Are you making a meal out of management?

Five steps to increase retention in professional services

Retaining good people in a partnership is a growing issue. Partners who have given life and soul to the firm look on in dismay as talent walks out of the door believing that the grass is greener in another office. But turnover figures are rising and as the next generation – Generation Z – come out of their training contracts it will only get worse. This is a generation who expect attention, expect to be trained, to learn, to do work which is meaningful and makes their life better. Life is a balance and if work is making the balance bleak, they will walk away.

The commercial downside is that every exits costs the firm dearly. It is not just the lost investment, it is the cost of replacement, the cost of getting a replacement up to date and ultimately, if it happens too often the cost of your reputation. Agencies are full of tales of the ‘untouchables’ – those firms who good candidates turn down before they have even looked at the role specification.

But before we look for a remedy, it is worth looking at the cause. Why do partnerships fail to engage their people into long-term commitment?

Perception of time

Many of us go pale when the ‘management experts’ tell us that 30% of a manager’s time should be spent managing people. For lawyers and other professionals who continue to live by the billable hour, that translates into well over a day of unbilled time. Consequently, management time is continually pushed aside, left until the end of the day, postponed until there is a good time to talk. The result? It does not happen and issues build up. Suddenly partners find they are facing a performance issue which really will take hours, even days, of their time. The consequence? Management gets a reputation for being time-onerous. Talk to any HR professional and they will tell you that quick, timely, early interventions would have saved both time and tension.


In a large corporate, training is the norm. In a partnership it is the irritating interruption to doing the work. As a trainer, I am frequently asked if the course can be delivered in half the time. Attendance is woeful and juniors are inevitably pulled back to the office. Senior lawyers arrive with a meeting in their diary before the end of the workshop. E-learning is seen as the great revolution - because lawyers can sit in front of their screens with a module running and continue to mark-up documents.  The result? There is very little skill development. Instead, lawyers learn from lawyers and accountants from accountants. If you have an inspirational partner who has, by whatever means – learning or just DNA – acted as an exemplary role-model then all is well. If you have learned from a poor partner who never attended a single hour of management training, then you are likely to follow a bad example.



Not often a word used about professionals. However, there is a common aversion to conflict – and feedback often raises the spectre of conflict. Even the most aggressive of litigators with a reputation for ripping the throat out of the ‘other side’ looks into the eyes of a colleague and simply cannot say ‘you did not do that very well.’  Instead there is an avoidance which is often covered (or excused) by a claimed lack of time. As such there is a culture of redoing work rather than reviewing work; writing people off rather than writing a note on performance or an honest appraisal; ignoring the behaviour and putting it down to personality. Eventually the fear factor creates a path to HR and some luckless manager has to step into the breach. By then it is too late. Your talent is looking at the door.

So, if time, skill and fear are working against you, then management is simply not happening – or not happening at the right time and for enough time. As a consequence, a generation of younger lawyers, accountants and business service professionals are voting with their feet. They are a generation who expects to have a ‘portfolio career’ so loyalty is low on their agenda; they see no value in staying where they do not feel they can advance; they look at partnership and think ‘no thanks – I do not want your life’; and there are plenty of other firms, making the same mistake as yours with gaps to fill. It is likely to be costing you millions.

So what can you do – quickly?

The retention remedy

I have worked with lawyers and accountants long enough to know that if I suggest a five day leadership and management course, they will stop reading this article right here. But what if you could get results in fifteen minutes a day? Think about the following:

  1. Two second uplifts.

The words ‘well done’, ‘good job’, thanks for your help’, ‘much better’, ‘good idea’ all take less than two seconds to say. But how often do you consciously lift someone’s confidence or feeling of attainment? If you are saying ‘Well, nobody did that for me’ – well maybe not, but you might have respected your managers more if they had.

  1. Ten minute briefings

Instead of handing over a file with a request to ‘sort this out’, have a five/ten minute briefing to ensure the associate knows:

Who the client is and what they do

Why the work is required and how it fits into the wider file

What is required in detail. Describe what you want to see

When it is required – both interim and final deadlines

If it works for the army it can work in an office. Yes it takes longer – but it saves you hours of heartache, irritation and long hours at your desk rewriting work which cannot be billed.

  1. Feedback in fifteen

Instead of spending quarter of an hour amending someone’s writing, tell them what needs to change. Follow the positive route:

  • This is good because…
  • This needs to change to… (give examples)…because

Then hand it back. Not only are you saving your time but you are giving a clear message that the document is the responsibility of the associate. You are too expensive to proof read.

  1. Coffee and a chat

A good manager knows their team. They know their aspirations, challenges, hopes and concerns. A good manager listens and acts as a mentor – putting in wisdom and advice for the other person to take and work through. This is not about therapy or fluffy stuff. It is about being a decent human being and asking someone how they are getting on and how it can be better. It does not have to be a drawn out coaching session - just the time involved in drinking a hot coffee. If there is something to be followed up – put it in the diary.

  1. Be honest

If someone is getting something wrong then they need to know. We can reasonably assume that no developing lawyer or accountant marches into the office with the full intent of failing and wasting your time and money. But they are frequently failed by people who could simply have advised them on how to get it right. Professional knowledge is not acquired by osmosis. It is imparted by the wise to those who need wisdom. Tough feedback or a frank conversation is never going to be easy. But lack of courage in facing up to performance issues is a risk – to retention, reputation and respect for partners.

One last thought for those of you who think management is a waste of time. Look back at the person who had the most positive impact on your career and wisdom. If you spent 15 minutes a day being more like them, then in the future, someone will be looking back at you with respect.