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Recruitment, Retention and Problematic Partners in Law Firms

A law firm is only as good as it’s lawyers.  Making sure a firm has the right lawyers for the job is an important part of being Managing Partner, and the road to staffing and retention can be a tricky one.   Recruitment, retention, and dealing with problematic partners are all important and sometimes challenging issues for Managing Partners to address. In the fifth installment of the NLR series on the Managing Partner Forum's Re-Envisioning the Law Firm study, we examine the challenges MP's face with recruitment, retention, and the awkward reality of problematic partners.

Recruitment and Retention: Different Concerns

Recruitment is the process of inviting the right people to join the firm, and the goal is to find people who share the firm’s values and are like-minded.  According to Re-Envisioning, “Get Recruiting wrong, and you don’t get the people you need, in fact, you’ll probably get the people you don’t need.”  So throughout the recruiting process--identifying the firm’s needs, finding candidates, application and resume reviews, interviewing, and the decision to hire--it’s important to consider each step, and why things are done the way they are done.  Simply adhering to the status quo is not the best use of resources.

Cushman & Wakefield conducted a survey of associates, asking them to articulate the most important factors that influenced their decision to accept employment at their current law firms. 

What attracts associates:

  • Firm Reputation, 75%
  • Areas of Practice, 66%
  • Compensation, 58%
  • Diversity/Complexity of work, 39%
  • Partnership Track, 35%

Unfortunately, however, the things that attract associates are not always the things that keep them working at the firm.  Retention is a different process, and requires understanding a different set of values.  Consider the responses of the Cushman & Wakefield survey when associates were asked what factors motivated them to stay at their current firm:

  • Areas of Practice, 57%
  • Firm Reputation, 56%
  • Compensation, 55%
  • Mentoring, 48%
  • Collaborative Culture, 43%

It’s clear that Retention is the process of investing in your people.   According to the research done that informed Re-Envisioning, “42% of respondents reported that they’ve lost partners or associates within the last six months whom they were sorry to see leave and 38% of respondents felt that, compared to five years ago, it was more likely that their best lawyers may leave the firm.” 

Steps to Take in Retention and Recruitment

To avoid losing talent, firms can take some steps.  Consider the following options for investing in your people:

  • Reviewing statistics on retention and turnover, to better understand what’s happening
  • Gathering additional information through surveys, and holding exit interviews
  • Making sure people are in positions that are a good fit
  • Implementing programs and policies that promote retention and eliminating those that do not
  • Providing feedback and leadership development through mentoring and training

recruitmentUnfortunately, most law firms are not using all the tools at their disposal in regards to Recruitment.   According to Re-Envisioning, 86% of firms are not using psychological assessments.  These tools can provide valuable information to law firms on several aspects of an individual’s personality, interpersonal style and leadership competencies, along with other valuable information. Additionally, it’s a good idea for a law firm to survey lawyers and leaders to gain insight into their own processes, and then review those processes critically to make sure the firm is making good choices based on the evidence available.  Looking to other law firms and industries for best practices is a great way to seek out new ideas to improve these processes. 


Some other suggestions from Re-Envisioning include developing a mentoring program.  Additionally, along with a strong mentoring program, working on an associate development program and incorporating leadership and business development can help with retention.

In discussions of retention, the generational issue is important to acknowledge.  Sherry Cushman[1]says, “In 2015, the Millennials became the highest percentage of the US Workforce and today’s young lawyers have far different career goals and objectives than their predecessors. Understanding what drives them is key to associate recruitment and retention.  Mentorship, collaboration and feeling like they have some skin in the game have become critically important.” 

