What can a law firm do to energize its associates?
First, the law firm must clearly articulate the importance of the work associates do, not in terms of billable hours or profits per partner, but rather in terms of how the work benefits clients. Many associates decided to become lawyers because they wanted to contribute in a meaningful way. They will find their work worthwhile when they can re-ignite that sense of making a contribution that matters. Second, law firm leaders need to clearly articulate where the firm is going, how it plans to get there, what are its core values and how each lawyer, both partner and associate, is expected to contribute. If a firm does this well, it will have gone a long way to energize its associates. It will also have created a sense of affiliation and teamwork mentioned by the authors of Aligning the Stars.
Firms then need to empower associates to achieve the firm goals. I believe this is best done by working with each associate individually and listening and understanding what makes him or her unique and special. I strongly recommend that each associate, with the help of a mentor, set goals and develop a plan to achieve them. Associates need to take control of their careers to feel empowered and setting stretch goals and having a plan is the first step to empowerment. The goals should focus on what they want to learn and what they want to achieve and should focus on their individual needs and dreams and stretch them. When associates take control of their careers, set stretch goals and have a plan to achieve them, they will achieve at higher levels and will be more excited about their future.
Law firms then need to give feedback, especially positive feedback and constructive feedback.  The concept is simple and the reasons for it clearly understood, but getting partners to actually do it takes real effort. Law firms need to make sure their supervising lawyers are constantly giving real time feedback and that it is not simply criticism. As David Maister points out, satisfaction is driven in part by coaching. Looking at the great teams in sports, the coaches play a huge role in the team’s success. They recognize that each player is different and they know how to push the right buttons to get the player to perform at a peak level. Law firms too often limit feedback to year end reviews and rarely give praise when an associate does an outstanding job. In many cases, to push the right buttons, it is actually more important to let associates know when they have done an outstanding job and let them know how much their work is appreciated. As Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles suggest in Gung Ho, when criticism of an associate’s work is warranted, it should be done in a way that encourages the associate and shows specifically how the work could be improved.
In summary, law firms will be more successful when they raise the level of career satisfaction of their lawyers. Firms can do this by making sure associates understand their importance and the importance of what they are doing.  Then if they feel responsible and in control of their careers and they receive feed back from supervising attorney, they will more likely stay with the firm and do outstanding work for the firm’s clients.  Interestingly, law firms have complete control over accomplishing this goal, yet few are really doing it.