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Gone are the days when training for new associates consisted of a few days of lessons on using the firm’s computers, phones, and photocopiers, peppered with some welcome lunches and cocktail parties. Now associates can expect online courses, podcasts, retreats, role-playing events, multiple mentors, writing instructors, and career coaches as part of firms’ attempts to broaden and deepen their training for associates. The expansion of firms’ professional development programs comes about as the battle for legal talent grows increasingly fierce and the attrition rate for associates continues to rise. Despite escalating associate salaries, firms have learned that the money just isn’t enough. “There’s a lot of competition to keep an associate,” says Michael Nardotti, a partner at Patton Boggs who is in charge of the firm’s training program. Firms need to show recruits that they are dedicated to helping associates build their careers, he says. SELLER’S MARKET “It’s a seller’s market,” says James Jones, vice president of Hildebrandt, a professional-services consulting firm, and director of the Hildebrandt Institute, the firm’s executive-education arm. “The battle for talent has become as competitive, if not more competitive, than the battle for clients,” Jones says. One reason, he says, is that although the top law firms have grown dramatically in the past two decades, the number of law school graduates has risen only slightly. Since 1986, when The American Lawyer first published a list of the 100 highest-grossing firms in the United States, the total number of lawyers in the AmLaw 100 has increased by 170 percent, growing from 25,994 in 1986 to 70,161 in 2005. In that same time period, the number of law degrees awarded by American Bar Association-approved law schools has risen only 8.7 percent, from 36,829 in 1986 to 40,023 in 2005. As a result of this competition, most large D.C. law firms followed the trend in major legal markets last spring and raised starting salaries for first-year associates to $135,000, while some D.C. offices of national firms have jumped to $145,000. Despite the increase, high salaries have not been enough to stem associate discontent. “The implicit bargain has changed,” Jones says. In an age of increased job mobility, in which associates have low expectations of making partner and the vast majority of them will leave their law firms within five years, recruits are looking to get the training that will best prepare them for the next step in their career. So they’re paying more attention to the various programs firms offer. Managing partners say attracting and retaining the right lawyers is high on their list of priorities, says Jones, managing partner of Arnold & Porter from 1986 to 1995. Although firms count on a certain amount of attrition in order to avoid a glut of partnership decisions, they want to make sure they don’t lose the lawyers they actually want to keep, he says. The numbers show that to be no easy feat. A 2005 study by the National Association for Legal Placement, which surveyed firms of every size in every market, found the annual attrition rate to be 19 percent, the highest ever documented. The data show that nearly 80 percent of associates leave their firms by the end of their fifth year, up from 64.6 percent in 1997. WHY THEY LEAVE The move to more formalized professional development programs began in earnest about five years ago, after the release of a 2001 NALP study, “The Lateral Lawyer: Why They Leave and What May Make Them Stay.” The study found that professional development opportunities, or the lack of them, was the factor most frequently cited as having been key in associates’ decisions to make job changes. “It’s only in the last five years that people have understood the importance of professional development and are taking it seriously by making a significant investment in resources,” says Caren Ulrich Stacy, Arnold & Porter’s director of professional development and the author of Loyalty by Design: A Practical Guide to Developing an Associate Integration Program. Firms used to be small enough, and the practice of law slow-paced enough, that interaction between associates and partners could take place spontaneously. But increased demands on time and the ever-growing size of firms mean there is less contact between senior partners and associates and more potential for people to get lost in the shuffle. Professional development programs seek to formalize “what people used to learn informally at the elbow of a partner,” says Gihan Fernando, the assistant dean for career services at Georgetown University Law Center. In the past, law firm training programs were coordinated mainly by the human resources department. More recently, firms began creating dedicated professional development departments. “It was a relatively unheard-of position five years ago,” says Marci Krufka, a principal with the legal consultant firm Altman Weil. But now, she notes, the Professional Development Consortium, the trade association for legal professional development administrators and directors, counts more than 500 members. A big part of the push for better training has come from the associates themselves. Law students and associates know that the odds of making partner are remote, Fernando says. In interviews in the early 1990s, “candidates always asked me what the partnership track was,” Ulrich Stacy says. “Now I get that question once a season.” Associates want the training and work experience that make them more marketable. “Associates want to make sure they can transfer their skills to whatever is next,” Ulrich Stacy says. Part of the motivation for the new programs also comes from a desire to implement some kind of “quality control” and standardize training across practice groups and offices as law firms grow into global behemoths, Krufka says. Moreover, with the hike in associate salaries and consequent uptick in billing rates, clients are demanding that associates be better trained, says Katie White, senior manager of professional development and attorney recruiting at Dickstein Shapiro. CORE COMPETENCIES In addition to expanding their programs on substantive legal subjects, a number of firms�including Arnold & Porter; Hogan & Hartson; Howrey; McDermott, Will & Emery; and Patton Boggs�have adopted a “core competencies approach,” in which they ask partners to develop a common understanding of what knowledge and skills associates in their practice area must master to be a successful member of the group. The idea is to give associates a clear idea of what benchmarks they need to hit at different points in their careers in terms of legal knowledge, practical skills, client-relationship skills, and leadership. The professional development department works with the partners to develop the appropriate training programs and make sure associates also get the breadth of work experience needed to obtain those skills. Firms also ask associates to work with their mentors or supervising attorneys to create career-development plans tailored to their goals. In fact, Arnold & Porter hired a career-development coach to help associates draw up these plans, Stacy says. Law firms are also including more training in what they dub “soft skills,” including leadership, communication, management, and client relations, Hildebrandt’s Jones says. “If you tried to sell this to firms a few years ago, you’d be thrown out on your ear�accused of selling psychobabble,” Jones says. Many law firms have also beefed up their mentoring programs. For example, McDermott now assigns every new associate “an integration buddy,” usually a second- or third-year associate who is charged with helping the first-year navigate firm culture, according to Lisa Horowitz, the firm’s senior manager for professional development. A few months later the first-year gets a more formal mentor. Writing is another area getting a new emphasis. Howrey hired an in-house writing instructor in August to give associates more help with writing, says Heather Bock, Howrey’s director of professional development. Dickstein provides every associate with a partner or senior counsel in the firm who acts as a writing coach. Associates can get feedback on their writing before turning in them to the partner for whom they are working, White says. The firm has also brought in a consultant who does one-on-one training sessions with attorneys on speaking skills. Firms such as Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Howrey have rolled out “shadowing” programs, which give junior associates opportunities to observe trials, negotiation sessions, and high-profile meetings that they would otherwise not attend because clients do not want to pay for multiple attorneys to attend such events. Akin Gump’s program encourages more lawyers to bring junior attorneys to the events, and the firm is creating a nonbillable number for the new attorneys’ time. Firms are also tapping into high-tech methods, using webinars and video conferencing to reach associates in far-flung offices and putting courses online so associates can access them when they want. Howrey has now started making podcasts of some of its courses available. It’s probably too soon to tell whether all these programs will work, but professional development directors at several firms say they are running focus groups or doing surveys to see if their programs are geared to associates’ and partners’ expectations. One thing associates have called for�and received�are more options in client and business development.
Alexia Garamfalvi can be contacted [email protected].

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