Among the issues facing law firms is how to train new law school graduates in the art and practice of law in the midst of billing pressures and client concerns that they are footing the bill to train newly hired lawyers. There may be no tougher job in the legal profession than facilitating the transition of a first-year attorney into a functional, successful professional. According to a 2011 study by the Association of Corporate Counsel for The Wall Street Journal, internal cost controls have resulted in more companies refusing to pay for the work of first-year lawyers.
New attorneys graduate from law school with little, if any, practical experience. The cost of recruiting and then training young lawyers is enormous. Clients are no longer willing to pay for this learning curve. They want only experienced attorneys working on their matters, believing that they work more efficiently, saving the company money, notwithstanding higher hourly rates. The conundrum is that knowing the law is but one component of an attorney’s development and it is a universally accepted truth that the best way to become a good lawyer is by doing.
Relegating a new attorney to document review, proofreading and basic research for two years may be economical — and justifiably billable — but the attorney is not learning anything substantive. While most attorneys will agree that training and mentoring new attorneys is crucial for maintaining a skilled and ethical profession, growing pressure for billable hours in many firms has severely limited the number of firms willing to take the young attorneys under their wings. Unfortunately, however, such an approach results in frustrated associates, increases turnover and those who remain are significantly limited in their ability to “think like a lawyer.”
Law firms have the ability to help change the perception that first-year lawyers are incapable of contributing quality work. Changing this perception requires a firm’s sincere commitment to actually mentoring first-year attorneys as to how to practice. Mentoring not only fulfills a lawyer’s professional duty to supervise junior attorneys, but it also makes sense economically by reducing attrition and increasing the quality and efficiency of the young lawyer’s work.
Most successful attorneys — practitioners, judges and law professors — can identify those special individuals who influenced their approach to the law and the path of their career. When I was being trained, there was absolutely nothing an associate generated that was not first reviewed in depth by the assigning partner — often with the associate present — before it could leave the office. Then, new associates were rotated among several partners in order to learn how experienced attorneys analyzed claims and managed a particular client or case.
Today, the drive for billable hours has dramatically curtailed the ability of senior attorneys to engage in nonbillable activities, and true mentoring is often considered economically unfeasible as the business community resists having young attorneys working on their files — companies want senior attorneys who know the law and know how to write.
Associates today are as focused on work-life balance as they are on advancing their careers. Attorneys move from firm to firm, where their prior training might conflict with their new firm’s operating protocols. Young associates also become very frustrated at receiving an assignment with little or no direction from the partner in charge. That frustration grows when the associate’s time is written off by the firm as inferior because of the time expended reviewing and revising by the partner in charge.
Law firms must realize that strong training and mentoring programs are economically feasible to the extent the firm produces more sophisticated legal analysis and better writing skills from the trainees. Firms must be willing to budget these programs if they expect to produce good attorneys. Firms need to make an investment in their own futures and recognize that the up-front investment in training and mentoring will pay off in stability and quality lawyering.
Law schools could be doing much more to allow a new attorney to seamlessly move from the classroom to the conference room or the courtroom. Not enough law schools provide opportunities for real-world application. Knowing the law is quite different from applying it to a particular set of facts and/or analyzing a client’s exposure to liability. As one Midwestern law school’s motto states, it is a “Law School for the Real World.” New attorneys often lack the ability to think like a lawyer. There is too much that law schools do not teach that might otherwise prepare first-year attorneys for the real world. A stronger focus on internships remains an excellent way for first-year associates to hone their skills, gain real-world experience and learn about diverse areas of the law. Creating relationships with nonprofits and legal aid organizations, which are so desperately in need of manpower, is a great vehicle to get law students more hands-on experience. More internships at more law schools would go a long way to producing first-year associates with a skill set that is transferable to the real world of private practice.
Mentoring is still the norm with judicial clerkships, and the possibility of being mentored by a senior lawyer remains one of the reasons many new lawyers initially forego the financial benefits of private practice. Private practitioners can implement a broad range of programming to train and mentor first-year lawyers. Some best practices are:
• Establish and communicate written protocols.
The orientation process is critical. It is during this time that new attorneys are trained in the firm’s internal case-handling protocols. Such protocols address the process of accounting for, recording and submitting time; communicating with clients; communicating with supervising attorneys; and writing client status reports, among other tasks essential to ensure good business practices and important workflow tasks.
• Conduct in-house CLEs.
At Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo, partners conduct in-house continuing legal education programs for associates. Even though actual CLE credits may not be awarded, attendance is required, and all attorneys ultimately benefit from the teachings of experienced practitioners.
• Practice group presentations.
New associates should be tasked with explaining to their respective practice groups new legal developments or an interesting matter in which the firm was involved or of which the firm’s attorneys need to be aware. Through practice groups, new attorneys are exposed to and engage in discussions regarding new legal developments or interesting issues with which the firm was involved.
• Assign mentors.
Mentoring for new associates is more critical today than at any time in the history of the profession. Law firms that invest in formal mentoring programs for their associates are more likely to retain top talent than those that offer only financial incentives for such things as billable hours. Mentoring provides that real-life window into the practice of law, the ability to learn the tricks of the trade, as well as quality oversight of the legal skills needed to excel. For new attorneys, mentoring can be a critical component to finding success and happiness in the practice of law and can accelerate personal and professional growth. The results positively impact the entire firm as productivity and collegiality increases. Mentoring should be considered a cornerstone to associate development, and to execute on this commitment, firms should implement formal mentoring policies and programs. Young lawyers must recognize, however, that the most successful mentoring happens when they also take responsibility for making the mentoring relationship work. Young lawyers should be proactive and make themselves someone who others want to mentor — demonstrate a positive attitude and be a good listener who is receptive to criticism.
• Facilitate “on-the-job” training.
There is no substitute for the opportunity to observe, firsthand, how the practice of law operates. Firms should initiate a skills-development program designed to incorporate practical training that most law schools simply do not provide. In addition to that training, new associates should be given the opportunity to attend depositions, witness interviews, hearings and strategy meetings, even if they do not have any responsibility for that particular matter.
Training and mentoring can make substantial contributions to a firm’s economic success by reducing turnover, improving integration of new attorneys into the firm and increasing the rate at which junior associates can work independently. Taking time and interest in mentoring young associates will create a positive work environment where the associates know they are valued and sends the message that the firm cares. In the end, lawyers will have greater career satisfaction, be better trained and the firm’s clients will be best served. The bottom line: Mentoring associates is simply good for business.
• Possible solutions to billing pitfalls.
The need to meet a firm’s billing requirement is the most common obstacle to a good mentoring program. One solution is to record the time an attorney spends on a learning activity that cannot be charged to a client to a nonchargeable account and at the same time attribute the time toward the attorney’s billing targets. Law firms could alternatively allocate junior attorneys a bank of hours to be used for professional training, such as sitting in on a mediation that the junior attorney would probably not be doing for several years. The time would be credited to the attorney’s billable requirements but not charged to clients. While these approaches will likely have a short-term impact on the firm’s bottom line, the learning will far outweigh the loss.
In the end, law firms cannot abdicate their responsibility and role in producing the newest generation of lawyers. While the recent recession has changed the paradigm whereby clients are no longer willing to absorb the cost of training their future outside lawyers, law firms must actively plan and work to ensure that the profession thrives as the mantle is passed to future generations.
Philip R. Voluck is the managing partner of Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo. He has concentrated his practice for the last 32 years in the area of employment practices liability, with a particular emphasis on defending and resolving claims of sexual harassment, employment discrimination and wrongful discharge.