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The business of hiring, developing and retaining new lawyers is decidedly not what it used to be. In 1907, a prominent Wall Street firm wrote to a young Franklin D. Roosevelt offering him a position as an associate, “the first year without salary”-and the future president accepted the offer. That same firm now pays summer associates more than $10,000 per month. At the beginning of the 20th century, a firm that made the decision to invest in a new lawyer’s potential could rest assured that, if the associate lived up to his promise (and the new lawyer was almost always a male), he likely would remain with the firm for his entire career. Today, firms that fail to take seriously the challenges of recruiting, training, mentoring and work-life issues can count on increasing turnover to such an extent that, by one estimate, nearly 50% of any given group of entering associates likely will leave the firm within three years. This trend illustrates fairly dramatically the challenges faced by major law firms in recruiting and retaining a generation of lawyers who, unlike FDR, are unlikely to be content working for free on terms dictated by the firm. NALP, “Beyond the Bidding Wars: A Survey of Associate Attrition, Departure Destinations and Workplace Incentives.” See www.nalpfoundation.org/webmodules/articles/anmviewer.asp?a=64 . There are additional seismic forces that challenge the legal recruiting establishment. Between 1986 and 2005, the number of lawyers employed by the nation’s 100 largest law firms nearly tripled, from roughly 25,000 to more than 70,000. Since those are the firms that historically have focused their recruiting efforts on the top students at the law schools traditionally regarded as most prestigious, and since the population of top students at top schools has not increased measurably over the past 20 years, there is intense competition for that fixed pool of candidates, leading smart legal recruiters to identify other sources of equally strong talent that might not yet have been noticed by the competition. In addition, over the past decade or so, top law students have been targeted not only by traditional law firm recruiters, but also by investment banks, hedge funds, consulting firms and other employers, with the result that not even the most sterling of white-shoe law firms can any longer take for granted its ability to recruit the editor of an Ivy League law review. If legal recruiting presents an increasing challenge, development and retention pose an even larger issue for law firm leaders. Many private practitioners have observed that law school curricula appear every year to grow more disconnected from the day-to-day practice of law; it is increasingly rare to find a recent law school graduate who has taken coursework in remedies, agency or commercial paper, and increasingly common to find recent grads who have studied Icelandic blood feuds, game theory and Foucault. That means that law firms must not only train new lawyers, but must interest them in the practice of law in the first place. It means that law firms must grapple with the fact that junior lawyers realize that their skills can be put to good use outside of private practice. As lawyers with special needs and interests seek flexibility both within and outside the law firm marketplace, law firm leaders have focused on programs designed to retain the talent it took so long to recruit and develop at the outset. The changing climate suggests the need for a systematic inventory of best practices whereby savvy law firm leaders can continue to recruit the best talent, and then protect that investment through development and retention initiatives that address the changing needs and concerns of newly minted lawyers and those who will follow shortly in their footsteps. Here are some candidates for best practices in talent development. First, firms should recognize that the top student at the 50th-ranked law school may well be as desirable as the 50th-ranked student at the top law school. Lawyers are a conservative breed, and there is a strong tendency among recruiters to focus their attention on the same 10 law schools at which their predecessors recruited decades ago. There are many problems with that approach, not least of which is that law firms today are trying to fill almost three times as many slots as they did 20 years ago from a pool of “Top 10″ schools that have approximately the same number of students they had in the mid-1980s. Beyond that, the top few students at less well recognized schools can be standout performers for a variety of reasons. Often, the top student at a less highly ranked institution chose to attend that school for financial or family reasons having nothing to do with ability. Perhaps he or she was employed in a sufficiently responsible career position-always a good sign to the legal recruiter-that relocation was not a practical option. In some cases, the top students at less well known schools have a certain ineffable drive, perhaps because the employment statistics are not as favorable at such schools as at traditional Top 10 schools. Second, firms should structure summer program activities to mirror real life. Summer programs traditionally have been known for two things: meals in fancy restaurants and library research projects. Yet a law firm’s summer program should give students a chance to envision their prospective life as a new associate and to test their commitment to practice areas and interests they have developed in law school. Summer associates with an interest in appellate practice, for example, should be given an opportunity to live the experience in a workshop. They can prepare a full appellate brief based on the facts and issues presented in a case currently being litigated by attorneys in the firm. The summer associates can conduct intensive research using electronic materials, then submit their brief and present oral argument in front of a distinguished panel of outside judges. The program could entail an all-nighter or two, and while some students who previously expressed interest in appellate practice might change their minds, everyone will come out with a much better understanding of what that practice area is like for the practicing attorney. Some firms have developed programs designed to provide a real-life glimpse into corporate transactions, trial practice and other practice areas that can never be fully appreciated from a library carrel.

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