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How to Keep Them Satisfied

Vivia Chen

October 13, 2010

Happy-1It's no secret that I'm skeptical about this whole business of associate morale. I've questioned whether firms care and if lawyers expect too much. Still, I couldn't help noticing that Paul, Hastings jumped 60 places on our midlevel associate survey this year (it now ranks sixth nationwide). And unlike some firms that ranked high in the survey, Paul, Hastings actually got a big percentage of its associates to participate--almost 80 percent.

How did it do it--did the firm bribe or threaten associates to give good reviews? Or is it actually doing something right?

I talked to Paul, Hastings partner James Owens, the head of the lawyer development program, about how the firm pulled it off.

I imagine the firm must be patting itself on the back for getting on that top ten list for associate satisfaction. 
Survey results are great, but they are not statistically accurate. We take it with a grain of salt.

That's being rather sober. Weren't you amazed by that huge jump from sixty-sixth to sixth place? 
It's been many years in the making. Paul, Hastings has been consistently at the bottom for ten years.

So what prompted the firm to fix it?
Competition for recruiting was getting really fierce, and it was hard for recruits to distinguish one firm from another. Every firm is global, the salary is the same, and we all have similar clients. So we asked ourselves, "What are recruits looking for?"

And the answer to that $165,000 question? 
Training. The bargain is that they'll work hard in return for obtaining expertise in a chosen field. They may not expect to be at the firm forever, but they all expect to be trained, which depends on getting feedback on their work. And that means improving communication about everything.

So training and transparency are the keys to associate happiness? 
We focus on satisfaction, not happiness. You can affect job satisfaction, but not happiness, because that has to do with the individual.

Lots of managers are poor communicators, and most don't know it. What clued the firm in that it had a communication problem?
The most disappointing thing is when promising associates leave because they thought they didn't have a future at the firm. We found that partners were afraid to tell associates they had good prospects because they feared [associates] might slack off as a result, or sue us if we don't end up making them a partner.

Old habits in law firms die hard. What did you do to change them?
We hired a full-time development coach, Siobhain McCarthy, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, and we hired two [additional] in-house career coaches. They work with associates on their development plans, setting a list of goals. I'm the firmwide development chair, and we also have a development chair for each office, and associate representatives.

Sounds like a whole cast of new characters and programs. You must do more now than just give an annual review to each associate.
That's right. You get regular feedback from the partners you work directly for, and from your mentor partner, who's not a direct report. For instance, my mentee is a real estate associate. I review his evaluation and read what the partners say about him, and it's not threatening.

What if you don't like your mentor-partner?
Personality match matters. We work in teams. We do things socially--go to dinner, lunch. It's not just a single partner for each associate. My group has two partners for three associates.

Wow. That's a better ratio than the most exclusive nursery schools. But let's forget these nice partners. What does the firm do with the nasty ones who really crimp morale?
I've done intervention where I had to fly to someone's office to tell them that they needed help. The reaction was, "I didn't mean to be that way." It's only happened twice in eight years.

And are these partners still at the firm?
Yes, they are still with us.

Do you think people can be reformed?
I'd say modified, not reformed.


Related Posts: "Morale is in the Money," "Think Firms Care About Morale?"

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

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Excellent interview. Important topic.

Paul Hastings richly deserves recognition for its efforts on the part of associates (and for having the good sense, in any event, to recognize that the most obvious way to improve recruiting results is to provide superior training).

I attended the 2009 NALP conference for professional development managers (and hangers on) right after I retired from practice to start my coaching/training business. The chatter du jour centered on the newly trending switch from lockstep compensation to core competency evaluations and comp decisions. One afternoon was dedicated to the topic, with Paul Hastings the star of that panel, via the very smart, very charismatic, very authoritative Siobhain McCarthy, who described how her firm had designed its program, achieved full partner buy-in (the most interesting part of the story for me) and rolled it out. A substantial number of partners and staff invested thousands of hours in the effort over a period of two years, I believe, leaving no stone unturned, no consideration ignored.

It was clear to me at that conference that Paul Hastings had taken on the core competency model for all the right reasons, and not as a means to reducing salaries and slowing the advancement (and comp increases) of non-"star" associates. There are plenty of firms who are or will end up using this comp model switch for disingenuous purposes.

I had the chance to speak with Siobhain and her team after the panel. These are impressive people who love their jobs and the people they work with. Most law firms, in my experience, do a pretty awful job of training their people, and most will admit as much--as if somehow this deficiency is acceptable provided the firm is profitable (measured by profits per partner..) .They don't hire the right people to do it. They don't provide adequate staff and funding. And most importantly, the partners fail to commit to the process. The group mentoring system Mr. Owen describes is yet another example of a very positive effort deserving of acclaim. (Mentoring groups are much more reliable than one-on-ones, at least in today's large firms, and the collegiality they engender is a material bonus.)

In many firms the expenses associated with associate training, to the extent they exceed the very basics, are treated as soft costs. Paul Hastings appears to understand that proper associate training goes directly to the bottom line, as a core contributor to productivity and profits. So obvious. But so hard to explain to the average large firm partner.

The one question I would have for Paul Hastings--a query always closest to my heart--is whether the firm has also invested time and funds to improve business development training for all associates, including the very youngest. This is absolutely essential for their success, and an equally effective way to set one's firm apart in the recruiting process. But offering generous business development training sets off a different set of alarms, and strikes very close to the danger zone for most partners. Few are sharing clients these days. Fewer still are making succession plans. Another topic. Buy-in on this one is always a challenge--it's in everyone's interest to grow the business generation skills of the firm's associates, but it doesn't always strike the individual partners as being in their own interest.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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