


Client asked – “What do we do?” I said – “Let me conduct some external, third party, post-exit interviews.” My client was open to the suggestion, sent a cover letter to departed saying I would call and follow up. I called and reached all of them. They were told they would be anonymous and answers “would be aggregated” – what kept coming up over and over again would be shared – no individual comments would be shared.

The questions I asked:

  • What attracted you to this firm in the first place? (Original Expectation)
  • What was your experience like? (Open, not leading question)
  • What did you like best about your experience, this firm? What can this firm build on?
  • Why did you leave? The real reason – what you did not say before you left.
  • Where could they improve? Number one area for improvement?
  • What would make you come back? (Would they come back if changes were made? Might they boomerang back?)

By the way, all of the attorneys took my call, participated, and appreciated the opportunity to share their comments (good for firm image building post exit). What they told me – this one firm, supports what we are finding with all of our legal work in the associate retention practice area.


Associates leave their firms because…..

….they don’t like the way they are being treated (Based on a pattern of treatment)

….they don’t know if they are “partner material” (Do I have what it takes?)

….they don’t know what the “partner track really is” (Partner track is shrouded in mystery – some kind of Star Chamber or Cabal)

….they don’t want to be a partner (no alternative track)

….they want to have a family and are looking for a non-traditional, maybe part-time track, alternatives

….they don’t feel valued – not getting choice assignments, not being mentored, not getting feedback (They don’t feel “embedded in the firm”)

….they don’t know the direction of the firm – a great deal of uncertainty exists, hearsay, gossip, and no one is sharing the direction, future, trends

….they have not “found their place” – moving between practice areas, don’t have a mentor, no real anchor to the firm

….their expectations were never met – “they told me this was a lifestyle firm – farthest thing from the truth, a total lie.” Do not tout something on your website and recruitment literature that is not true.

Ultimately there is a mismatch or misalignment of expectations. Or the Associate is lost in the “unsaid.” How often after a key associate leaves – do partners tell me “Oh I thought he/she was being mentored by that partner or this partner.” The old “I had no idea” reaction is very common. Or, the Partner tells me – “He/she was close to partner. I thought he/she knew. Nobody told him/her?”

This is more common with women and minorities in firms by the way. They are not part of, they do not feel embedded in the “In-Group” or “Dominant Group.” This associate has no mentor, no advocate – no anchor in the firm. This trend is also why we are seeing a resurgence in our mentoring work. Plenty of reasons out there for associates to leave, now give them more compelling and better reasons to stay!


Our clients are conducting “Pre-Exit interviews” or what we call “Retention Interviews” for firms. Questions are similar to above. Questions are asked by internal personnel or maybe you need an outsider? Crazy what associates tell us – which they would never tell anyone inside the firm.

Trying to head off the exiting associate at the pass is smart business. We all know it is much more cost effective to keep your existing talent than go and find new and untested talent. Start asking the difficult questions before your associate leaves and be ready for the answers.

You have someone or more than one person in charge of associate retention? Are they approachable? Do your associates trust this person? Trust is critical. Don’t know? Ask your associates (survey that maybe goes to external party), “Who do you go to for help, for career advice, for counsel? Do you trust our associate development person? Yes/No and why – please give us specific examples.”

Status Quo – doing the same things we have always done with your associates in your firm – is just not working. If associates are different, market is different, clients are different – why are you sticking to your knitting? Make the tough adjustments now, before it is too late! Many firms are top heavy, partner heavy and a bunch of associates leaving at the same time is the start of the decline. We all know you make more money with your associates. What are you doing in your firm that is working? What associate retention practices are you finding effective?

Mauricio Velasquez

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