Along these same lines offering more flexibility and options for work-life balance can also be an important piece in terms of retention.  Re-Envisioning advises considering the following:

  • Greater focus on diversity
  • Flex time
  • Alternative work schedules
  • Work from home policy
  • A non-equity track
  • Work-life balance

The Challenge of Confronting Problematic Partners

An important piece of developing a culture at a law firm has to do with problematic partners.  These are the individuals who are under-performing, or simply behaving badly or exhibiting bullying behaviors.  According to Re-Envisioning, 59% of Managing Partners said they want to do something about problematic partners, but haven’t taken action yet.  In many cases, these are sensitive situations that can make action uncomfortable.  John Remsen[2] says, “You’re running a business, not a country club, and it’s important that firm owners carry their weight and lead by example.”   According to Re-Envisioning, large numbers of firms are dealing with problematic partners, and many are not confronting the problem or having the difficult conversations necessary to solve the problems.

problematic partners

It is very important to solve these problems and deal with these situations, regardless of how uncomfortable it can be.  Louise M. Wells[3] says, “The culture of your firm can be influenced by what it’s willing or not willing to tolerate.  If you’re willing to put up with chronic underperformance, you most certainly will get it, and that’s not good for a firm’s long-term success or its morale.  Dealing with underperforming partners is incredibly difficult, yet so important, for a Managing Partner to address.” 

When dealing with problematic partners, Re-Envisioning breaks them into two categories--the bad actors, the individuals who bully, lie and otherwise behave badly, and the underperformers, or partners who are not meeting minimum expectations.  The first group is fairly easy to manage--some behavior is simply unacceptable, and should not be allowed. Law Firms should make this clear, and adhere to the expectations they set.  This rule-breaking is unacceptable, and everyone in the firm needs to understand that. 

The second issue--the underperforming partner, can be more difficult to handle.  As Remsen says, “Bad behavior and chronic underperformance are toxic to your firm and its culture, and they must not be tolerated.  Confronting bad behavior should be fairly easy.  Chronic underperformance, on the other hand, can be a tougher issue.  We’re often dealing with senior partners--good lawyers, nice people, who’ve slowed down for whatever reason.” 


An important step that can help the firm across the board--not just with problematic partners--is making sure all the expectations are clearly spelled out in writing.  All expectations should be articulated, billable and nonbillable, so everything is clear, there are no surprises, and everyone is on the same page.  Along the same lines, behavior that will not be tolerated, bullying, public criticism of the firm, disrespect towards other attorneys or support staff, for example, should also be clearly identified.  From there, the individuals who do not meet expectations or defy acceptable behavior conventions should be identified, and the Executive Committee should work together to address these individuals.

Difficult conversations have to happen, and in order to ensure those conversations take place in a respectful manner, individual meetings should take place.  Firm leadership should have facts to back up their concerns, and the meeting should be a conversation where the individual is asked how he or she feels, and if he or she wants to improve.  If so, a personal improvement plan should be developed with specific, realistic and achievable goals.  After the initial meeting, regular follow-up should take place to review progress and hold people accountable. 

This is the fifth article in the series.  Please find previous articles below:

Time for a Change in Law Firm Leadership: A Preview of Re-Envisioning the Law Firm

Innovation, Change and Accountability: A Way Forward for Law Firm Leadership

Strategic Planning in Law Firms: Essential Steps for Success

Marketing Legal Services: It’s Everybody’s Job

[1]Executive Managing Director of Cushman & Wakefield

[2]Founder of the Remsen Group

[3]Managing Partner of Morris, Manning & Martin

Copyright ©2021 National Law Forum, LLCNational Law Review, Volume VII, Number 60



About this Author

Eilene Spear legal news editor and writer at the National Law Review
Operations Project Manager & Lead Writer

Eilene Spear is the Operations and Projects Manager for the National Law Review.  She heads the NLR remote publication team as the Lead Writer and assists in a variety of capacities in the management of the National Law Review.

As Lead Writer, Eilene writes extensively on a variety of legal topics; including legal marketing topics, interviews with top legal marketing professionals and the newest trends in legal marketing.  Additionally, Eilene writes on issues affecting the legal industry, such as women attorneys and the challenges they face,...

jennifer schaller National Law Review  attorney legal publisher and speaker on Law Firm SEO and Legal Thought Leadership
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Jennifer Schaller, Esq. is the Managing Director and co-founder of the National Law Review on-line edition.  Prior to the National Law Review, Jennifer most recently served as in-house counsel / director at CNA Surety. She also served in various marketing and business development roles as a vice president of Aon Services Group.  Jennifer started her legal career as an insurance coverage attorney with Smith Amundsen, LLC in Chicago, IL and in risk management at various insurance organizations.

In 2019 Jennifer was the Chair for the Chicago City group of the Legal  Marketing...