Legal professional liability insurance underwriters look at the rate of attorney turnover at firms they are considering underwriting because a higher than normal rate of turnover, particularly at the associate level, can be a sign of trouble. It suggests that something has gone wrong internally. Ineffective management or the complete lack of management might be the problem. Excessively high overhead, personality mismatches, or internal politics could also be to blame. Regardless, if attorney turnover seems to be a regular event at your firm you should be concerned as well. Not only can this lead to an increased risk of a malpractice claim, but the cost in terms of unrecoverable expenses associated with failed hires, credibility with clients, the harm resulting from the internal friction that often accompanies poor hiring decisions, and the time spent on hiring and training replacement attorneys can be significant.
I personally believe that a common reason attorney hires (to include lateral moves) fail is because no one took the time to try to determine if the incoming attorney (or group of attorneys) would culturally fit within the firm. Reasons often voiced for adding an additional attorney or two include statements along the lines of “We heard good things about him,” “We were short staffed and needed the help ASAP,” “We were looking to expand into that market,” “We wanted her clients and the increase in income that would come with them,” or, “We didn’t have anyone who had any expertise in that practice area.” While valid, such reasons should not be determinative in and of themselves and unfortunately they often are. With all this in mind, I offer the following thought provokers that if properly addressed prior to making any hiring decisions may help ensure that future attorney hires will stay for the long-term. Why? Because this list is intended to help you determine whether the inbound attorney(s) will be a good fit.
- Begin by defining the firm. What do you do well? Why do clients come to you? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What do current attorneys find personally and professionally fulfilling? Where are you making your money? (It’s important that you know what work is profitable and what work isn’t.) With this information in hand, now try to define the needs of your firm and any business opportunities with clients or potential new clients that are currently being unmet and that also can’t be met by any current attorney. Then look for an attorney (or group of attorneys) whose answers to similar questions are compatible and in line with your firm’s answers and who also has the skill set to meet the identified needs and opportunities.
- Be open and honest about the expectations of both the incoming attorney and the firm. How will the new attorney be marketed to clients? What role will the new attorney have in the firm? What will the expectations be in terms of billable hours? Is the new attorney comfortable with the firm’s management style? What is the firm’s vision for the next five and ten years and is this vision compatible with the vision of the new attorney? If the new attorney is bringing along staff, how will they be integrated into the firm? What is the history and collectability of the new attorney’s accounts receivable and of the firm’s? Jointly review the malpractice and disciplinary complaint history of the new attorney and the firm because there should be no surprises after a new hire comes onboard.
- Look at firm processes and procedures focusing on how your firm is run. If the firm requires that all attorneys use a firm wide (or practice group wide) computerized calendar, participate in monthly peer review and file review, and prohibits attorneys from handling mail until processed by staff, then don’t bring in an attorney who is fiercely independent and unable or unwilling to adapt to how your firm is run. Of course, the converse would be just as true. Complimentary styles as to how a law practice should be run are essential!
- Determine who will be responsible for integrating the attorney into the firm. Have an integration plan that includes marketing what the new attorney will bring to the firm in terms of experience and opportunities both internally and externally. Make certain to introduce the new attorney to key partners and staff early on. Periodically check in to see if there are any problems, especially problems with staff or other partners, and respond as appropriate. Understand and remember that this integration process may take a year or more to complete.
- Prior to making any final decision to bring an attorney on board, review the list of clients and cases the attorney will bring to the firm looking for potential conflict problems and determine how any identified conflicts might be best resolved. Waiting to do this until after the new attorney has accepted is playing with fire.
- Make certain that the practice areas of the new attorney are compatible or complementary with all other attorneys already at the firm because the practice areas and client base of any incoming attorney could significantly increase the firm’s exposure to malpractice claims as well as bring about an unexpected and significant increase in your malpractice insurance premium if they are not.
- Look at the individuals involved. Will the incoming attorney’s personality fit with everyone else’s? All working relationships of all attorneys need to be supportive, respectful, collegial, and professional. If personalities clash, the odds of a successful integration drop significantly.
Yes, following through with these suggestions will require a significant investment of time and energy; but if we define cost of hiring as the amount of time and energy invested in the process, then when it comes to evaluating the likelihood of a new attorney hire successfully integrating with a firm, you will get what you pay for. Take the time to do it right. Otherwise you may find that you are in the market for new attorneys more than you would like to be, not to mention also on the radar screen of an underwriter.
As a Risk Manager for ALPS, Mark Bassingthwaighte. Esq. is responsible for developing and delivering new risk management and CLE products and services, risk management consulting, law firm risk evaluations, and writing content for the ALPS 411 blog at www.alps411.com. In his tenure with the company, Mark has conducted over 1,000 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented numerous continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States and written extensively on risk management and technology. Mark received his J.D. from Drake Law School. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org