Legal Eagles

How local law firms go about attracting, and retaining, good talent.

The New Orleans’ legal environment is unlike any other in the country.

A large, thriving port city, it also features a high concentration of employment in oilfields, chemical plants, refineries, liquid natural gas facilities and offshore rigs, which translates to an ever-present risk for industrial accidents, class action lawsuits and workers’ compensation claims.

“We have seen the nature of legal work in our region change dramatically,” says Alan Yacoubian, managing partner of local firm Johnson, Yacoubian & Paysse. “This area was inundated 10 years ago with Hurricane Katrina claims and litigation, and now we are seeing a major increase in construction projects and the development of business activity in this region that represents areas of growth for lawyers.”

According to a recently released economic impact study by Dr. Loren Scott, companies within the Port of South Louisiana jurisdiction spent $7.2 billion in capital projects between 2009 and 2013, and announcements have been made for potential expansions and new firms at the port from 2015 to 2020, amounting to $12.8 billion in new expenditures.

This massive influx of money, jobs and facilities into South Louisiana not just in these fields, but a wide variety of job sectors, has makes it more critical for law firms to attract and retain attorneys who can navigate Louisiana’s unique and complex legal system. However, prestige and pay scale are no longer the only components legal professionals take into account when considering employment at a firm.

“Historically there has been a pattern of lawyers arriving at the office early in the morning and working late into the night, but law firms realize that candidates have different priorities and would like to have a life outside of work,” says Sarka Fagan, assistant dean for career development at Tulane Law School. “Those considerations are taken into account before new graduates accept an offer from a law firm.”

“We’re willing to sit down and talk to any good attorney that’s looking to join a larger firm,” – Lawrence Chehardy, Managing General Partner, Chehardy Sherman Williams
Photo courtesy of Chehardy Sherman Williams

While some firms offer part-time positions, non-partnership tracks and lower thresholds for billable hours, Fagan says that putting in the time to develop skill and professional instincts is still crucial for an attorney’s success. “It’s the practice of law,” she says. “You do need to work, and the more you do, in theory at least, the better you’ll get.”

Firm culture is another trait that job seekers are evaluating when as they seek employment.

Culture compatibility, such as the level of formality within a law firm and availability of long-term partners, are some of the characteristics that candidates observe. On the flip side, law firms want lawyers that are driven to build long-term, successful careers and become a respected member within their established community of lawyers.

“Local firms realize there’s more to getting top talent than collecting resumes with high GPAs,” Fagan says.

The abundance of job-seeking attorneys means that law firms don’t have to pound the pavement by attending every law school recruiting event during hiring season.

“We advertise on the LSU Law School career site, but due to our 100 percent focus on tax resolution, attorneys who know they want to work in this area of law tend to seek us out,” says Cary Bryson, attorney with Bryson Law Firm out of Baton Rouge. “We also proactively network open positions amongst attorneys who have the skills we know will work well with our tax resolution clients.”

Bryson says the firm has a strong dedication to maintaining an attorney’s work/life balance. “We believe faith and family are of utmost importance,” he says. “We make sure staff members make time for vacation, we celebrate milestones with them — from crawfish boils to ice cream socials — and we help them grow their skills. Recently our staff did a two-day concentrated training with Bob McKinsey, a renowned tax resolution attorney/enrolled agent.”

Lawrence Chehardy, managing general partner with Chehardy Sherman Williams, says lawyers with several years of experience usually seek out his firm because of its reputation in the legal community and the extensive areas of practice.

“We’re a large firm that’s able to do a lot of different work with a lot of different clients, and we get attorneys who are in a practice area where they need more support and want to work at a larger firm that is more conducive to growing their practice,” Chehardy says.

The firm often invites law clerks to stay on after their clerkship is complete and once they pass the bar.

“We’re willing to sit down and talk to any good attorney that’s looking to join a larger firm,” Chehardy says.

The formula has worked well; Chehardy says there is very little turnover of the attorneys and staff at his firm. One administrative assistant recently retired after 40 years of working for the same lawyer.

“She started working for him basically after he got out of law school and stayed with him for the rest of her career,” Chehardy says.

