Finding, Hiring, and Retaining Top Law Firm Associate Attorneys

Are You Getting the Right Associates On the Bus For the Long Term

By John W. Olmstead, MBA Ph.D CMC


Many senior partners in law firms are approaching retirement age and are beginning to think about succession strategies. As they examine their associate lawyer ranks some partners are often surprised to learn that there may be few takers. While their associates may be great lawyers, none bring in business nor do any of them seem to really be interested in partnership. Such firms have hired a bunch of folks that just wanted jobs and have no interest in owning a law firm.  While this hiring approach may have satisfied the firm’s short term needs – it may fall short in the long term.

Hiring For the Long Term

Years ago it seemed that all the associates working in law firms wanted to eventually become a partner in the law firm. This has changed as a result of the new mix of women and men graduating from law schools and entering the legal profession, changing attitudes toward work life balance, other opportunities outside law firms, and other variables. While partnership/ownership is still important to many – don’t assume that all the associates that you hire will even want to be equity partners – especially if it means a hefty capital contribution and signing personal guarantees for a large amount of firm debt.

A question that I would ask – have you really discussed with your associates their interests in equity ownership? As a group? Recently an associate, whom the firm had written off, advised me that while he was not interested now due to his present situation in life, he would be in maybe five years – especially if others also were brought in as well – in other words he did not want to have the responsibility alone and be an equity owner by himself.

I suggest that you talk with your people and see where they really stand. Help them to begin developing client development skills. Depending on you and the other partner’s retirement timeline – you may have to consider other options such as laterals or merging with another firm.

A key suggestion is to look for entrepreneurial associates when you hire. The desire for ownership of a business if often in a person’s blood. Don’t start the interview with a discussion from law school until the present. Dig deeper into hobbies, family, etc. that will provide clues as to whether you may be hiring someone that just wants a law job or someone that eventually wants to own or be a partner in a law firm.

Implement a Law Firm Associate Career Progression/Partnership Admission Program

A common complaint that we hear from our interviews of associates is lack of feedback on short term performance and what is takes to “make partner” and how they are progressing toward eventual partnership. During a recent interview an associate told me – I would like to know:

  1. What does it take to become a partner – consideration criteria? What do I have to do?
  2. What is the timeline for consideration?
  3. How am I doing – am I partnership material?
  4. What does partnership mean in this firm?
  5. What are the mechanics of admission? (Is there a buy-in)

I suggest that you and your partners consider developing what I call a Law Firm Associate Career Progression/Partnership Program and put it in writing. Here is an approach you might take:

  1. Determine if you want more partners? How many – evaluate the appropriate ratio.
  2. Consider non-equity partners as a first step and determine what that means.
  3. Establish a minimum number of years for consideration – i.e. seven years.
  4. Determine competencies and expectation for associate development and document.
  5. Develop an associate performance evaluation form and conduct formal annual evaluations.
  6. Develop partner admission criteria (associate to non-equity and non-equity to equity partner) and document.
  7. Write-up an overall program document and include as attachments the competencies document, the performance evaluation form, and the admission criteria document.
  8. Present the program to associates in a live meeting format to launch the program.

Regarding equity partnership – make the criteria tough – and require a buy-in or capital contribution. Business development and a client following should be required by most firms for the equity tier

Associate Performance Evaluations

One of the most frequent complaints I hear during interviews with associates in law firms of all sizes is lack of specific detailed feedback, unclear or non-existent expectations concerning their performance and future career progression, and vague informal performance reviews.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Institute a system where associates, especially when they are new, have a chance to work with all of the partners in the firm.
  2. As managing partner solicit feedback from your partners and meet monthly with each associate and discuss their performance during their first two years of employment with the firm.
  3. Annually conduct formal performance reviews with each associate. Before the review obtain specific feedback from each of the partners and have each partner complete a written review of each associate using the associate performance rating form. Ask each associate to conduct a self-evaluation using the firm’s associate performance rating form and then conduct a detailed review with each associate. The review should be detailed and specific and should be developmental with specific goals and timelines established. Document the review in the associate performance rating form.
  4. Consider developing an associate career progression program (partnership track) and committing it to writing. The program should outline the timeline for first consideration for partnership, competencies and performance factors, what partnership means in your firm, how an associate becomes a partner, buy-in or capital contribution requirements, voting, etc.
  5. Be honest and open with your associates – don’t try to be Santa Claus – tell them the truth, have the difficult discussions, and make the tough calls. Be accessible.

Mentoring Law Firm Associates: Getting the Basics Right

A law firm’s greatest asset is its people and your associates are your firm’s future. Lack of mentoring is one of the biggest complaints that we hear from associates in on-site interviews. While you may be too small for a comprehensive formal mentoring program you should at least explore an informal program. Start with baby steps and go from there. 

The keys to successful mentoring relationships involve the mentor and mentee deciding on the logistics up front. Many potential mentoring pairs fail to form because the parties did not agree
on the little things up front. Below are tips designed to help both participants in formal and informal programs:

1. Meeting schedule:  Decide on an approximate meeting schedule. Suggest that meetings be scheduled at least once a month.

2. Means to schedule meetings: Share the best way to get on each other’s calendar.

3. Scheduled meetings: Don’t wait until the end of one meeting to schedule the next. Always have the next two or three meetings on the calendar.

4. Length of program/partnership: For formal programs; the firm may suggest a length of time to meet (usually a year). For informal mentoring, suggest having a date on the calendar to review goals and examine the relationship.

5. Confidentiality: Mentors and Mentees need to discuss what confidentiality means to them. It is the foundation of trust, which is the basic currency of mentoring.

John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D., CMC, is a Certified Management Consultant and the president of Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm helps law and other professional service firms improve the operations and management of their practices and the lives of their practitioners. The firm, founded in 1984 serves clients across the Globe assisting them with implementing change and improving operational and financial performance, management, leadership, client development and marketing.

Dr. Olmstead’s assignments have covered the spectrum of management issues. However, in recent years most of his time is focused on engagements helping firms with:

Dr. Olmstead is the Editor-in-Chief of “The Lawyers Competitive Edge: The Journal of Law Office Economics and Management,” published by Thomson West. He is currently serving as Past Chair, Illinois State Bar Association Standing Committee on Law Office Management and Economics and as a member of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) Research Committee. Dr. Olmstead may be contacted via e-mail at Additional articles and information is available at the firm’s web site:

© Olmstead & Associates, 2014. All rights reserved.

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