How the Arizona legal profession is taking on the war for talent
In today’s tight labor market, help wanted signs are plastered across store fronts, construction trucks and billboards, offering competitive pay or even sign-on bonuses to lure potential employees. The demand for talent can be seen in sectors commonly associated with a low supply of workers — such as education, healthcare, hospitality and the trades — but the the war for talent is also in the Arizona legal profession.
A market report by the Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute finds that “at the end of November 2021, all [categories of] law firms were edging dangerously close to losing almost one-quarter of their associates in 2021.” Moreover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that in August 2022, the legal services sector lost approximately 9,000 jobs.
“Between 12 months ago and now has been the most competitive time in the legal industry for at least the past 25 years,” says Brad Vynalek, Quarles & Brady partner and firm president in Phoenix. “The competition for talent at every level — billing specialists, paralegals, associates, partners — is real. Right after the Great Recession, law school enrollment declined dramatically, so we’re playing catch up in the industry.”
In such an environment, firms are doubling down on recruitment and retention to have the strongest organizations possible.
One of the primary ways that new attorneys are recruited starts during law school. Ray English, assistant dean of the Office of Career and Employment Services at Arizona State University (ASU), explains that beyond job fairs, there are three primary ways firms interact with the university. The first is the short-term assistance research program (SHARP) where employers — typically smaller practices — in need of additional support for a project can hire a law student.
Another avenue is through externships, which occur during the academic year and earn the student credit towards graduation.
“We do 260 externships each fall and spring semester, and about 43% are paid externships,” English notes. “We started that five years ago, and it has turned out to be a real pathway to post-graduation employment. About 94% of students who participate in a paid externship are employed within 10 months of graduation, and about half are employed at the firm they externed with.”
The third and most exclusive opportunity is the summer associate program. English says large firms compete for the top 15% of the class to not just gain work experience but become enmeshed in the organization’s culture.
“From my experience, it was invaluable because I got a good sense of the firm and the work I’d be doing. Both were really a good fit for me,” she says. “When I came back full time [after graduation], I was still working on some of the cases I had been involved with as a summer associate. It’s real-world exposure for folks that are learning the profession.”
Vynalek was also a summer associate for the firm he’s been a part of for more than two decades — something he says is not uncommon around the office. Each year, projections are made on how many new associates the organization will need in the future and select students accordingly. This past summer, Quarles & Brady had eight summer associates who all accepted job offers at the program’s conclusion, but he says the goal is to create great law practitioners whether they stay or not.
“We’re in the people business and just happen to operate within the dimension of law,” Vynalek says. “That means putting together bespoke teams to work on important matters for premium clients, which requires people who work well together, understand nuance and can drive a business resolution to a legal issue.”
For firms to operate at their highest capacity, recruiting top talent is just one facet of the overall strategy. Workers want an environment where they feel respected and can grow professionally, no matter their position. Susie Ingold, shareholder at Burch & Cracchiolo, says that the best way to reduce employee attrition is to make the organization an attractive place to be and stay.
“For retention, we have to put our money where our mouth is and provide the firm culture that we promised [when recruiting],” Ingold says. “It really comes down to work satisfaction. Are we providing assignments in areas of law [the attorney is] focused on practicing and building expertise in? Are we allowing them to grow in the areas of law that they want to professionally develop?”
Mentoring is a focus at Burch & Cracchiolo, with every associate being paired with a senior partner who works closely with them on the daily minutiae as well as planning for the future. Understanding what advancement opportunities are available, Ingold says, is another way for employees to understand the value of staying with the company.
“In the world of law, one of the biggest questions is, ‘When can I make partner?’” Ingold notes. “That track is critical, so knowing what the criteria are to meet those expectations is an essential component for retention.”
At Vynalek’s firm, there is a training series called QBU, or Quarles & Brady University. One track takes a group of 30 or so new attorneys to another state for leadership development, skills training, communications workshops and firm education. A mid-level associate course builds upon those fundamentals and explores the responsibilities of a partner. Finally, the highest-level course takes attorneys who are almost eligible for partnerships and identifies what final areas they should focus on before the promotion.
“With this QBU series, we’ve created a way to prepare an associate to go from their first day at the firm to an equity partner who stays with us for decades,” Vynalek says.
Sometimes, supporting an attorney can mean paying for them to travel to seminars or conferences to expand their expertise, even if it’s not directly related to their area of practice. “We’re not going to dictate to you how you’re going to advance your career, but we’ll give you opportunity to do that on your own with the support of the firm,” Cranston explains.
Company culture is another reason people stay, and culture is fostered when employees have a voice in the organization, says Mike Ross, shareholder at Gallagher & Kennedy. Some firms have resource groups and committees where employees can speak their mind. In Ross’s experience, however, most formal meetings aren’t effective since some folks don’t want to share their honest thoughts in a group setting or are uncomfortable with public speaking in general.
“Getting people out of their offices — whether in a social setting or participating in charity events — is where you see people’s true stripes,” he notes. “Those moments are powerful and are part of the fiber of our firm as much as anything else.”
“The reality is,” Ross continues, “compensation is something everybody thinks about. Hopefully, everyone comes to work because they love it, but they also come to work to get paid. Still, there is a concerted effort to make sure people understand that [the firm] is a family and we’re all important cogs in the wheel.”
Vynalek adds that there are two important factors to consider concerning culture. “One is that you can’t outsource culture. A consultant can give insights, but they can’t fix it for you,” he concludes. “And the second is that culture is a full-time job. You have to respond and be immediately available to the ever-shifting dynamics of the world today.”