In my work as a business development coach and trainer, many of my experienced attorney clients have been complaining to me that they are struggling to incorporate business development activities into an already active practice inundated with client demands. Top that with record high numbers of associates quitting (more than one in four in 2021 according to the ABA Journal), and investing in genuine and meaningful relationships with the associates in your firm has never been more important.
Good associates help you provide your clients with high-quality work, allow you to scale your practice, and can alleviate you from performing mundane tasks, thus providing you with newly found time to be intentional and proactive about the kind of work you want more of. A focus on associate development can be directly related to your future success as a partner. And with both the shift to remote and hybrid work arrangements and the cultural changes in expectations around work among younger generations, there are new challenges and considerations attorneys need to think about while working with junior colleagues.
To create a climate of inclusion that generates loyalty from your associates, expands your book of business, and ultimately improves your firm, consider these steps:
- Meet with associates regularly to connect on non-client/matter related topics. Find out what their goals are. Are they interested in partnership? What kind of work is most interesting to them? What kind of clients are they hoping to work with? A real estate partner we work with blocks out breakfast on the first Friday of every month to meet in person with one of the associates in his department. A partner at a boutique intellectual property firm has a regular reminder in her calendar to schedule a quarterly Zoom “coffee meeting” with each of her associates.
- Whenever possible, provide associates with opportunities on matters that are in line with their individual goals. Do your best to help associates connect the dots between the matter and their career objectives.
- Include the associate working on your matter(s) in as much of the process as you can: client strategy meetings, calls and emails. Invest extra time providing associates with your insights and a window into your thinking and problem solving.
- Encourage your associate to focus on their professional reputation. Consider collaborating with an associate on a thought leadership piece in line with their ideal career trajectory. An entertainment law partner client recently worked with an associate interested in NFTs on an article about the inclusion of NFTs in talent contracts, ultimately raising the associate’s visibility and credibility in the space along with the partner’s.
- Offer guidance and provide constructive criticism. Help the associates you work with improve and grow as legal practitioners and business developers. Be respectful, truthful, and candid.
- Use the technology available to the firm that your associates are using, whether that is Microsoft Teams, Slack, or something else. You need to meet the associate where they are if you want to foster a successful connection and the most effective working relationship.
- When an associate is working with you on a matter, reach out regularly, checking in to see if they have any questions or if they want to run a thought or strategy by you. Your proactive and supportive approach in helping the associate raise their game as a practitioner will go a long way.
- Acknowledge your colleagues’ value and accomplishments. One of the reasons associates leave firms is because they don’t feel appreciated. Public recognition is a good way to celebrate a success or achievement that has broader business impact. A post on LinkedIn about a positive result highlighting the work of an associate not only ups visibility and extends praise to the individual, but it can also serve as an opportunity to inform the entire firm of the value of the work.
- Be a kind and decent person. Follow the platinum rule: treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated… and most definitely not the way you were mistreated earlier in your career. Offer praise for a job well done. Act with humility, and acknowledge your mistakes or shortcomings.
- Talk about setting work boundaries and then respect them. Perhaps your associate would appreciate the productivity that comes out of a “no meeting Wednesday” rule, or maybe they don’t want to work on Mondays after 5 p.m. so they can make a commitment to themselves or their family. Then make sure you honor that request. This will build trust and show that you care about their well-being.
- Set fair and realistic time expectations. Little is more disheartening than when a partner makes an urgent request, and an associate works all night to get the work product on the partner’s desk first thing in the morning only to watch it sit untouched for three days. Delegate tasks as soon as you can, and do not set false urgent deadlines.
- Do what you can to advocate for your associates. Make introductions, give public praise, vouch for them when opportunities arise, and seek out growth opportunities for those who have proven themselves to be highly capable.
Investing in your relationships with associates is key to the long-term growth of your practice and is essential to the health of your firm. If a relationship with you leads to a genuine bond and real professional growth, the associates at your firm will be excited to work with you. Not only will you and your clients benefit from your improved relationships with your junior colleagues, but it is also likely you will find that helping others to develop and excel is highly gratifying.