Denver Bar Association
October 2001
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Exit Interview Provides You With an Opening

by Diana Digges

They Make Us Say This: Reprinted with permission of Lawyers Weekly USA, the national newspaper for small law firms. You can get a free trial subscription to Lawyers Weekly USA by calling (800) 451-9998 or visiting www.lawyersweeklyusa.com.

It’s tough to attract—and keep—good people, and small firms have it harder than most. They can’t offer the salaries and perks the big firms do. They insist their people wear a variety of hats and, when problems arise, everybody knows about them.

Or at least firm managers think they do.

Exit interviews could tell them otherwise. With attrition rates hovering between 12 and 19 percent, depending on the size and location of the firm, it’s essential for firms to secure any information that might help them keep good employees. Why don’t more small firms snag the people walking out the door and pump them for news the firm can use?

The intimacy of small firms leads many to believe they’d only hear what they already know: the senior partner is an arrogant S.O.B., for example, or the office manager is a control freak. In a cozy environment, they say, familiarity breeds contentment—or contempt—but either way, it’s out there for all to see. So who needs an exit interview?

Everyone, experts say.

"If any of us knows anything about the legal system, we know we are experts at putting our heads in the sand," says Nancy Byerly Jones, a law practice management consultant in North Carolina.

"If law firms don’t know why people are leaving and they’re constantly training people, they’re losing ground—it takes an awful lot of money to replace someone," says J.R. Phelps, director of the Florida Bar Law Practice Management section: "They’ve got to find out what prompted their people to begin looking elsewhere."

How to do it

One law practice that regularly conducts exit interviews is Swerdlow, Florence, Sanchez and Rathbun, a 16-member firm in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The firm has done exit interviews with both support staff and attorneys for 16 years, says Luci Hamilton, chief administrative officer. Management systematically reviews the data and, where possible, implements changes.

The result?

A low attrition rate of five percent.

Hamilton says it’s the lowest she’s seen of the five firms where she has worked as an administrator. The exit interview is only part of a management strategy that emphasizes communication between staff and attorneys.

That’s key, consultants say.

"If you never seek input from your employees, starting with an exit interview will be a bolt out of the blue," says Ron Elsdon, a management consultant with Drake Beam Morin, a company that specializes in retention strategies.

Assuming your firm has at least a modicum of two-way communication, there are several steps you can take to ensure that your exit interviews produce results. Here’s what the experts say:

Set the right tone

"It should not come across as a series of staccato questions, but as a natural conversation," says Gisela Bradley of the Texas bar’s law office management program.

Conduct the interview in a place where there will be no interruptions. Go out to lunch, if appropriate.

"If conducted well, the process is very free-flowing and non-threatening," says Bradley.

"The person is doing you a favor, and the best approach is to say that you would like to meet in order to learn if there’s something the firm can do to make being employed there more attractive. That sets the tone. It should not be a gripe session."

It’s also crucial not to make assumptions, she says. Listen for clues that will alert you to the specific concerns of the employee in question.

"And I do mean listen. Don’t defend or explain, just listen and take notes," she says. Do not react in a way that would end the conversation."

Hamilton agrees that a natural, open-ended approach is the most fruitful, but says it’s best to begin the interview with standard questions, partly to give it structure.

"I always ask if they felt they had sufficient training, if they were fairly compensated, and if they believed the firm helped them in their growth," says Hamilton. "Then I take it from there."

Starting with standardized questions, she points out, will not only put the interview on a professional footing, it will also provide your firm with data that can be compared over time and across functions.

No matter how natural or informal the interview, it’s important to prepare for it. Make an agenda, even if it’s only a mental one, and make sure there are no interruptions or distractions.

Be sure the right person conducts the interview

In large companies, neutral third parties are brought in to collect exit data, Elsdon and other consultants say. However, that’s rarely feasible in a small firm. Some law practice management experts say one of the partners should always do the interviews; others say this could lead to disaster if management is perceived to be part of the problem. The key, this group argues, is to identify an individual that the departing employee is comfortable talking to—and that individual may vary.

"Depending on the dynamics of the situation, it might be smart not to have the supervising attorney doing the interview," says Jones. A disgruntled associate might give more valuable information to an office manager or a sympathetic senior partner.

At the California firm, Hamilton usually conducts the interviews, though employees have their pick of which member of management to talk to, she says.

While it’s important to set a natural tone, it also pays to be careful, says Jones. That might mean having a "witness" or second party along for the discussion, particularly if the employee is leaving in anger.

Know what to look for

While you want specifics about the departing individual’s complaints, the overall strategy should be to look for patterns that can guide changes in policy and behavior.

"Former employees may give different reasons for leaving—a husband’s transfer, a larger salary offer—but look for what they have in common," says Jones. "They may also have been upset that the firm did not make changes that had been promised."

The content of the promises may differ, but one problem may be common to all of them: failure to follow through, one of the most frequently voiced complaints about management.

If one of the patterns is about a problematic individual—the dear old founding partner or the office dominatrix who’s been around forever—firms have a choice.

"There’s a cost to every decision we make," says Jones. "If a partner is driving people away, and the firm decides to keep him or her, they’ve made a decision. They know they have a jerk in the crowd and if they’re not going to change the situation, a simultaneous decision has been made that will cost the firm good people."

On the other hand, personality problems do not have to be as intractable as people think, says Hamilton. She argues that it’s precisely the documentation gleaned in exit interviews—rather than office gossip—that can give a firm a useful tool to help someone change.

"You can’t change personalities, but you can change behaviors," she says. And the best way to go about that is to tie gripes about personality to specific events.

"In our firm, it’s the policy to always be very, very precise. I don’t go into a meeting with the offending party without specifics. I would expect that anybody—a partner, an associate or a receptionist—would want to know exactly what they were doing so they can address it. Do not say (to the offending party), ‘You have an attitude. You’re arrogant and condescending.’ But you can tell them, ‘Here’s how this person felt when you talked to her when she was on the phone and you threw a file at her rather than handing it to her.’ Believe it or not, people often aren’t aware how their actions affect other people."

If associates repeatedly complain about their higher-ups changing course in mid-stream on a case, find out the details, says Hamilton.

Finally, make sure that the exit is a smooth one practically and legally. Particularly if the exit is a less than friendly one, remind the employee of confidentiality issues.

"Remind them, pleasantly, that if they or their family were a client of this firm, they would not want anyone talking about their case. Have them sign a confidentiality statement. And be sure to get the keys," says Jones.

Using the Information

Obviously, if all you do is file away the information from an exit interview, the exercise has been futile. A standard management practice should be to review exit interviews on a regular basis.

As for personality problems, the specific complaints should be a part of the "offending party’s" regular employee review.

"If it’s something that management needs to deal with together, we will bring it up at the shareholder’s monthly meeting," says Hamilton. "But if we know that we are in imminent danger of losing any more people, we deal with it immediately."

Though the process may seem more formal than small firms are willing to consider, exit interviews can quickly become as seamless and essential a part of management as computer maintenance, the experts say. There’s no reason to fear or avoid them—view them as you would any other source of information. And use that information to hold on to good people.

If properly done, the exit interview can serve as a mirror.

"A lot of firms would rather stay in survival mode," says Jones. "But the ones that build success stories are those that have the courage and patience to take that hard look at themselves and think about change."

© 2001 Lawyers Weekly Inc., All Rights Reserved.


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