Can management titles and MBA coaching keep law firm associates from jumping ship?

3 minute read

Sidley Austin legal offices in Washington, D.C. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
  • Sidley Austin is re-christening its experienced associates as managers and giving them leadership training
  • Recruiters said such moves may give law firms a leg up in recruiting and retention

(Reuters) - Sidley Austin’s decision to beef up the titles of its senior and mid-level associates and dispatch them to top MBA programs for training is a savvy move in the bare-knuckled fight for law firm talent, legal recruiters said.

It could persuade associates to stick around and help Sidley recruit laterals from rivals that don’t offer such perks, they said. Competition for associates has escalated along with demand for legal work in recent months, with firms paying out record salaries and bonuses.

“Anytime you are investing in your associates beside just paying them a bunch of cash—the associates feel that,” said Nicole Kennedy, head of the associate practice group at recruiting firm Lucas Group. “Sidley will not be the only firm that does something like this.”

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Sidley said Wednesday that beginning in 2022, all associates in their fourth through sixth years will become “managing associates,” while those in their seventh year and above will be “senior managing associate.”

The titles recognize those lawyers' greater expertise and responsibilities, said Yvette Ostolaza, chair-elect of Sidley’s management committee.

The firm is also launching a new leadership and executive training program for associates in their fourth year and above. They'll get on-site MBA training at Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern and other top schools, and participate in two internal leadership academies and a group project with a legal nonprofit or community organization.

Associates will get billable hour credit for their time in the program. Ostolaza said it's a significant investment for the firm, but one it believes will pay dividends.

“We’re trying to distinguish ourselves,” she said. “The leadership of our firm wanted to look at, ‘What is another type of investment that makes Sidley a value proposition for both our associates and our clients?’”

Sidley isn’t the first to offer different titles to associates based on seniority—Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe and Dentons are among the firms that already do so. Nor is it the first to offer MBA-style training. Milbank has partnered with Harvard's law and business schools to provide mid-level associate training since 2011. But the scope of Sidley's initiative is notable, Kennedy said.

The benefits aren't only internal, said Erin Sears of legal recruiting firm Garrison & Sisson. Sidley's new titles could help clients better understand who is staffing their matters and why their billing rates may be higher.

Kate Reder Sheikh, managing director of the associate practice group at Major, Lindsey & Africa, described Sidley’s changes as low-risk and high return.

“The potential upside is great,” she said. “If associates feel more ownership and rootedness inside their firms, that’s huge. Retention is everything right now.”

Read more:

Attorney recruitment fears temper law firms' bullish outlook

Law firms had another big quarter, but associate pay is taking a toll

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com