Exit Interviews: Exposing Your Firm’s Secrets

For years firm leaders have whispered that female lawyers leave before making partner because they want families. These same lawyers claim that diverse lawyers leave because they “can’t hack it.” If you find these assumptions offensive, then do something about it. Start conducting exit interviews for all departing lawyers – even the ones you have asked to leave the firm – to discover the real reasons 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, organisational, or interpersonal issues that may be adversely impacting your firm and its lawyers. On the softer side, exit interviews can demonstrate to all lawyers 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. Some firms use the information gathered from their exit interviews to drive their professional development programming, which can further be developed into training series to address the topic, such as working lunch meetings. To enable the firm to effectively utilise the feedback gathered, exit interviews need to be conducted in an organised 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.

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, to ensure clear interpretation of the answer. For example:

A good question, single variable: Did your supervising lawyer give you performance feedback?

A bad question, multiple variables: Did your supervising lawyer give you performance feedback throughout the year and for your annual review?

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 lawyers will tolerate answering. Additionally, keeping it as short as possible while still receiving the information you need will boost departing lawyer 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 lawyer.

The Who

Who is the best person in your firm to conduct an exit interview? Think about who your lawyers would most likely respond honestly to during this transition. Review your firm’s organisational 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?

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 lawyers’ wellbeing and career success – whether in their firm or in the legal industry as a whole. Another option is to consider using a third party to conduct exit interviews.

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. If the lawyer was asked to leave the firm, you might inquire if an exit interview should be offered or not. In most cases even terminated lawyers 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 lawyer feel comfortable answering your questions. Assure the lawyer that no negative consequences will result from honest discussion during the exit interview. Though they are leaving the firm, departing lawyers might hesitate in answering the questions honestly.

If your firm supports this, inform the lawyer that their individual feedback will not be shared unless it is about unethical behaviour or behaviour 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 lawyer spread rumours 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 lawyer. 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.

`The best way to open the line of questioning is to begin withunderstanding why the lawyer 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?

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 lawyers 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 lawyers might leave in search of firms that can fill their plate.

The Data

What is the best way to share the information gathered from exit surveys? If you used an electronic survey that follows a standardised 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 17percent 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 analysing 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 lawyers comment on the same issue, person, office, procedure, etc.

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 analysing 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. Displaying themes in a report will be a matter of writing style, as it is challenging to turn them into a graph or chart. For example, you could chart the top reasons why people leave and the percentage of departing lawyers 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.

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. The report can be sent to the leaders of areas, offices, or departments that have been identified to have a problem, to firm leaders or to both.

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 lawyers 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 lawyers 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. 

Foley & Lardner, LLP (Miami, Florida, USA), Director of Professional Development/Diversity & Inclusion

Dr. Sharon Meit Abrahams is a legal talent development expert helping lawyers improve their productivity and profitability. She has conducted over 170 seminars on a wide variety of topics. Her audience has been the ABA, ALA, NALP, local bar associations, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Northwestern, University of Virginia, University of Chicago and Duke Law Schools.