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Learn Your Firm's Secrets: Conduct Exit Interviews
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Learn Your Firm's Secrets: Conduct Exit InterviewsBy Sharon Abrahams, National Director of Professional Development/Diversity and Inclusion, Foley & Lardner LLP, Miami, FL
Exit interviews have the power to uncover some of your firm's secrets. While some attorneys may leave to spend more time with their families, and some can't hack it, you are bound to discover which assumptions are true and which are just excuses that some attorneys want to believe about turnover. Exit interview information is a significant first step in ensuring that leaders are informed about what is happening in their firm.

For years firm leaders have whispered that female attorneys leave before making partner because they want families. These same attorneys claim that diverse attorneys leave because they "can't hack it." If you find these assumptions offensive, do something about it. Start conducting exit interviews for all departing attorneys—even the ones you have asked to leave the firm—to discover the real reason why they are leaving. It will be eye opening.

The Why

The business justification for doing exit interviews is to learn about and improve systematic, organizational, or interpersonal issues that may be adversely impacting your firm and its attorneys. On the softer side, exit interviews can demonstrate to all attorneys that the firm cares about them, their experience, and making the firm a better place to work.

Feedback from the interviews can drive structural changes and changes in procedures, and can possibly affect personnel. Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP uses the information gathered from their exit interviews to drive their professional development programming. "We have learned through conversations and exit interviews that there still exists some ‘murkiness' around the transition from mid-level associate to senior associates and partner," says Margee Fawley, their director of professional development and recruiting. They subsequently developed a lunch training series to address this specific topic.

To enable the firm to effectively utilize the feedback gathered, the exit interviews need to be conducted in an organized and well-planned manner. This includes determining who should do the interviews, what questions to ask, and how the data will be shared. The following is a guide to help you plan how to implement or improve exit interviews at your firm.

Ultimately, firm leaders want to get something tangible out of doing exit interviews. Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC is looking for the highest benefit, as Danielle Rosetti, their Director of Recruiting and Development, commented: "the goodwill [of an exit interview] will hopefully lead to work or lateral referrals." The corporate world has known this for a long time and many organizations have robust alumni programs just for this purpose.

The What

Determine what information you want and the best way to collect it. The most common—and least beneficial—is a written questionnaire or survey that covers qualitative data in a quantitative manner. This works for specific closed-ended questions regarding benefits, office culture, supervisors, and similar easy-to-grade topics. Survey questions should be crafted in a way that asks one variable, in order to ensure clear interpretation of the answer. For example:

Good question, single variable:

Did your supervising attorney give you performance feedback?

Bad question, multiple variables:

Did your supervising attorney give you performance feedback throughout the year and for your annual review?

Sample formats:

Three sample graphs for conducting exit interviews.

Creating a survey is a simple process, as there are many online resources to help determine question topics and styles. If your firm develops its own online forms, or uses a surveying tool such as Survey Monkey, the creation is only limited to what you think your attorneys will tolerate answering. Additionally, keeping it as short as possible while still receiving the information you need will boost departing attorney participation. A best practice would be to keep the written survey short, and complement it with a personal interview to gather more context and anecdotes.

While a one-on-one exit interview is time consuming, it does have a higher pay off. If the right person conducts the interview, your firm will gather data and information that truly help drive improvements. Sometimes you will learn that there is nothing you could have done to retain the attorney. A Director of Professional Development from a large international firm uncovered a very personal reason for why an attorney left the practice of law during the exit interview process. She says, "I once had an associate who said after his father, a law firm partner, died of a heart attack at work, he knew he needed to do something different with his own life."

The Who

Who is the best person in your firm to conduct an exit interview? Think about who your attorneys would most likely respond honestly to during this transition. Review your firm's organizational structure and determine if it should be a variety of individuals or just one person. Consider someone at the local office level or at the department/practice area level as the interviewer. Does it make more sense to move the responsibility to a human resources person or a professional development (PD) leader? Laura Dutt, the Director of Talent Acquisition and Development at Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff LLP says it is an "HR function," so their Director of Human Resources a handles the interviews.

