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Best Practice: Associate satisfaction and retention

Asked and Answered

By John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

Q. I am the owner of a 20-attorney litigation firm in Seattle. The 19 associates are all in the same tier or category and are paid a salary plus bonus. Their time with the firm ranges from 1-15 years. I enjoy sole ownership but I realize that to continue to grow and prosper I must make some changes. I have recently lost several associates that I would have liked to have stayed with the firm. I am also getting stressed having all of the management responsibility since I currently make all of the decisions. Several associates have told me that the morale is low. I welcome your thoughts.

A. Compensation and benefits is one determinant as to whether associates are satisfied with employment at a firm. However, compensation and benefits is not enough to motivate and retain top performers. Law firms must help their associates invest in their careers and motivate and help them develop competencies and skills to enhance their productivity. With the downsizing, push for 2000+ annual billable hour push, etc., associates are skeptical about their futures and feel they have no power or ability to influence their careers. Associates want:

  • To learn
  • To feel they are part of the firm and larger picture
  • To know where the firm is headed
  • To participate in management
  • To know what is expected of them
  • To know whether advancement is possible
  • To know what they have to do to advance their careers
  • To have control over their advancement

Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Share more information about the firm where you can - its plans for the future, where it is heading, its strategic plan, etc.
  2. Improve and open up communications with associates.
  3. If there are other tiers such as senior associate, non-equity partner, equity partner - prepare and share with your associates documents that outline what it means to be a member in each tier and what performance and other factors are required to advance to each tier.
  4. Improve your review process and incorporate goal setting with each associate.
  5. Consider a management advisory committee or other committees where associates can participate in firm management.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC, ( is a past chair and member of the ISBA Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and author of The Lawyers Guide to Succession Planning published by the ABA. For more information on law office management please direct questions to the ISBA listserver, which John and other committee members review, or view archived copies of The Bottom Line Newsletters. Contact John at

Posted on June 22, 2016 by Chris Bonjean
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