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Unhappy senior partners willing to walk

|Written By Kirsten McMahon

There''s been a lot of talk about recruiting and retaining lawyers in their first few years of practice. They''re young, often with young families, and may go elsewhere to find that elusive work-life harmony or the right cultural fit.

Senior lawyers may leave because they don

But what about the more senior lawyers? While they may not make the decision to switch allegiances lightly after many years of building business at their firm, they are making the decision to move if they are unhappy.

Managing partners and general counsel must make a concerted effort not only to address growth, but also to make retaining their most experienced lawyers a front-burner issue. It's never safe to assume someone is a lifer just because they aren't a squeaky wheel, says Rob Hosking, a vice-president with Robert Half Legal.

These tenured lawyers and partners may limit their search to a few key firms or go through a recruiter ? and sometimes another firm will come to them ? but, says Hosking, the resignation usually comes as a total surprise to the firm.

"Ultimately it's something that in many cases the other partners aren't even aware this person is unhappy," he says. "From a retention perspective, there almost needs to be a key figure who just checks in on status. One of the things that people typically do is a reduction in productivity as they start to lose interest or focus, so that can be a bit of a gauge.

"Some of the little things like staff socials and cocktails on Fridays and staff outings, those aren't going to be the things that retain a senior person."

One just has to look at the recent activity on Bay Street to see this scenario play out. Earlier this month, six partners at Torys LLP left to join Bennett Jones LLP, just less than a month after Wendy Gross, a senior technology lawyer, left Torys to join McCarthy T?trault LLP.

Compensation is an important element in any retention strategy, says Charles Volkert, executive director of Robert Half Legal, but it's not the be-all and end-all.

"Law firms also must bolster their investment in staff through avenues such as professional development, training, and mentoring while working to foster a balanced work environment," Volkert says.

"If efforts are not made to prevent staff migration, an organization may find itself in a difficult position as experienced lawyers look elsewhere to find a workplace that better meets their goals and needs."

Hosking says senior lawyers will leave because they don't feel like decision-makers at their firms or that what they say matters. They may also feel they are being compensated below industry standards.

If this isn't addressed and the lawyer resigns, a firm may fall into the trap of thinking that it won't be hard to find a replacement. Hosking says that the profession is heading into new territory and this is no longer the case.

"It's a constant re-education for companies and firms out there right now," he says. "There just isn't the pool of talented people coming through the way there used to be, and people are more apt to make a move.

"If they don't like what they're seeing, hearing, or doing they will make a move and there's opportunity for them."

Sometimes something as small as saying "thanks" to a hard-working lawyer can make the difference, says Hosking.

"One of the biggest challenges as a manager is being able to recognize when someone does something, and it doesn't need to be something big. It doesn't need to be that they saved the company $1 million. It can be that they went above and beyond, and it's that general recognition that makes people feel good."

The cost of thanking someone for a job well done, through incentives like gift certificates or days off or weekend getaways, is certainly a lot cheaper than the cost of replacing someone.

"The reality of it is that is a big deal. If you start to add up the dollars that you invest to train someone else and to bring them into the loop or hiring a recruiter, you're looking at $60,000, $70,000 in some cases, before the new person even starts. That's a lot of money."

Hosking says that while he does see a trend of more tenured lawyers leaving their firms, he's also seeing an increase in counter-offers from firms that don't want to lose their best and brightest ? sometimes offering up to $20,000 more than what the competing firm offered.

However, Hosking says lawyers should carefully consider counter-offers from their firms.

"The issues that you wanted to leave for ? if it was strictly money, that's one thing ? but if there were other things going on that you didn't like in the firm, those things likely won't change.

"The grass often looks greener," he says, "but sometimes it actually might be."

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