Where Did Loyalty Go?

loyaltyThere’s no loyalty anymore! I’ve heard that accusation from both law firm partners and associates. But accusations don’t help us solve problems nor will they ever help us move forward. Rather, we need to start re-thinking the traditional employer-employee relationship, not in terms of loyalty, but in terms of a mutually beneficial alliance. Loyalty will exist as long as both sides benefit from it.

I gleaned this idea from the book The Alliance by Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and others. Hoffman points out that the traditional model of lifetime employment went out before the Information Age and has been laid to rest with the Networked Age. It is silly for employer and employee to embrace the loyalty charade by pretending that the interest and intent—for either side–is a relationship that will last for the length of a career. This is extremely unlikely, as we have seen over the past few decades.

The Alliance

“The alliance” refers to a construct of a mutually beneficial relationship. The idea is to create “tours of duty” around specific projects or goals the employer has that also will provide the employee with skills and experience to develop the employee professionally. The employer and employee then build trust through honest conversations about the goals of both employer and employee.

It is always worth remembering that for younger employees, specifically Millennials, this is precisely the relationship many of them had with their parents – an open dialogue about shared interests and future goals. That’s the approach to leadership that Millennials employees bring to the workplace. Contrast that with how Baby Boomers approached their supervisors in the workplace (being quiet and paying our dues) and how that correlated with how we related with our parents. Unlike the approach of Baby Boomers, open, honest dialogue is a hallmark of the youngest generation in the workplace and one that an alliance approach can foster and develop.

And part of what the employee brings to the alliance is his network of connections. The employee should be expected and encouraged to tap her individual network (yes, including through Facebook) to create value for the employer. The advantages of this networked intelligence is that it connects the company with outside sources and provide access to “hidden data” that is not publicly available. This could give an edge to the employer in a highly competitive environment.

Law Firm Loyalty

So how does this translate to the legal field? Not well. We see many firms continue to treat associates as commodities, exchanging money for time. We see associates developing professionally in a haphazard second-handed way, depending on individual partners and their perceived needs of the client. We see social media policies that frown on associates’ individual involvement and, if marshaled at all, become sanitized to fit the firm image.

Applying the message of the alliance in private law firms may require more candor than comfort. For example, perhaps partners could define certain needs for a short term and propose an assignment (or “tour of duty” in Hoffman’s parlance) to a new associate that would ensure loyalty for that defined time frame. Why not ask what people the associate knows who could provide information or expand the reach of the firm into a certain area? And, most importantly, why not ask about what the associate hopes to gain from his or her employment during the same time frame? This is particularly true for BigLaw where the entire system is based on a high turnover rate among the associate ranks. Instead of having attorneys depart unhappily and in secret, why not be at honest at the outset, recognizing that not everyone can or will stay to make partner?

Law firms do themselves a disservice by failing to explicitly recognize that many, perhaps even most, of the indebted associates in an incoming class will leave once their main impetus (debt service) for billing 2200 hours a year is complete. Because law firms refuse to discuss that reality, those associates are left to flounder in secret thinking no one cares about their career goals other than the associates themselves. If starting a formal conversation about career goals and network connections can help both the associate and the firm, why not take the chance?

Great questions that may make many squirm. But asking them just may engender loyalty.


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