GG just posted this about the "hemmorhaging" of associates at her firm. I witnessed a similar thing at my old firm (though I might not use the term "hemmorhaging"), and I've heard similar tales from several friends from various and sundry other BigLaw firms. The endemic nature of this associate attrition indicates that it might be a byproduct of the BigLaw business model rather than the result of any particular shortcomings at any particular firm. This is borne out by the fact that the overwhelming majority of associates I know who have left their firms didn't go to other BigLaw firms. As with the folks GG mentions, these associates have gone in-house, gone into entirely different legal (or non-legal practices), or just up and quit to figure out the next stage of their lives. I've also known female associates to take maternity leave and never come back.
For a young associate, particularly a first- or second-year, witnessing the outflow of senior associates is jarring. On a personal level, the ship-jumpers are often people that the junior associate has become friends with, or at least enjoyed having around. On a professional level it also shakes the junior associate's confidence in their own long-term prospects at the firm and the firm's general ability to retain talent. I think the problem here isn't the fact that associates quit. It's the fact that law students don't realize how common this is when they decide to join a large firm. Firms obviously don't advertise their attrition rates, and some go so far as to claim that they want everyone they hire to make partner. But, as has been said many a time, law firms operate on a modified pyramid scheme model. As a matter of simple mathematics, no law firm is sustainable if every one of their associates, or even a majority of their associates, make partner. The model presumes that many associates will opt out along the way.
In addition to law firms' failure to acknowledge this reality, difficulty often arises where firm management fails to adequately deal with its ramifications. As associates leave partners are often left with both a shortage of available talent to handle the firm's workload and a great deal of head-scratching as to how the firm might retain associates for longer stretches. Again, these problems trickle down to associates, who are slammed with inflated workloads and once again left with uncertainty as to the firm's ability to maintain its staff. The problem may be further exacerbated by the claims in this article, sent to me by Tom, which argues that the large firm model encourages partners to jealously guard the types of knowledge transfer that would enable associates to contribute more to the firm.
Associate attrition doesn't have to be a problem. But if law students, associates and partners were more open about the fact that not every associate is going to make it through the eye of the needle, the psychological effects of attrition could be minimized, and firm management might be more successful at striking a balance between having productive, happy, and semi-long-term associates and facilitating exit for people who aren't on the partner track.