Lately we're seeing a lot of blathering in the legal trade press and blogs such as Above The Law, among others, about what many people feel is an imminent rollback in salaries for newly-minted lawyers. The press is fixated on BigLaw firms' leaders' reluctance to be first to do what seems fundamentally sensible. If you read BigLaw associates' comments in the blogosphere, you'd think that the firms were considering a capital crime.
While digesting all this drama, I came across a blog post by Seth Godin, the author of Permission Marketing (among many titles) and IMHO just about the most sensible commentator on modern marketing strategy, tactics and behavior.
In his March 23, 2009 post, Seth skewers the marketing failure exhibited by exorbitant salaries. He begins with Wall St.'s lament that unless they can pay someone eight figures, they can't recruit. Law firm associates' salaries come under his lens, too. Here's a taste:
If you were a law student, the choice was easy...You didn't have to know anything about the firm, apparently, other than the fact that they were top tier, and the way you knew that was because they paid a lot.
There's no real effort made to market the jobs, just to race to the top (or the bottom, depending on your point of view) with the easiest marketing signal of all. Price. Yes, it's exactly the same as a retailer trying to improve business by being the cheapest."
The message to angst-ridden BigLaw managing partners paralyzed by the fear of being the first to do what they all know they have to do: Don't worry. The only candidates you'll lose are those who only view your firm through the simplest lens, price. The irony is that these elite firms don't compete for clients on price. Why compete for talent on that self-defeating basis?
You've seen the way the American public reacted to what they consider obscene pay for non-performance. How confident are you that your clients aren't reacting similarly to you paying $160,000 to newly-minted lawyers who can't yet do anything of value, yet for whom you'll ask clients to pay $250 an hour for what is essentially on-the-job training?
Stop worrying about how law students will react to you making a (belatedly) sane decision and pull the trigger on the salary reduction.
Now, you still have to recruit first-year lawyers every year. Here's how.
Start by thinking like the serious headhunters you use to lure seasoned talent away from other firms. They're not recruiters; they're marketers. They're selling your firm's opportunity.
To change your mindset, change your vocabulary.
You're not "recruiting"; that's an HR function. You're marketing a professional career opportunity. HR's mindset is “I need...,” as in “I need X, Y and Z qualifications.”
A marketer's mindset is, “If you're qualified, you'll want what we have here...,” as in “Here's why someone like you will want to work here.”
Sell more than the salary. If a big salary is all that a talented lawyer will get out of working at your firm, no one should work there, including you. Close the doors today.
Think of these associate opportunities as you would one of your firm's services. Profile the characteristics of those who will be most successful and fulfilled in that job, and most appreciative of the opportunity to have it. “Who wants to be here?”
Target those people with a message that aligns with their career goals and personal aspirations. Communicate that message in trusted channels that reach your profiled audience. If nobody wants it, it's time to change your firm to make it sufficiently attractive to the talent you need.