To secure top-tier talent, law firms must understand and respond to the shifting preferences and expectations of associates. The purpose of this article is to help law firms better understand what associates are looking for when considering a lateral move. Equipped with this information, firms will be better positioned to critically analyze policies and procedures that may be inhibiting recruitment and growth efforts.
Today’s associates want two things. No, it’s not better snacks in the break room. It’s transparency and fairness – a prominent theme throughout this article. Considering these trends and expectations will ensure that your law firm is an attractive option for lateral attorneys.
The Pursuit of Transparent Compensation
At the heart of candidate expectations is an unequivocal demand for transparent compensation. Transparency starts at the beginning of the job search and sets the stage for a positive or negative candidate experience.
There is a high demand for transparent salaries. Lateral associates want to know the salary for each job they are considering before applying. In fact, compensation expectations are often included in the first conversation legal recruiters have with their candidates. Thus, the first step in attracting the best candidates is to be clear on compensation. Firms can create clarity by providing a salary range in the job description and sharing this range with their recruitment partners. Salary transparency ensures that both parties are aligned before investing time and energy into the interview process.
Transparency also extends to the offer process. If a candidate discloses a target salary and the firm agrees to interview that candidate, the firm’s offer should reflect the candidate’s target number. In a real-life example, a candidate was transparent and ensured salary alignment by disclosing her target salary, but the offer she received was $25,000 less than previously discussed. This discrepancy left the candidate with a negative impression of the firm, which ultimately resulted in an offer that was not accepted. To ensure that your offers are accepted, discuss realistic salary ranges as an initial matter and ensure that the candidate’s salary request fits within your compensation plan and structure.
Valuing Contributions Beyond Billable Hours
Transparency drives candidates to the firm, but equitable compensation helps them stay. Associates and partners alike are expressing a desire for recognition and compensation for their contributions outside of billable hours, including activities such as recruitment, training, diversity programs, and business development. Oftentimes, these important yet non-billable activities are not taken into consideration when determining overall compensation. In a real-life example, a partner’s expertise, ethnicity, and gender were leveraged to obtain new business but the partner received no credit or other form of compensation for helping to bring in that new business to the firm. To maintain equitable compensation, develop a system to appropriately value non-billable contributions.
Redefining Bonus Structures
The legal industry is experiencing a significant shift in how bonuses are perceived and valued by candidates. Disenchantment with discretionary bonuses is growing. More and more candidates favor transparent, formulaic bonus structures. Associates want to know what goals they are required to meet and what they will receive in return. They crave clear guidelines and expect to be presented with a written bonus structure.
Associates are also conducting cost-benefit analyses to evaluate the best way to spend their time. Bonus structures that provide an hourly rate for hours billed in excess of the firm’s requirement are being strictly scrutinized. Accordingly, the law firm’s formula must be motivating and competitive. In two real-life examples, one associate earns a $1,500 bonus for every 100 hours billed over 1,900 hours while the other earns $75 per hour billed over 1,900. The first associate calculated that this bonus amounts to $15 per hour and felt that they could be paid more working a second job or forgoing the bonus altogether while the second associate billed 2,300 hours and earned a $30,000 bonus. The first associate felt demotivated and undervalued while the other felt motivated and excited to succeed.
In another notable trend, many candidates (associates and partners alike) are willing to exchange the promise of a large bonus for a slightly higher base salary even if it means a reduction in overall compensation. In another real-life example, an associate expressed more interest in a compensation structure with a base salary of $200,000 and a $10,000 bonus than a base salary of $150,000 with a $100,000 bonus. These trends highlight a preference for predictability, stability, and transparency.
Let’s not forget bonuses based on collections. Associates are turned off by bonuses that are only paid when and if the client pays. While associates understand that there is a business reason for linking bonuses to collections, associates feel that they have no control over when and if a client pays their bill. This issue is also compounded when the associate exclusively works for one client who has a reputation for payment delays or a client has strict billing rules. Unlinking associate bonuses to client-dependent activities will create a more equitable environment and culture.
Bonus structures – if designed properly – have the potential to attract, motivate, and retain candidates. Firms should review their bonus plan and evaluate it with a critical eye. It may also be an opportunity to save money and enhance culture while also better reflecting associate compensation trends and desires.
The Desire for Upward Progression
Associates crave firms that offer an upward trajectory. After all, no one wants to be at a dead-end job. Associates are seeking firms with reputations for offering annual raises and a clear path to partnership. In a real-life example, an associate with a four-year tenure at her firm made a lateral move because she had not received a raise in over two years. If your firm struggles to provide annual raises and has no defined path to partnership, your firm is likely a less attractive option to laterals. To combat these issues, carry out intentional salary adjustments, calendar time each year to review salaries, and document the path to partnership.
The Imperative for Determined Leave
Similar to salary, candidates are demanding transparency around time off and leave of absence. Vacation days and parental leave are of high interest. Candidates are now less content with open-ended leave policies and desire specific and numerical leave policies. They do not want to guess how much time off is too much or too little. They want to know the firm’s expectations upfront (usually in the form of a formal written policy) and adhere to those requirements. In particular, associates want to know the firm’s policy on leave before accepting an offer. This is understandable as policies often vary from firm to firm. To attract top candidates, law firms should consider memorializing their policies in written documents and actively promote their policies during the interview process. Doing so will ensure that candidates are well-informed and eliminate the need for candidates to initiate this taboo yet crucial conversation.
Embracing Flexibility: The Hybrid Work Model
The demand for flexibility is stronger than ever, with many candidates seeking firms that have adopted the hybrid work model. In particular, candidates seek an established, written policy clearly identifying the number of days expected to be worked in office. In a real-life example, a firm offering hybrid work (1 day in the office per week) is able to attract talent at salaries well below market. Offering this work model has saved the firm thousands of dollars per attorney in base salaries. This approach also helps to retain attorneys because employees highly value this level of flexibility and it is less likely to be found at competitor firms. If your firm is considering adopting a hybrid work model, make sure you have the necessary technological infrastructure, are able to maintain a level of mentorship and support, and clearly communicate expectations.
A Call for Transparency and Fairness
Transparency and fairness stand out as the prevailing themes in the current landscape of candidate preferences. Law firms that align their policies and procedures with these principles will position themselves as attractive employers for today’s legal talent. Embracing these trends will not only enhance the firm’s reputation but will also contribute to the long-term success and stability of the firm.
Lateral Link is a vital ally for law firms navigating these changing tides. Connecting with Christine Berger and Lateral Link ensures that your firm is attuned to the latest trends, fostering a culture that attracts, nurtures, and retains the best legal talent. The journey towards building a resilient, future-ready legal practice starts here.