Law firm associate attrition and hiring ease but remain well above pre-pandemic levels: report

Attrition rate for people of colour 'notably higher,' said report with US and Canadian data

Law firm associate attrition and hiring ease but remain well above pre-pandemic levels: report

While the numbers remain well above pre-pandemic levels, a new report on associate attrition and departures found a slight decline compared with 2021’s “historic highs.”

The NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education recently released its 2022 update on associate attrition. The 2021 associate attrition rate of 26 percent fell to 20. While the numbers were close to even for male and female associates – 20 and 19 percent – the attrition rate for people of colour was “notably higher,” at 26 percent, said the report.

“The thing that was really interesting to us when we looked at the 2022 data was that although both hiring and attrition declined slightly from the historic levels that we saw in 2021, which were the highest ever in the history of our doing this study – over 20 years – they still stayed above prior, historic levels,” says Fiona Trevelyan Hornblower, president and CEO of the NALP Foundation.

“We're still seeing a lot of mobility for associates… even though the market was cooling somewhat.”

For the 2022 report, the NALP Foundation received data from 122 firms in the US and six firms from Canada. The firms reported hiring 6,786 associates in 2022. Last year, participating firms hired 7,278. Despite the drop, the 2022 numbers still exceeded the 4,956 associates hired in 2020.

This year, there were 3,737 lateral hires and 3,049 entry-level hires. The report also showed a drop in the “boomerang effect.” In 2022, 48 percent of firms said they rehired at least one former associate – down from 55 percent in 2021. For some, the boomerang returned quickly. Twenty-one percent of firms had an associate leave and return within the year.

In the Update on Associate Attrition, the researchers also probed the “attrition drivers,” i.e. why lawyers chose to leave their firm, says Trevelyan Hornblower. They looked at whether lawyers moved for practice-related reasons, to pursue a different type of career, whether COVID had an impact, and the extent to which support mechanisms such as diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, mental health resources, and flexible work arrangements influenced the decisions.

“Interestingly, throughout the few years that we've been probing on COVID, we don't see that being a major factor driving associate departure,” she says.

The most common reasons for associate departure was “pursuit of specific practice interests” and “career change to other type of legal job,” cited for 17 percent of departures each. Ten percent said they left because “work quality standards were not met,” and “better compensation” motivated nine percent of departures.

“The other interesting finding is relocation ended up being more of a key driver this year than it has in the past,” says Jennifer Mandery, vice president for research at the NALP Foundation.

“Relocation” was the cause cited for departure nine percent of the time.


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