Finders keepers: Tips for holding on to your associates

By Carolynne Burkholder-James Web Only

Finders keepers: Tips for holding on to your associates


Within their first five years, 57 per cent of female lawyers and 49 per cent of male lawyers leave private practice, according to data collected by the Law Society of Alberta. Experts say the numbers are likely similar across Canada.  

This is a big problem for law firms, says Lorene Nagata, the founder of NagataConnex Executive Legal Search, a legal recruitment firm.

“It’s hugely expensive to lose associates,” she says. “Associates usually only start to make money for the firm in their fourth year of practice. Prior to that, it’s really an investment for the firm.”

Turnover within a law firm can also be frustrating for clients and bad for morale, says Nagata, who is based in Toronto.

Nagata and Allison Wolf, a lawyer coach with Vancouver-based Shift Work Strategic Inc., have some tips for law firms to increase their retention of associates.

Make associates feel like part of the team

Nagata says that the most important indicator of whether someone will leave their job is whether they feel like they’re part of the team.

“If you don’t know how to make your associates feel like they’re part of your team, I think you’re at risk to lose them,” says Nagata.

She recommends that partners take an interest in their associates’ career development “so they don’t feel like they’re thrown into a firm and left to flounder on their own.”

This can include anything from mentoring associates to passing on files and introducing them to clients, says Nagata.

“More than anything, making associates feel like they matter and that they’re valued goes an awfully long way to retain them,” she says. “There’s a lot of value in making them feel like they matter.”

Be more flexible

Over the last few years, many Canadian law firms have begun to adopt flexible work arrangements to retain female lawyers. 

But these arrangements are becoming an important factor for male lawyers as well, says Wolf.

“Increasingly this is an issue about retention of all lawyers,” she says. “It’s not about women or men – it is about being parents. I hear associates saying, ‘I’m looking at the career ahead of me and when I look at the lives of the partners at this firm I just don’t see any examples I want to model’.”

Wolf has seen law firms adopt options that include allowing lawyers to work remotely or work reduced hours when their children are young.

“For a lot of firms, these flex-time options are challenging because that’s not how they worked and that’s not how they’re used to working,” says Wolf. “But for firms that can embrace this flexibility, there will be an opportunity to retain some of their top people.”

Ensure women have role models

Retaining female lawyers has been a problem for firms for a long time, says Nagata.

This challenge has spurred initiatives such as the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Justicia Project to promote the retention and advancement of women in private practice.

Nagata says she hears from many women that they don’t have role models in their firms.

“I’ve had several associates say to me that the only woman who’s a partner in their department does not have children,” she says. “If they don’t have a role model, the immediate reaction is that the firm is not open to someone like them making it or it can’t be done.”

Connect with spouses

Lawyers in private practice are often required to work long hours, says Wolf. “And the spouse or partner can be the one taking the brunt of that.”

She advises law firms to connect with the spouses or significant others of their associates.

“The firm having a relationship with the spouse or partner can also help create a better feeling about the firm and more commitment from the couple,” she says. “That buy-in can help.”

Wolf recommends that law firms open up some social events to spouses and partners of the associates to help build a positive connection between them and the firm.

Do exit interviews to identify issues

Nagata recommends that law firms hire an independent third party to do exit interviews with associates leaving the firm.

“I think it’s of limited value to a firm when they have their own human resources department do the exit interview. Who’s going to burn their own firm to someone who’s in it? Why would they burn their bridges?” she says.

Instead, Nagata advises firms to allow a third party to do exit interviews and assess the responses over time so that the firm cannot identify who said what.

She also recommends that firms ensure they are asking the right questions during exit interviews.

“They should be asking questions like: Did you think the work was fairly distributed? Did you think that your training was adequate? Did you feel like you were well mentored? Do you think that people took an interest in your career development? Why are you leaving? What could we have done to change your mind?”

Depending on the responses from associates, firms may be able to identify internal issues that may be causing associates to leave, says Nagata.

Realize that sometimes you can’t do anything

Sometimes an associate is simply bent on leaving, Wolf says.

“Quite frequently an associate will be hired as an articling student and then they stay with the firm and they’ve never worked anywhere else and they may feel the need to check out different opportunities,” Wolf explains. “The firm might be a great place to work. Could the firm have done something in these cases to retain the associate? I don’t think so. People sometimes just want to try something new and different.”

Also, some associates just don’t like the work, says Wolf.

“For some associates the work is not motivating, compelling and what that person needed to be doing,” she says. “You can’t keep someone like that. The bottom line is that for some individuals, the practice may not be a good fit, or it’s not the right profession for them."


Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C.

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