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Firms pay a lot of attention at this time of year to the care and feeding of the incoming class of lawyers � and some firms don’t pay such attention again until associates become midlevels and are the focus of national surveys and recruiters’ calls. However, firms might want to consider placing more emphasis on associates in the formative years � those years immediately following the first year of practice. These formative years bear as much on legal careers as law school tiers, first-year grades and law review results. This is the time when associates distinguish themselves as keepers and when firms establish themselves as homes. Especially these days, since associates leave firms earlier in their careers, this is a critical time both for the firms and the associates. For law firm leaders, the business case for protecting the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in new associates ought to be reason enough to pay attention to the initial years. Firms can take early action to realize their investments. For firms driven or even guided by national rankings, which include the ratings of associate satisfaction, there are reputations to protect as well. At many firms, summer associates are spoiled, while first-year associates are mollycoddled and, after the second year, many young lawyers are left to find their own ways. Why should summer associates get better feedback, better mentoring, better assignments and better food than those with J.D.s and permanent offers? Law firm leaders would do well to focus the same kind of resources on integrating and retaining associates as they spend on recruiting them. Specifically, law firm partners might find it a good investment to provide junior lawyers with a steady stream of timely, candid feedback, plenty of training, mentoring and, if needed, extra coaching. The underdog associates who stumbled early should be given a second chance and the early bloomers should not become the default favorites yet. It is easy and even natural for partners to want to work with the rising stars, but not everyone starts out at a trot. At some firms, second-year associates are not forgotten. Special events designed just for them include meetings to review the details of the associate and staff evaluation processes, monthly meetings with an associate liaison, as well as a “You Survived Your First Year” happy hour. Junior associates need such attention, including a continuation of their education. They not only need to be taught the nuances of the substantive practices, but also the economics of the overall practice. How can these future partners be expected to start “taking ownership” if they don’t even understand the business of law? The next generation of law school graduates will be better prepared, since law schools now incorporate the practical aspects of practicing law in curriculums, but the current “juniors” need to learn the basics of law firm economics. In addition to teaching their young associates well, law firms need to continue to feed them work. Often, assigning partners concentrate on the newest mouths to feed. This forces some junior associates to find their own food, and some go hungry. An alternative approach would be for assigning partners to staff deals and cases creatively to begin to allow exposure to rainmakers and clients for all their young associates. Junior associates also need to know what is expected of them, including general benchmarks against which to measure their progress and specific individual goals. The young lawyers want to know what they need to do, and it is not always intuitive. Belonging Law firm leaders would do well to understand that associates stay where they feel they belong. Law firms could extend the welcome after the first year and maximize these lawyers’ experiences. After all, the associates will always be potential spokespeople and representatives of the firms, good reason for the bonds with them to be strengthened. In fact, all associates really are potential partners or clients, and well-led firms treat them accordingly. Key to this is strengthening associate relations, the connections between associates and the firms. It starts with successful integration, which many associates are left to do on their own. Once the associates feel integrated, they need real mentoring, not just by random assignment without monitoring and follow up. Flexibility in a mentoring program allows for supplementation and even replacement of mentors. Some firms take the philosophy that it takes a whole firm to raise associates, and their firmwide mentoring programs allow associates to choose their own mentors and to supplement and change them as needed. Many associates at such firms have more than one mentor, and many mentors have more than one prot�g�. Besides getting integrated and mentored, all associates, not just the new ones, need a clear understanding of expectations, including an understanding of how to make partner. Young lawyers need to know there are futures for them at the firm. They need to know that partnership and other goals are attainable. This is how firms become homes to associates. Switching to the associates � the future partners and clients � they too have important responsibilities during these wonder years. In addition to getting prepared not to be spoiled anymore, young lawyers will find that the safety nets that accompany the first year of practice are by this time gone. Those safety nets include the idea that first-year associates are forgiven if they don’t quite hit their billable hours target, because they are new. Successful associates realize early that expectations increase with each year, and these associates stretch to meet the rising expectations. It is during these early years when most