In an unscientific poll of law firms that belong to a professional association, it was determined that of the firms that responded, the function fell to the professional development department. Professional development can be viewed as the most neutral "people" function, since it resides separate from hiring, reviewing, and firing. Many PD professionals are viewed as caring about attorneys' wellbeing and career success—whether in their firm or in the legal industry as a whole. Additionally, only a small handful of the firms surveyed use a third party to conduct exit interviews, but this is an option worth exploring if you feel this would work best for your firm.

The When

There are varying opinions regarding when an exit interview should be conducted. You may not have the luxury of planning the interview ahead of time. Anytime during the last week of employment works well, but try to avoid the last day. James Cornell, Executive Director of Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, stated, "I absolutely want to know what happened, and I find that having that conversation earlier in the exit process compared to later is generally more insightful and helpful to the firm." If the attorney was asked to leave the firm, you might inquire if an exit interview should be offered or not. In most cases even terminated attorneys can offer valuable feedback about the workings of an office, practice area, or the firm in general.

Consider doing exit interviews with retiring partners as well. They have seen the firm change over their career and often have unique insights. The timing for this should be at their leisure and can occur after they have left and have time to reflect.

The How

When conducting a one-on-one interview, start with light discussion to help your departing attorney feel comfortable answering your questions. Assure the attorney that no negative consequences will result from honest discussion during the exit interview. Though they are leaving the firm, departing attorneys might hesitate in answering the questions honestly. Paul Morton, COO of Burns & Levinson LLP warns, "when conducting an exit interview…finger-pointing isn't particularly helpful," so you want to keep the questions and answers constructive, not destructive.

If your firm supports this, inform the attorney that their individual feedback will not be shared unless it is about unethical behavior or behavior that harms others or the firm. Let them know that you are looking for themes and are gathering data that will offer areas for improvement. Be prepared to delve deeper into comments and statements to get more detail. When asking questions about why the associate was leaving, a PD manager learned that this associate's supervising attorney spread rumors about the associate's work product so that no one else would send work, thus freeing up the associate to always be available for this particular partner.

Should you do the interviews in person, via video conference, or over the phone? Best case would be in person. You can get a better feel for a person when you are directly in front of them. It is easier to read their body language, so you can pick up on signs if you have touched a nerve or hit on a sensitive topic. In today's global world, you might only be able to do them from a distance. In this case a video conference would be best so you can still see the attorney. Finally, the telephone is better than not at all.

The Questions

It is important to develop a standardized list of questions that each interviewer will follow so the answers can later be aligned by topic. The conversations may digress from the original questions, but at least it will make it easier to assemble the data if everyone starts with the same set of core questions. You will be able to synthesize the data into themes if you use these four basic topics:

  • Why are you leaving, and where are you going?
  • What do we do well?
  • What could we do better?
  • Anything else we need to talk about?

These are not the exact words to be used, just an idea of the category of questions you should ask.

The best way to open the line of questioning is to begin with understanding why the attorney is leaving and where he or she is going. The "where" is easy—just ask. The "why" could be complex. Open the conversation with questions like:

  • What has led you to this decision?
  • Have you felt like leaving for some time, or is this recent?
  • Did you talk to anyone at the firm before you made this decision?
  • Were there things happening at work that made you unhappy?
  • Did you feel your issues were being addressed?
  • Did you actively look for a new position or did someone contact you?

The purpose of this line of questioning is to uncover the root cause of departure. Is it truly an amazing opportunity, or were they unhappy at your firm, frustrated with their career, or a completely unrelated issue? Kelly Mixon Morgan, National Director of Attorney Hiring at Fish & Richardson P.C., cautions it is important to ask how a new opportunity was identified specifically to clarify that it was not through someone in the new firm's employ.

Develop a different line of questions for partners and associates, as they may have different attitudes about their career and experiences at the firm. For example, you can focus questions around career advancement for associates and around rainmaking for partners, or questions about origination credits for partners and training for associates. Examine your firm's culture, policies, and procedures to determine the types of questions to ask.