He believes that the longevity of careers at his firm can be attributed to the culture of mentorship and support.

“We really don’t distinguish between law schools. The law school doesn’t determine the quality of the person,” – Alan Yacoubian of Johnson, Yacoubian & Paysse
Photo courtesy Johnson, Yacoubian & Paysse

“I think we have a good work environment, which is paramount. Lawyers who work here have found that they can represent a client and do their job in a good, supportive atmosphere. Our newer and younger employees work closely with more established attorneys and receive training that way. Law school teaches students the law, a law firm teaches them how to be lawyers. It’s a critical component in a new lawyer’s career to be able to work closely with established and experienced attorneys,” Chehardy says.

Yacoubian says that word of mouth and having a solid professional reputation are ideal ways to attract and keep top talent. He adds that lawyers at his firm are seen as an energetic, accessible group with the ability to practice in a broad cross section of the law.

 “I like to meet with a wide range of job candidates because you never know,” he says. “Some of our best hires have come from someone suggesting I give them a call.”

A firm’s profile can be raised in the legal community by the professional titles key partners hold and the clients they represent. For example, Yacoubian is general counsel for the Louisiana Restaurant Association and Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Louisiana.

Like many other firms, Yacoubian’s also attracts potential candidates through a law clerk recruiting program and via his firm’s presence and reputation in court.

 “Some of our attorneys come from the judicial system. After gaining experience as law clerks and exposure to our attorneys and how we work, they approach us when they look to move into the private practice,” Yacoubian says.

The firm, he says, does not favor one law school over another during recruiting season.

“We really don’t distinguish between law schools. All four schools [in Louisiana] have qualified candidates that we’re interested in meeting. The law school doesn’t determine the quality of the person,” he says.

Johnson, Yacoubian & Paysse offers three months’ paid parental leave and pays for all or part of every employee’s health insurance. Yacoubian says paid leave is crucial for the success of his firm.

“We have found over the years that our best associate attorneys are the ones we have the most experience with—the ones who started here as law clerks.” – Patricia LeBlanc of Leblanc Partners
Photo courtesy Leblanc Partners

“It allows families to develop and grow while offering job security,” he says. “Our firm is dedicated to creating opportunities for lawyers who are committed to the practice of law. At the same time, the legal profession is not for the faint of heart. It’s critical in any career that you love what you do.”

Julie Prechter, director of attorney recruiting and professional development for Jones Walker LLP, says the firm enjoys higher than average retention rates.

“We focus on the professional development of our lawyers throughout their career,” she says. “Recently, we re-launched a formal mentoring program. The firm conducts marketing and business development training for our lawyers and offers monthly skills-based training courses within our specific practices.” Jones Walker currently handles work in more than 30 areas of practice and several additional subspecialties — from admiralty and maritime to venture capital and emerging companies.

“The firm’s practice needs vary,” she says, “so we are always on the lookout for great attorneys.”

With fewer positions to fill, smaller firms may depend on talent observation rather than heavy recruiting activities.

“We are not a big firm, so when we make a hire, it is a big investment for us and we need to be fairly confident that the person we are bringing in will suit from a personality perspective as well as work ethic,” says Patricia LeBlanc, partner with LeBlanc Partners. “We have found over the years that our best associate attorneys are the ones we have the most experience with — the ones who started here as law clerks. Clerking gives us the opportunity to get to know potential associates and see if there could be a good fit.  This has enabled us to keep turnover down. Our associate attorneys generally do stay for five years or longer.”

Judicial clerkships abound in New Orleans due to the presence of federal and state court systems located within the city.

 “They bring an extra year of experience, organization and legal writing, which is valuable,” LeBlanc says.

  LeBlanc’s retention strategy is similar to other firms — allow attorneys flexibility to flourish in their personal and professional lives.

“We have found that young associate attorneys are focused on jobs which will give them as much experience as possible and will also be flexible in terms of their personal schedules or family situations. That is the advantage to working in a firm like this one. You get experience on a variety of issues. We also can be much more accommodating in terms of schedules,” LeBlanc says.



Categories: Legal, Maritime, The Magazine