lawyers start “getting it” � when everything starts to click and they feel like they actually know what they are doing. Sure, the primary responsibility of every lawyer is to be the best lawyer possible, but just what does that mean? By the end of the first year of practice, a lawyer’s basic skill set, including analysis, judgment and communication skills, will have been proven, and any deficiencies addressed. New lawyers will be smart to seek out and heed feedback and be willing to resolve problems, including accepting any offered resources such as tutoring or coaching. Associates who tripped out of the starting blocks will need to win over negative reviewers. After all, this country’s largest law firms are full of comeback kids, who also stumbled early. By the second year of practice, written work product is expected be typo-free and concisely written, requiring no editing, (even though most partners can’t resist). Other basics that associates will want to have mastered during their formative years include an understanding of law firm economics, compliance with firm procedures and a keen awareness of professional responsibilities. Reputations are built in the formative years. Associates who demonstrate the requisite “fire in the belly” become recognized as “go-to associates.” For associates who need to start feeding themselves by finding their own sources of work, repeat business is a great option. Following up for feedback after an assignment is an easy way of asking for more work. The meek usually do not inherit the firm, so young lawyers will want to be assertive and ask to be staffed on deals or trials and to work for key clients and partners. No one likes to answer the phone on Friday at 5 p.m. in the summer, but those who sacrifice a few weekends early in their careers find that it is a great way to demonstrate the “can-do” attitude that partners want. Professional development Using the basic skills as a strong foundation, young lawyers can seek out and accept increased responsibilities. The new responsibilities are more than just additional duties on transactions or cases; they also include a focus on personal professional development. While more firms are dedicating professional staff to develop their lawyers, the primary responsibility is an individual one, and associates would do well to realize that there is more to practicing law than sitting in front of a computer. During the formative years, associates can begin increasing their exposure within and outside of firms. While the priority is to become great lawyers, there are other things that make the billable hours go more quickly and prepare associates for the rest of their lives. In addition to feeding themselves work, barely seasoned associates can feed their heads by taking advantage of the information offered, whether it is an annual state-of-the-firm meeting providing financial information or optional training and development programs. At the least, such programs can include free meals and offer easy ways to network with other associates, who are also potential partners or clients. At these firm events, associates will want to sit by or introduce themselves to someone they don’t know. Young associates can make the most of such opportunities and participate fully in firm activities and programs, including mentoring programs, in-house continuing legal education courses, formal training programs, informational sessions and even informal happy hours. Of course, client work always takes priority, but it is not too early to seek balance with an occasional change of the billable pace. Good law firm exposure also includes demonstrating firm citizenship, such as taking an interest in recruiting activities, especially during the busy fall call-back season. For those in firms with professional development staffs, associates can take advantage of the developers and their ideas, programs and even bookshelves of career satisfaction surveys, draft business plan checklists, career guides and other resources. New lawyers can look for exposure outside of the firm, and one of the easiest ways is to help the firm fill tables at charitable or political events. Although the e-mails offering these opportunities are easy to ignore and the usual rubber chicken banquet meals are not that appealing, breaking bread at the same table as firm leaders, judges, clients or potential clients is an easy short-term professional development opportunity. Of course, associates need to be selective and not volunteer for every event, and the proper etiquette is an absolute requirement. Longer-term opportunities include the obvious bar and civic associations for associates to use in building networks and developing leadership skills. Young lawyers should take care to not bite off more than they can chew when getting involved. Often, young lawyers find themselves “volunteered” to chair committees or coordinate events, and it is easy to overcommit and burn out early. Associates should consider checking out different organizations before committing, and then focus on those that are personally meaningful and either satisfy a need to give back, add balance to the billables or will help advance their goals. During the first few years of practice, many junior associates decide whether they should stay or go. It is easy for the firms and associates to let the early years slip by, but it is really not that hard for both to maximize these formative years. Molly Peckman is special counsel to, and director of professional development at, Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton. She frequently lectures and writes about attorney professional development, and contributes a monthly column, “The Pecking Order,” to The Legal Intelligencer, an NLJ affiliate.

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