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The Complete Lawyer: High flight risk and the quest for retention

Dennis Coyne//November 27, 2017

The Complete Lawyer: High flight risk and the quest for retention

Dennis Coyne//November 27, 2017

Dennis Coyne
Dennis Coyne

Over coffee, Max told me that his friend and co-worker, Judy, had been designated a “high flight risk.” I knew that term to refer to a person unable to obtain bail in a criminal proceeding. Furthermore, Max said that he envied Judy and that he wished he, too, had earned the reputation of being a high flight risk.

Max wasn’t referring to a criminal proceeding; he was referring to his place of employment, a sophisticated and profitable multi-national corporation. There, people are carefully evaluated. Some of the most prized earn the status of being a high flight risk. In turn, they are given the best the corporation can offer, including financial incentives and promotions to more senior and even upper management positions. Often, being a high flight risk proves to be a step up the corporate ladder.

Judy, however, does not want to assume a management position nor supervise other people. More than anything, she wants to remain a subject matter expert. She simply wants to further develop her expertise and remain the go-to person in her area of specialization. If left to do that, she’ll be content and not a flight risk at all. But if shoehorned into a management position, Judy might become the flight risk the corporation sought to avoid.

As for Max, he wants to be appreciated for his qualifications and the contributions he makes. Year after year, he earns the accolade of “exceeding expectations” in his annual review. He’s loyal to the company and hasn’t shopped himself around the marketplace. Max simply wants to receive the financial incentives and opportunities for promotion given to those identified as a high flight risk. Ironically, his loyalty to the company may be to his detriment.

Law firms face the same challenge as business faces, that is, how to retain those who are most valuable. Sometimes a well-intentioned policy has unintended consequences, as illustrated by the account of the high flight risk program where Max and Judy are employed. There, the program doesn’t assure their retention at all.

What lessons might be learned from Max’s and Judy’s experience? And what have I learned coaching high-performance people, both lawyers and corporate executives? Well-intentioned efforts are made to retain these people, for they are talented and prized for the contributions they make. Yet many leave for other endeavors.

Ask for what you want

It seems too obvious to suggest that it’s important to ask for what you want. Yet, too often people don’t ask. The absence of dialogue handicaps the law firm or corporation in understanding the needs of the employee. The employer can easily be clueless and assume that the usual rewards and incentives are all that is needed or wanted. As for the employee, it may seem safe to say nothing, yet advocating for self is a skill worth cultivating. Often, speaking-up is respected, even admired. Certainly, remaining silent is no guarantee of being understood or accommodated.

If possible, provide what people want

In the work place, money is the usual reward for a job well done. Yet money alone will not always satisfy everyone. Some people want more time with the family, opportunities for community service, additional training, a chance to do some pro-bono work, or a sabbatical. It’s understood that such opportunities sometimes impact income. People are often satisfied with such a trade-off.

Core values change

Core values will change over a lifetime and from generation to generation. What is wanted at age 20 or 30 is seldom what is wanted at 40 or 50, or at 60 or 70. Generational differences exist, as well.

Frederic Hudson, Ph.D. a pioneer in the field of adult development, studied the biographies of hundreds of successful adults and found six core values in the lives he studied. These values are an internal energy source, the fire or determination that fuels an adult life. The six core values are identified in Dr. Hudson’s book, “The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal”:

  • Personal power – claiming yourself: Creating an identity, a positive sense of self, clear ego boundaries, demonstrating courage.
  • Achievement – proving yourself: Making partner, winning cases and resolving disputes, demonstrating ambition, getting recognition, earning money and reaching goals.
  • Intimacy – sharing yourself: loving, bonding, being intimate, making relationships work, feeling close, parenting, being a friend.
  • Play and creativity – expressing yourself: being imaginative, intuitive, spontaneous, original, a good storyteller.
  • Search for meaning – integrating yourself: finding wholeness, integrity, an inner connection to all things, spirituality, inner wisdom and peace, trusting in the flow of life,
  • Compassion and contribution – leaving a legacy: leaving the world a better place by being generative, engaging in social action, institution building and volunteerism, by demonstrating care for the environment.

These core values change over a lifetime, from creating an identity in the early years to leaving a legacy in later life. What is valued at one time of life will shift to reflect the core values at another time of life. It’s as important for the lawyer/employee to know that, as it is for the law firm/corporation. As core values shift, money alone will not necessarily be the coveted prize.

Do not prize retention above all

Sometimes a law firm or corporation cannot satisfy what the attorney or employee wants. For example, sometimes an attorney leaves a law firm for a judicial appointment, a law school position, an opportunity to serve a government agency or to join a business. The law is a versatile profession and changing course is one of the opportunities available in the profession. In such a situation, the law firm hasn’t failed; the lawyer has simply made another choice.

From where I stand, it’s as important for the lawyer to ask for what is wanted as it is for the law firm to listen. In this dialogue, a respectful accommodation can often be found. At other times, what is being asked is for an opportunity the law firm simply cannot provide. What a law firm provided earlier in the career of the lawyer may no longer satisfy the lawyer. It isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. It may simply be that core values have shifted, or that some other objective is being sought. A strategy to retain the high flight risk will not always succeed, nor can it. Sometimes attrition is inevitable, an outcome to be celebrated.

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