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Comment: Why giving associates exposure to clients could be a win-win scenario

Law firms spend big money making sure they have the best junior lawyers. A newly qualified lawyer at a Magic Circle firm can expect to take home over £100,000 a year.

But what do clients really think of those highly paid associates?

According to data from Legalease Research Services, which contacts over 150,000 clients in the UK annually to provide assessments of law firm service, clients rate the quality of associates at many of the UK top-25 law firms as just so-so.

As you can see from the chart below, the quality of associates is rated as less impressive than the quality of partners; overall sector and industry knowledge; and (rather surprisingly) overall value for money that top-25 law firms provide.

Client criteria

Why are junior lawyers scoring relatively poorly?

Part of that is understandable – they are less experienced, so will likely be less impressive than their senior colleagues. But when we delve into client comments, we see that a lot of the time clients have pretty much zero exposure to associates and mark them down as a result. They don’t have a clue what junior lawyers do because they deal solely with their relationship partner.

‘The visibility and control exercised by the partner makes it hard to comment on the quality of associates as they were not visible,’ said one client of a top 25 firm. ‘I do not deal with their associates,’ said another of a transatlantic firm.

‘I didn’t deal with any associates directly, but I assume that they were supporting the partner behind the scenes?’ said the client of another top 25 firm. It goes on.

It is understandable that partners are cautious about letting junior lawyers loose on clients. A duff bit of advice or an email sent in error by a junior employee can damage a valued client relationship. But using junior lawyers effectively by allowing them to deal directly with the client at judicious moments or on simple matters can also make matters run more smoothly. The data also shows that the firms that are rated highest for the quality of their associates are also rated very well for how well they communicate with their clients and manage cases.

Some of this maybe correlation and not causation but giving associates more leeway to deal with clients may boost overall client service. Instead of all communication and work having to go through the bottleneck of a single partner on a matter, things can run more smoothly if junior lawyers are able to step in and do their thing at the appropriate time.

It could also improve job satisfaction and wellbeing among junior lawyers, as it is a common gripe that they don’t get enough exposure to clients. At a time when law firms are hiking salaries to keep their juniors on board, giving them more access to clients could be an easy fix to boost both the satisfaction of both clients and junior lawyers themselves.

Going back to the client comments, we see that when clients do get to deal with associates they generally think they are top notch. ‘We have worked with a variety of associates in different areas of expertise and have been impressed by their thoroughness, diligence and confidence,’ said one client.

‘Really impressive mid-level associates. I would be happy to have more associate-led work on this basis,’ said another. ‘Always there when you wanted them, nothing too much trouble. Lovely people to work with,’ said a third.

It is food for thought. If the associates are good, clients don’t mind dealing with them and it could actually increase the overall satisfaction levels of both clients and junior lawyers.

Becky Pritchard