The case for making partner // Opinion

Associates are leaving Bay Street in record numbers. Yet the most valuable conversation is not about why they leave, but why they should stay. Illustration by Tamara Shopsin

By Dera J. Nevin

On Thursday March 6th, 2008

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Is there a crisis in associate retention? The reports say associates are leaving in record numbers to pursue greater stability at in-house or government positions, to specialize at boutiques or, (my favourite reason) to achieve “work-life balance.” Associates, it seems, do not want to stay at large law firms and become partners. Law firms say they’re losing talent and money. In response, some firms are now offering associates secondments, pro bono opportunities, generous leaves of absence, ongoing seminars and similar perquisites to respond to this retention crisis.

Worm and anchor

This type of response misses the mark and associates see right though it. It’s no secret that large law firms are structured as a pyramid, and that the business model requires some associates to leave and pursue careers elsewhere. The real concern shouldn’t be how many associates are leaving, but rather about making sure that the right ones stay.

Firms first spend all kinds of money persuading students to walk through their doors, then spend precious resources on programs and opportunities that take their new lawyers away from their daily work. At best, it’s unclear that this strategy of offering all the secondments, seminars, and pro bono opportunities increases retention at all. It risks sending the message that the work available at law firms is not as good as the alternatives. At worst, it takes associates away from the real work, depriving them of valuable experience they will need to become fully contributing members of their firm as partners.

The solution isn’t better opportunities to avoid work, it’s meaningful opportunities to do the work that’s available to be done. For associates who are engaged, motivated, creative, and entrepreneurial, access early in their career to work that is only available at the big firms presents the best opportunity to convince them to stick it out for the long haul.

What is unique about the largest law firms is that they require creativity and innovation in the design and delivery of their legal services.  Often, they must operate in new and uncharted territory to stay relevant and competitive. They invest in technology and training, keeping specialists on staff and archiving precedents that can be quickly accessed and adapted. Consequently, these firms attract the most complex and multifaceted work which often occurs at the leading edge of finance, technological innovation, and public policy.

The result? Practitioners at these firms get to work at this leading edge. With this comes the opportunity to be innovative and creative. Over time this work becomes more enriching — personally, professionally, and financially — as practitioners develop the skills and experience to more fully participate in the range of issues that arise with this work. Understood this way, partnership at a big law firm offers ever-increasing opportunities to deliver innovative legal solutions to clients that are busy doing very interesting things.

Firms that focus on giving associates meaningful access to this challenging work don’t need to keep their daily grind out of sight, obscured by the shiny secondments and work-life balance seminars — the work sells itself. The key to keeping the right associates becomes mentorship and the opportunity to stretch on every mandate. Associates who are appropriate for partnership will seek out opportunities to become more independent and experienced because they will understand their role in the future of the firm.

Big firms have a good story to tell associates about the benefits of seeking partnership. They should start telling it.


Dera J. Nevin is a senior associate at Ogilvy Renault LLP. She practices corporate and commercial litigation.

Illustration by Tamara Shopsin