Keeping Young Lawyers Satisfied and Engaged

By Christie Totten, Davis Wright Tremaine and YLS Futures Committee member

Empowering young lawyers to feel ownership in their work and workplace, to define paths to professional success, and to identify mentoring opportunities are all points that the YLS Futures Committee addresses. And while many firms informally work on these same issues without a written mission statement to do so, some have specifically dedicated personnel to the task.

"The goal is to keep people satisfied and motivated, not marginalized," said Dina Glassman, the Portland-based attorney development director for Perkins Coie and a former associate with that firm and with DLA Piper in New York. Glassman's online bio touts her role as "enhancing the attorney experience at the firm," and she noted several relevant observations in a recent conversation:

  • Facing reality: "Realistically, we only make a small group of lawyers into partners despite the talented pool. So that means finding a meaningful role for this talented group of people," said Glassman.
  • Re-thinking entrenched notions while focusing on client needs: That may mean reassessing the elephant in the room - the traditional lockstep career advancement and the "two-lane road" composed of the associate avenue and the partner avenue. Fundamental changes come only if they mean good business and reflect what clients want, but clients seek both consistent legal service (not turnover of associates) and value for the dollars they spend. "There is a lot of pressure on fees and to do alternative billing arrangements, and it creates pressure on firms to re-leverage the talent they have."
  • Different routes do not necessarily mean different destinations: "You can take the highway," Glassman noted. "It's quick and efficient, it gets you where you're going. But the highway is not for everyone. You can also take the scenic road and get to the same place. Or there may be detours along the way. If your goal is private practice, maybe you ultimately head for the destination of partner but you're not on the highway."
  • "Today's "alternative path" may be tomorrow's model of success: A classic "alternative path" is a part-time policy, often used predominantly by working mothers. "Over time, retaining those people and giving them a meaningful role, who knows what they'll do in five or 10 years? Just because the alternative path is chosen now doesn't mean that a lawyer won't make a different choice down the road. So we need to be careful not to create new boxes."
  • Keeping younger lawyers happy is nothing new: Despite the generational pressures on the legal profession's traditional structure, what keeps newer lawyers happy and engaged remains the same in many ways. "I think it's very difficult to succeed without a champion," said Glassman. "If you have someone...invested in you as a distinct, unique contributor to the organization, to the world, that's critical. This is a hard business, and everyone needs to feel as though they are not fungible. To feel like they have a real role in the firm. And I don't think I'd generalize and say that is a new thing."