High Flight Risk and Quest for Retention

Over coffee, Max told me that his friend and co-worker, Judy, had been designated a “high flight risk”.  I knew that term to refer to a person unable to obtain bail in a criminal proceeding.  Furthermore, Max said that he envied Judy and that he wished he, too, had earned a reputation as a high flight risk.

Max wasn’t referring to a criminal proceeding; he was referring to his place of employment, a sophisticated and profitable multi-national corporation.  There, people are carefully evaluated and those most prized earn the status of being a high flight risk.  In turn, they are given the best the corporation can offer – promotions to management positions, opportunities to supervise others, more money.  Typically, being seen as a high flight risk is a big step up the corporate ladder.

Judy, however, did not want to assume a management position nor supervise other people.  More than anything, she wanted to remain a subject matter expert.  She simply wanted to continue her studies and be the go-to person in her area of specialization.  If left to do that, she was content and no flight risk at all.   But if shoehorned into a management position, Judy might become the flight risk the corporation sought to avoid.

As for Max, he wants to be prized, appreciated for the contributions he makes for the corporate cause, both nationally and internationally.  He’s curious about what a promotion and its prestige might offer.  Above all, Max does not want to be taken for granted, seen as a man without ambition who might never fly beyond the confines of his current position.


Law firms face the same challenge as business faces, that is, how to retain those who are most valuable.  Sometimes a well-intentioned policy has unintended consequences, as illustrated by Max’s account of the high flight risk program where he’s employed.  There, both Max and Judy are frustrated by the program.  Their retention is not assured at all.

What lessons might be learned from Max’s and Judy’s experience?  And what have I learned coaching high-performance people, both lawyers and corporate executives?  Well intentioned efforts are made to retain these people, for they are talented and prized for the contributions they make.  Yet many leave for other endeavors.

  1. Ask for what you want. It seems too obvious to suggest that it’s important to ask for what is wanted.  Yet, too often people don’t ask.  The absence of dialogue handicaps the law firm or corporation in understanding the needs of the employee.  The employer can easily be clueless and assume that the usual rewards and incentives are all that is needed or wanted.  As for the employee, it may seem safe to say nothing, yet advocating for self is a skill worth cultivating.  Often, speaking-up is respected, even admired.  Certainly, remaining silent is no guarantee of being understood or accommodated.


  1. If possible, provide what people want. In the work place, money is the usual reward for a job well done.  Yet money alone will not satisfy everyone.  Some people want more time with the family, opportunities for community service, additional training, a chance to do some pro-bono work, or a sabbatical.  It’s understood that such opportunities sometimes impact income.  People are often satisfied with such a trade-off.


  1. Core values will change over a lifetime and from generation to generation. What is wanted at age 20 or 30 is seldom what is wanted at 40 or 50, or at 60 or 70.  Generational differences exist, as well.


Frederic Hudson, Ph.D. a pioneer in the field of adult development, studied the biographies of hundreds of successful adults and found six different core values in the lives he studied.   These values are an internal energy source, the fire or determination that fuels an adult life.  The six core values are identified in Dr. Hudson’s book, “The Adult Years: Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal”:


Personal Power – Claiming Yourself:  creating an identity, a positive sense of self, clear ego boundaries, courage.


Achievement – Proving Yourself:  making partner, winning cases, reaching goals, working, winning, having ambition, getting results and recognition and money, being purposeful and doing a lot.


Intimacy – Sharing Yourself:  loving, bonding, being intimate, making relationships work, feeling close, parenting, being a friend.


Play and Creativity – Expressing Yourself:  being imaginative, intuitive, spontaneous, original, expressive, humorous, artistic.


Search for Meaning – Integrating Yourself:  finding wholeness, integrity, peace, an inner connection to all things, spirituality, trust in the flow of life, inner wisdom.


Compassion and Contribution – Leave a Legacy:  leaving the world a better place, being generative, social action and environmental caring, institution building, volunteerism.


These core values change over a lifetime, from creating an identity in the early years to leaving a legacy in later life.  What is valued at one time of life will shift to reflect the core values at another time of life.  It’s important for the lawyer/employee to know that, as it is for the law firm/corporation. As core values shift, money alone will not necessarily be the prize throughout the adult life.


  1. Do not prize retention above all. Sometimes a law firm or corporation can not satisfy what the attorney or employee wants.  For example, sometimes an attorney leaves a law firm for a judicial appointment, a law school position, an opportunity to serve a government agency, or to join a business.  The law is a versatile profession and changing course is one of the opportunities available to the lawyer.  In such a situation, the law firm hasn’t failed; the lawyer has simply made another choice.

From where I stand, it’s as important for the lawyer to ask for what is wanted as it is for the law firm to listen.  In this dialogue, a respectful accommodation can often be found.  At other times, what is being asked is for an opportunity the law firm simply cannot provide.  What a law firm provided earlier in the career of the lawyer may no longer satisfy the lawyer.  It isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault.  It may simply be that core values have shifted, or that some other objective is being sought.  A strategy to retain the high flight risk will not always succeed.  Sometimes attrition is inevitable, an outcome to be celebrated.

Minnesota Lawyer – November 27, 2017