Between 1986 and 2005, the number of lawyers employed by the nation’s 100 largest law firms nearly tripled, from roughly 25,000 to more than 70,000, and the most recent report is that the Am Law 100 gained 4% in numbers of lawyers this past year. During this time the number of top students at top law schools has not increased measurably.

In the last two years, firm attrition rates have gone up dramatically. According to NALP reports, in 2003 53% of fifth-year associates had changed firms. In 2005, that percentage rose to 78%, more than three-fourths of associates, and 81% for women of color. According to The American Lawyer, in 2005 2,429 partners left their firms for other attorney jobs, compared with 2,081 in 2004, up more than 20%.

More and more law firms are trying to land a limited number of top-tier associates, who will, once bagged, nonetheless leave their firms—most while still associates, but others as partners. Therein lies the recruiting challenge.

Some firms are looking to alums to fatten their recruiting pool. On October 16 2006, The National Law Journal highlighted how firms are working harder to maintain ties to alums, sometimes succeeding in bringing that talent back to the firm. Vinson & Elkins partner Veronica Lewis, who left to go in-house for more flexibility, was courted personally by V&E’s managing partner, and returned as a partner after 18 months. Gibson Dunn was cited as viewing rehires as a growing component of its recruiting program. 

The National Law Journal’s Sept 25, 2006 special section on the Business of Law included a lead article on the hunt for talent. It suggests that top students at less prestigious schools be carefully considered and that summer programs should more accurately reflect real legal practice, both to educate the associate and to test the students’ interest in and commitment to the practice of law. Third, it advocates that firms “integrate, integrate” to bolster retention generally and diversity specifically. However, the assertion that attorneys envision their law firm as not merely a job, but a professional home base that they return to after government or academic stints, is out of touch with the realities of modern legal practice. As ideal as that goal may be, given the turnover in attorney ranks, both associate and partner, loyalty to a firm looks fast to becoming an outdated concept. 

Another alternative is to make sweeping changes in the way you hire and care for your associates.  Assessments that corporations have used for decades more accurately pinpoint those candidates who are likely to flourish in the practice of law as you practice it and who can add a healthy mix to your current team.  Refining your culture by addressing the most important concerns of your hires will go much further towards raising retention rates than throwing another wad of money at them.