Some attorneys make assumptions about why people leave, so it is important to update your questions to keep in line with issues facing the legal industry. For example, when work is flat you might be the best firm in the world to work for, but attorneys might leave in search of firms that can fill their plate. Ojen Sirin, Director of Professional Development at Sullivan & Worcester, notes, "there have definitely been some trends during various periods of time, but I have also been surprised at how some once-thought trends are no longer true."

The Data

What is the best way to share the information gathered from exit surveys? If you used an electronic survey that follows a standardized format year over year, then the most straightforward option would be to compile the data into a report. Knowing how many people went in-house verses another firm, or that 17 percent of those departing complained about benefits, can be shown graphically in a report. You can also take it one step further and identify themes around why people are leaving.

When analyzing the notes from the one-on-one interviews, themes will emerge. People tend to explain similar experiences in different ways, so it is helpful if the same analyst reads all the notes. This way the analyst can understand the overarching themes that emerge when multiple attorneys comment on the same issue, person, office, procedure, etc.

One PD professional from a large national firm heard repeated comments during a series of exit interviews about a certain practice area, although the comments covered a myriad of topics. Some attorneys left because there was not enough work, while others left because they felt overworked. Another attorney left because he was not allowed to delegate certain types of work to younger associates. Since the same person analyzed the comments, she was able to surmise that work assignments in that practice area was the problem.

The Report

How to report the results should be considered when designing the exit interview process. If a report is pulled from quantifiable data, it can be displayed in a graphic or chart. A comparison to previous years will show if there have been any improvements or trends year over year. This is key if the firm has implemented any initiatives based on the data gathered from previous exit interviews. Including subjective data gathered from the personal interviews requires more time and effort, but can provide valuable information.

The first step to analyzing qualitative data is outlining themes gathered from the interviews. Each set of notes must be read, and sometimes reread, in order to quantify how many times an issue or person is mentioned. It is the analyst's responsibility to identify consistent themes or, as noted in the example above, tie seemingly unrelated comments into a theme. Comment Coding is when all the comments are put into a spreadsheet, one comment per row, and the columns are the identified themes. The next step is to insert a mark in the column with the relevant themes to determine the patterns.

Displaying themes in a report will be a matter of writing style, as it is challenging to turn them into a graph or chart. If comment coding, you could include the percentage of people who cited the same reason for leaving. For example, you could chart the top reasons why people leave and the percentage of departing attorneys who mention it as a top reason. Another way is to list the overarching theme and then to include quotes without attribution in the document. For example:


From January 1 – May 31, 2016 there were a number of departures due to: 1) looking for new opportunities, 2) wanting more work (better hours), or 3) moving somewhere to work in the preferred area of law. Half of those departing during this period cited these as the reason they are leaving. Some comments:

  • "Starting looking because of lack of work. Looked to broaden skill set. It's all about opportunity"
  • "Lack of work/More specialized work" wants to do anti-trust work, but spends time on M & A
  • "Felt pushed out" and "couldn't get work" when key partner left the office

Deciding on how often to create and submit the report can be tied to the turnover rate at your firm. Larger firms typically have higher turnover rates so a report twice a year or even quarterly might be in order. Smaller firms will benefit from an annual report.

Determining who will receive the report is tied to your firm's culture. Should the report go to only the leaders of areas, offices, or departments that have been identified to have a problem, or should it go to firm leaders? In the previous example of the practice area with a work assignment challenge, the analyst shared the information with the practice leader initially, but ended up escalating it to firm leadership to generate energy around making a change.

If there are issues identified in the exit interviews that are tied to the business side of the firm and not the practice side, share this information with the COO or equivalent. For example, during an exit interview, a new mother shared her frustration about the insurance company her firm used. When this information was shared with the human resources department of her firm, they were dismayed at how she had been treated. They took this information seriously and were able to make changes in their insurance company relationship.

The Secrets

Exit interviews have the power to uncover some of your firm's secrets. While some attorneys may leave to spend more time with their families and some "can't hack it," you are bound to discover which assumptions are true and which are just excuses that some attorneys want to believe about turnover. Exit interview information is a significant first step in ensuring that leaders are informed about what is happening in their firm.

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