The Most Expensive ‘Sandwich’ In The World: How To Retain Mid-Level Law Associates

Steve Salee Forbes Councils Member

Forbes Coaches Council COUNCIL POST

Steve Salee is the Founder and CEO of Wildfire Strategies. He loves helping high-stakes teams and leaders work better together.

The average sandwich costs about $12 in New York City, by my guess. Depending on your vantage point, that might seem like a lot of money. Or a little. But some “sandwiches” cost much more—one even costs, on average, about $200,000. That’s one expensive sandwich.

What could possibly go into a $200,000 sandwich? And where can you get one?

The “$200,000 sandwich” is available in most big law firms (and you can get it in other industries, too). Its ingredients are a generous scoop of investment in associate recruitment, professional development during an associate’s career and the missing beef when they leave the firm before making partner because either the firm or the field wasn’t the right fit. It’s not the tastiest sandwich, but with attorney attrition rates at 80% by the fifth year (paywall), firms are making these $200,000 sandwiches every day. Because every time a mid-level associate leaves a firm, they take at least $200,000 of recruiting and professional development investment with them.

“Sandwich” associates are mid-level (third- to sixth-year) attorneys who find themselves squeezed between partners who grew up in traditional firm culture and younger associates who are less willing to accept the work-life balance that their older counterparts did. Attrition among all sandwich associates is high; an average of more than 20% of mid-career attorneys have left their firms (registration required) in the past two years.

For this article, I’ll share what I’ve learned from working with law firms, including some ideas that might not make the $200,000 sandwich disappear entirely but could make it a heck of a lot cheaper.

Causes Of Mid-Level Associate Attrition

Here’s some of what makes the $200,000 sandwich so expensive:

The career path in big law can be unnecessarily painful, and few associates make it.

In fact, only about 15% of associates make it. The path to partnership is murky; associates often don’t know where they stand on both the possibility of making partner and the steps to get there. There are also numerous other successful career pathways for a lawyer. Yet if an associate does not achieve partner—by their own choice or the firm’s—there is at least some feeling of failure.

Professional development is endorsed by firm leaders but often not supported day-to-day.

The professional development (PD) function in most big law firms is fully endorsed by the partnership on the whole, but PD staff may not feel that firm-level endorsement in their day-to-day work with associates. PD staff get support from individual partners, most certainly, but that can be more ad hoc than systemic. When PD staff don’t feel systemic backing, they may not push as hard on partners to engage and develop associates.

Underrepresented groups are scarce and hard to retain.

While mid-level associate attrition remains above 20%, it’s even worse among people of color and women, who “currently comprise just 11.4% and 26.7% of law firm partners,” respectively. The proportion of Black and Latinx partners grew by just 0.1% in 2022. Statistics also show that “the attrition rate among lawyers from minority racial groups is up to three times higher than among white lawyers.” Even at the most progressive firms, women still comprise only 12% of managing partners.

Many younger associates demand a new firm culture.

Younger people in general have clear expectations about how they want to engage with work, career and colleagues. This plays out in every industry, and the impacts are more stark in fields like law where long-held cultural expectations are running headlong into new demands. As the associate levels progress, associates who don’t align with existing/conventional firm culture increasingly self-select out. Their talent, creativity, perspective and potential leave with them.

Mid- and senior-level associates are caught in the culture sandwich.

Cultural challenges hit mid-level and senior associates the hardest because they’re sandwiched between the partner generations they report to and the junior associate generation they manage.

The kind of sea changes in culture that many associates demand might take a generation, if they happen at all. Some firms—and partners within those firms—might welcome these changes; others won’t.

How To Better Retain Mid-Level Associates

There is another way, and it could make the $200,000 sandwich a lot cheaper.

Careers should be curated.

Rather than focusing on associates’ client matter performance and billable-hour endurance, firms should have honest, collaborative conversations with associates on their careers from the day they walk in the door. By hiring the associate in the first place, the firm clearly endorses the associate’s professional promise: “Your career could take any number of paths, all of which are a successful outcome (not just partnership). The firm is here to support you along that path, regardless of where it leads.”

Treat professional development staff as the lynchpin in curating associates’ careers.

If professional development staff are strategically engaged at a macro firm level, they can support associates’ careers systemically.

Figure out the hybrid balance.

Firms have hybrid work policies that everyone loves, but associates lose out when they don’t have regular informal contact with mentors and partners. The solution isn’t saying “yes” or “no” to a hybrid workplace; it’s designing and enforcing structures that bring client teams together on a predictable schedule.

Begin career curation on day one.

Professional development staff and associates should have these discussions at key junctures (e.g., day 1, 90, 180; end of year 1; beginning of year 3 and year 5). Done proactively, this can be a positive experience, rather than one that creates feelings of failure because the partner path might not turn out to be the right one for everyone.

Final Thoughts

The ideas presented here are culture tweaks that are more achievable than attempting wholesale culture change. Every firm invests in its young lawyers; strategic ones prepare pathways for them to careers that will fulfill their partnership ambitions while also validating and reinforcing their innate sense of who they are and what they represent. Law isn’t the only field with expensive employee retention problems, and the lessons I’m sharing here apply to a range of industries.

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