Attrition vs. Retention: 6 Steps to Secure Your Firm’s People Assets

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Historically, law firms simply accepted attrition as a normal cost of doing business. Organizations hired attorneys, paralegals and staff, expecting people to come and go and hoping those who stayed would add value to the firm. Firms assumed attrition was somewhat costly, but generally placed no monetary value on the loss. However, attrition can actually cost up to 400 percent of a base salary for specialized hires. This means for an attorney making a base salary of $120,000, the possible cost of losing that attorney is $480,000.

Although the actual dollars lost vary by firm, the costs of attrition are significant and often unnecessary. For some perspective on costs associated to your organization, consider the following:


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  • Time lost due to the interview process, training, and new-hire administrative details;
  • Hiring costs of advertising, search fees, résumé review, interviewing, and reference checking;
  • Base salary;
  • Loss of productivity;
  • The managing attorney’s time lost in adjusting workflow;
  • Loss of the employee’s knowledge;
  • Loss of client relationships;
  • Added stress to team members due to increased workload or morale drop;
  • Negative impact to the firm’s reputation; and
  • Reduced ability to attract top talent

Attrition costs in many instances can be avoided completely by smart hiring practices in the law firm at every level. Firms often spend little time identifying long-term needs and goals when they are busy and in short-term need of help. Firms who think about retention at the beginning of the hiring process can focus on the revenue generated because of the hire, rather than on the cost of the hire.

Six Smart Hiring Strategies

Harvard University studies show that 80 percent of employee turnover is the result of missteps in the hiring process. Even a small change in hiring practices can have a dramatic effect on employee retention. These six strategies can help firms stay competitive with clients, attract top talent to the organization and identify a “right fit” when making a hire.

1. Know Thyself.

It is critical to identify and evaluate through your leadership “who you are” as an organization or legal department. What is the philosophy of your management team? What are your expectations regarding client service? How do your practice groups operate to support the firm vision?


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Knowing who you are fundamentally as an organization provides needed insight in assessing who will be sincerely committed to your organization, motivated to join your team, and likely contribute the most.

2. Align on the Need.

The next step is to create a position profile, or ”job description.” Important to the position profile is the identification of what work needs to be done in the short term and long term. Key stakeholders, those who have direct impact on and the most to gain or lose from the success of the new hire, should be involved in creating the position profile.

These stakeholders sometimes begin the hiring process without clear agreement on their expectations for the position. Job analysis tools can help key stakeholders identify values and behaviors that are expected of the new hire and critical in the position, based on the current and desired make up of the firm and practice group.

3. Champion the Process.

Assigning a “champion” to the position — a person who has much to lose or gain with the success of the new hire — can help to strengthen and streamline the hiring process. The champion shepherds the candidates through the interview process, and identifies concerns, questions, and irresolvable issues early on. The champion gathers interest, generates enthusiasm from leadership, and supports the strong candidates as they go through the interview process.


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4. Maintain Momentum.

A strategic interview process can differentiate your organization and appeal to the top talent now in high demand throughout the industry. The candidate’s first impression is of a well run organization with actively engaged leadership.

Begin by identifying who will be part of the interview team, with a reason and purpose for each interviewer. Pulling in whoever is available at the time the candidate comes into the firm, for example, can waste the candidate’s time and does not create the impression of a well run organization.

Consider creating a criteria sheet for each interviewer to follow, including both a set of established questions that every interviewer asks, for comparison of answers, and a mix of skill- and trait-related questions that differ among interviewers and help the firm narrow the candidates to those who fit well in the organization.

5. Make a Decision.

Top talent will not wait long for an organization to make a decision. When the economy and market were good, business thriving, and talent in abundance, firms could often get away with sloppy hiring practices. They could be ill-prepared to adequately evaluate candidates, put the process on hold to identify and interview additional people, and take their time in replying to candidates.

No more. Top talent have many options in today’s market and will evaluate an organization on the interest being shown and the expediency of the process.

6. Integrate, Integrate and Integrate.

Effective integration programs can help decrease attrition, particularly in lateral associates and partners or experienced professionals. NALP statistics show that lateral associates are seven times more likely than entry-level associates to depart a firm within the first year of hire, and twice as likely as entry-level associates to leave within the first two years. In exit interviews, an often cited reason for leaving is lack of “culture fit.”

Law firms and law departments have strong, unique cultures. Experienced professionals often are expected to figure out the new organization and its culture on their own. Programs that help new hires assimilate can prevent such attrition. Integration can begin before the new hire’s first day, as you begin to build the relationship as you would with a client. Integration evolves into professional development training, to continually engage and develop professionals and to affirm the commitment the firm has to its employees.

Retention Strengthens the Whole Team

The team as a whole does not perform at its best when a talented member of the group leaves. The result is often a reputation hit in the legal market, or diminished clout within the company. These less quantifiable costs, added to the very real monetary losses resulting from attrition, underscore the importance of smart hiring strategies. Jodi Standke

Jodi Standke

Jodi Standke is CEO of Talon Performance Group Inc., a legal talent management firm that accelerates performance of individuals, teams and organizations. For culture fit recruiting, business development training and career navigation, contact Talon. Hundreds of clients across the country rely on Jodi’s expertise. WBENC and NALSC certified. Contact Jodi Standke at (612) 827-5165 or at [email protected].

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