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Associate Attrition and Lateral Hiring Craze Continues

By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

According to the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education, associate attrition at law firms remains high. Of every 20 associates hired, 15 left within six years. That amounted to an 18% yearly attrition rate. The results of the NALP survey were released in October.

The high attrition rate is not entirely without accident, however. According to the NALP, law firms encouraged 24% of all associate departures. The most common reasons attorneys left their firms were:

  • Pursuing a specific practice interest/starting a boutique (17%)
  • Changing careers to another type of legal job (16%)
  • Moving to a new locale (14%)
  • Poor work quality standards (13%)
  • Headhunting (10%)
  • Poor productivity (9%)
  • Pursuit of better work-life balance (9%)

Minority Associates Left More Often

In disappointing news, more attrition occurred for female and minority associates. Nearly one in four minority associates (22%) left compared to 18% for white males. Female associates left at a 17% rate. Further, women were hired 20% less than men, while 25% of all hiring involved minority associates.

For all the focus on diversity and inclusion recently in the legal industry, the fact that law firms are struggling harder to retain minority associates and hiring fewer female associates is a huge setback.

More Bad News for Law Students

Unsurprisingly, considering the high rate of attrition, most hiring now involves lateral moves, rather than entry-level associates. According to the ABA, this is a new development from previous surveys. However, it is a rather predictable outcome, as lateral hiring has been on the uptick for years, although it has slowed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

It's All Lateral From Here

The trend toward associate attrition and lateral hiring is likely to continue. As just one example, lateral movement is often the only way for associates to get a partnership, even a non-equity partnership. Further, while many law firms are looking to improve work/life balance, the demands on new associates remains high. That may be why many associates are switching careers, looking for a better work/life balance at their firm, or being pushed out for not meeting billable hour goals. While the pandemic initially slowed lateral hiring, it may ultimately accelerate the trend, since lawyers have proven they can work remotely over the last several months.

We may be seeing a new normal for some hiring practices, although certainly there will (or at least, should) be renewed focus on improving minority and female associates retention if the profession is serious about improving diversity.

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