What’s most likely to drive an associate to resign?

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Associates often give sound reasons for resigning: the promise of more interesting work, greater responsibility, more pay, a higher profile firm.

But often, they’re just cover stories. The real reason many associates quit is that they just can’t stand the people they work with.

Take the recent case of ex-Pinsents associate Edward Lowdell. At an office party, Lowdell put trainee Ross Knight into a headlock and repeatedly punched him. They both ended up resigning, although Knight may yet bring a civil claim against his old firm based on the circumstances of his departure.

We’re not suggesting it’s normal for workplace relationships to end up in the boxing ring. But it is a surprise that this kind of thing doesn’t happen more.

Today’s working environments bring together unlikely combinations of people (increasingly in open plan offices) and enforce ‘collegiality’. In today’s 24/7 world, you can’t even escape your colleagues out of office hours. If you’re not working late, then you’re expected to socialise at office outings conferences and (eek) training and team-building courses.

You’re not even out of danger if you like your colleagues. Then, there are the office affairs. Usually, with those forbidden married and/or supervising partner types, which spill out into the office and cause total mayhem. In the end you’ll all distrust each other so much that the only place you’ll want to go together is out the nearest exit door.

According to Legal Week’s 2012 Employee Satisfaction Report, there are quite a few happy associate bunnies out there – some of whom even credit that ‘collegiate’ culture of their firm. But then a sensible survey examining no fewer than 38 sub-categories may not be the best at picking up on irrational but very real negative impulses.

The fact is, law firms are particularly fertile ground for unhappy working relations, for the following reasons:

  1. Partners from hell. For all the sophisticated career development frameworks of modern law firms, getting a good supervising partner can still be luck of the draw. Get a bad one and you may find you’re ignored, side-tracked or even bullied. And don’t expect senior management to intervene. Law firms continue to be almost universally awful at dealing with bad partner behaviour, especially if those partners are bringing in the dosh.
  2. The fight for the top. With fewer partnership places on offer, there are more associates competing for a share of a much smaller partnership prize. As the years go by without a partnership offer or a reasonable alternative on the table, the environment is only going to get nastier for those left on the shelf.
  3. The legal meritocracy. More firms are moving away from the traditional lockstep system to a performance-based career development model. This should result in a much fairer system, except that when combined with the prevailing billable-hours regime, it can actually result in a cut-throat ‘eat what you kill’ culture in which no-one gives a damn about anyone else.
  4. The wider market. With ongoing economic uncertainty, many associates have stuck in jobs for longer than they would have done in a more vibrant job market. That means more people ‘trapped’ together doing jobs they don’t like for firms they no longer respect. Otherwise known as a perfect recipe for mutual loathing.

Many firms are working hard to resolve these issues. Partners are increasingly coached in leadership skills, for example, and more value is getting apportioned to ‘non-billable’ activities.

But it may be some time before law firms really resolve the cultural issues at the heart of the typical legal business. And it may not even be a priority while revenue generation remains the predominant strategy in a stagnating economy.

In the meantime, if your present firm is making you sufficiently unhappy to be job-seeking, you’d probably be wise to stick to the horizon-broadening reasons for wanting out. Better that than trying to explain just how much you hate your boss or, indeed, everyone in the firm’s phone directory. CP

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  • Robert Franks

    According to this analysis, it just all comes down to as much money as possible, in a job you enjoy.

    This can be resolved by applying a salary as a fixed % of personal billing to each qualified lawyer, irrespective of partner status or not, and the pay rises are taken care of by the increasing hourly rate with experience / qualifications.

    You then just need to let people turn up with flexible hours, and give them a nice office , autonomy to deal with clients directly without going through a partner (unless they are already a partner of course) and enough clients form the firms poll of clients.

    Individual lawyers need only compare the different % of personal billing, the poshness of offices and the client list of firms to decide where to apply their demanded and rare talents.