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Retention Is a Midsize Law Firm Priority

  Legal Career News  -   POSTED: 2007/07/18 18:34

After a decade of co-chairing the litigation group at a 50-lawyer firm in downtown Cleveland, Kenneth Zirm was looking for a job with a little more Zen. This month, he may find it. The 49-year-old starts at 180-attorney Ulmer & Berne as director of its associate development program, where he will work with 70 or so junior lawyers to make sure that they are getting the guidance and support they need and that the firm is hanging on to its keepers. "We don't want to just pay them a lot of money," he said.

Although most of the megafirms in recent years have invested in hiring associate-development teams to help coordinate programs and address work-life issues, development director positions are new for many midsize regional firms. Law firm leaders and career professionals say that the jobs are becoming increasingly important as business for most law firms of all sizes remains strong and the pool of law school graduates stays stagnant.

Attrition problems, though on a smaller scale than those at giant firms, have prompted midsize law firms to hire development directors. But these firms also are bringing in career professionals because of another pressure from the market.

"Midsized firms don't want to lose associates who want the training they feel like they'd be getting" at bigger firms, said Marina Sirras, president of Marina Sirras & Associates, a legal recruiter in New York. One of the factors associates use to gauge the strength of a firm is whether it has someone dedicated to helping them climb the ladder to partner.

$200,000 BASE PAY

As a result, more and more are hiring full-time, highly qualified people to watch over their junior lawyers.

"They're willing to pay a lot of money -- $200,000 base pay -- because they want their expertise passed on to associates," she said.

In Zirm's case, he left his job as a partner at Cleveland's Walter & Haverfield, a 75-year-old firm, because the development director position at Ulmer tapped into what had become the favorite part of his job at his old firm: helping budding lawyers.

"I had a 10-year run of supervising litigation associates," Zirm said. "It was one-on-one coaching and mentoring."

Ulmer & Berne managing partner Kip Reader said that the key in filling the newly created position was to find an experienced attorney who could pass on to associates the lessons learned in ascending to partnership.

NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement, estimates that by the time associates at large law firms are in their fifth year of practice, about 80 percent have left their jobs. High associate attrition is occurring at the same time that law firms are reporting record revenues and law schools are churning out the same number of graduates -- about 40,000 -- each year.

"We've got our attrition issues like everybody else," Reader said. "Our associates need to know the firm is supportive and is willing to devote the resources."

The NALP employment Web site is replete with listings from law firms of all sizes looking for associate development directors, but a number of recent postings are from midsize law firms with newly created positions. Until recently, midsize firms that had formally addressed associate development needs did so mostly by bringing in consultants or handing off the responsibilities to attorneys or administrative employees busy with other duties, said Sirras, the recruiter. But now, even firms that hire fewer than 20 new associates each year are looking for full-time directors, she said.


Molly Peckman, director of professional development at 445-attorney Pepper Hamilton, based in Philadelphia, said she has noticed an increase in attorney-development jobs available at midsize firms. She has received calls from several headhunters, she said, seeking to fill newly created positions.

"The larger firms set the standards of professional development, and now the midsized firms are catching up to bringing people in-house," she said.

Phoenix-based Lewis and Roca is seeking its first professional-development director. The person whom the 200-attorney firm hires will work mainly with associates and nonequity partners, said managing partner Kenneth Van Winkle.

The decision to create the job was part of the firm's move two years ago to convert to a two-tier partnership structure, which included nonequity partners. The agreement among firm leaders to reconfigure the partnership structure included some "horse trading," Van Winkle said, in which he made the commitment that the firm would hire a development director to assist associates and nonequity partners in becoming full partners.

Lewis and Roca had in place a development strategy, he said, but without someone to handle it full time, it was not getting implemented. Partners would volunteer to do the job, but they would set aside the tasks in favor of client business.

"It's all sitting there waiting," he said. "We've provided the bones; we want someone who can put meat on the bones."

Whoever fills the job will be busy. Responsibilities include handling matters of mentoring, retention, training, career planning and counseling, succession planning, diversity initiatives and many more. The person will answer to Van Winkle, which he said is critical to the credibility and accountability of the position.

Delaware-based Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor had similar implementation challenges before it hired a development director. Two years ago, it was one of the first midsize law firms in Delaware to bring in a full-time director to work with the 10 to 15 associates it hires each year. The firm hired Patricia Widdoss, an associate at the time in the Wilmington, Del., office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Widdoss, who previously clerked for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, also handles pro bono cases.

James Patton, managing partner of 102-attorney Young Conaway, said associate retention is "one of those business-side problems" that lawyers who practice full time are not good at solving.

The National Law Journal
July 19, 2007

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