Whether to invest in junior attorneys or not?

December 1st, 2017
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By Emmie de Kock

I once heard the Chief Financial Officer ask the Chief Executive Officer (CEO): ‘What if we invest in our employees and they leave?’ The CEO replied: ‘What if we do not, and they stayed?’

If you are an owner of a law firm and you are faced with these questions, how will you answer?

Becoming more senior in the attorney profession, and in a law firm, could perhaps be described as climbing a ladder leaning against a house. While climbing up the ladder to the top of the roof, it will be helpful if someone could keep the ladder steady on the ground. To get that person to eventually help you with the work on the roof, you will have to pull them up and ask a new person to hold the ladder steady on the ground.

Based on the statutory and ethical rules of our legal profession, principals must invest time and effort in training and mentoring candidate attorneys (CAs) to help them qualify as attorneys. After CAs qualify as attorneys, it may take further time and money to mould them into well-rounded profitable attorneys. A well-rounded profitable attorney is an asset for a law firm.

However, when a well-trained junior attorney decides to leave a firm, the firm may experience a loss of its investment. While in the past, law firms hired with a certain long term view, the strategies of law firms must perhaps change to keep up with the work attitude changes of the new generation of junior attorneys.

Although researchers do not always agree on the dates, most indicate that Generation Y or ‘millennials’ generally refer to the generation born between 1980 and 2000. It is generally known that millennials are more focused on work-life balance, having a creative outlet apart from work, and being socially connected through technology. Multiple sources reveal that Generation Y associates job satisfaction with the free flow of information, immediate feedback and close relationships with supervisors. However, despite the many healthy outlooks of millennials, they are apparently also less likely to be loyal to institutions and switch jobs more frequently, which could pose challenges for employers. Unless management of law firms adapt their hiring and career development strategies, the characteristic of frequent job hopping may be demotivating to management due to the long time it may take for a junior attorney to qualify and show a return on investment for a firm.

Notwithstanding the challenges of employees, for the sake of the growth of our profession, senior attorneys ought to employ junior staff to be profitable and have succession plans, law firms should also plan to manage their risks and strive to make appointments of CAs and junior attorneys a win-win situation.

The following may be considered:

  • Plan for staff changes: As many CAs or junior attorneys may only have short-term plans at a firm to learn and gain experience before moving on, law firms should plan for such possible staff changes. Planning should be done on at least two levels, namely, operationally and financially. In this regard, it will make sense to allocate a back-up person to the junior attorney who will always know what is going on with the matters and clients dealt with by the junior attorney. Junior staff should also be taught to keep good records. It is also important for a law firm to put systems and processes in place with an operations manual, to help with training of new staff and ensure consistency in service levels. On a financial level, a junior attorney should be taught and allocated tasks as soon as possible, which should be covered by a budget, and could assist the firm to be more profitable.
  • Discuss career development: Some big firms take charge by employing a number of CAs at the same time and telling them that only some of them will be offered a further contract after qualifying as attorneys. This motivates all to work hard, but also helps all employees plan for possible changes after their fixed term of articles. To retain talented junior attorneys, it is best to develop and discuss possible career paths, to regularly review it, set realistic goals and to stick to it.
  • Coaching: Coaching by an external lawyer coach, could help CAs and junior attorneys to develop faster and become more valuable to firms sooner. In this regard, the focus of coaching is to improve the competencies of an individual attorney to acquire skills and behaviours which lie beyond legal knowledge. This should assist any junior attorney to manage their practice and matters more efficiently and profitably. As coaching sessions per hour would generally cost less than the professional time of senior attorneys per hour, coaching may save the law firms money, achieve results sooner, and make junior attorneys realise the extent of the firm’s investment in them.
  • Mentorship: If you are the owner of a law firm, and are pressed for capacity, or lack management experience in some areas, it may also be helpful to involve an external mentor. A mentor with more attorney experience can give guidance to younger attorneys and assist with skills transfer. In this regard, the Legal Education and Development branch of the Law Society of South Africa offers a Mentorship Programme for qualified attorneys, which may be helpful. More information is available at www.lssalead.org.za.

Law firms need to hire good CAs and junior attorneys to grow. Although it may take a while for a junior attorney to develop professionally and reach their full potential as an attorney, there should be benefits for both, the employer and employee, to embark on these working relationships. Apart from all the good business reasons to hire and mentor junior attorneys, senior attorneys should continue to contribute to the profession’s next generation of attorneys. The next generation of attorneys are our profession’s future. The transfer of skills and knowledge is essential to take our profession forward.

Reverting to the question whether you should invest in your junior attorneys or not, how will you answer? How steady is your ladder?

Emmie de Kock BLC LLB (cum laude) (UP) is a coach and attorney at Emmie de Kock Coaching and Consulting in Centurion.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (Dec) DR 25.

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