“Our people are our most important asset.” Outside of perhaps patent trolls, it’s hard to find a business anywhere that doesn’t make this claim. It’s no doubt true at some level for most businesses. However, for law firms (as well as in-house legal departments), our people are really, in many ways, our sole asset. Too often, we lose sight of this fact or simply give it lip service. For law firms to truly make the changes necessary to better serve their clients over the long term, we must refocus the professional development of our people toward the creation of leaders with diverse skill sets, rather than as fungible FTEs to be levered.

All law firms are in the game for the long term. Long term, the interests of the firm are most closely aligned with the talented, hardworking young lawyers. The senior partners have built the firm. They appropriately often receive the highest compensation. They are trusted advisors of the firm’s best clients. However, it is very difficult for them to think about where the firm will be in 2025 in anything more than a superficial way. It is the talented, hardworking associates and junior partners that should be thinking and strategizing regarding the future of the firm. Too often, factors such as ever-tightening partner admission standards (a reality) and evolving generational differences drive a wedge between law firms and their most valuable assets. Law firms (and their clients) should take care to recognize that regardless of structure or the particulars of the present law firm-client relationship, they both benefit from the development of young talent into lawyers who can help businesses solve problems.

Law firms must act more like businesses so they can serve the needs of their business clients. However, too often firms make the mistake of believing that this change means it should care less about the “soft skills” of training, mentoring, coaching, etc. The reality is that law firms truly acting like businesses will recognize that their lawyers and other professionals are not simply personnel and operations. Rather, they are also accurately characterized as research and development, marketing, consumer/client research, sales and in fact the product itself.

Too often, law firm partners think of their talented associates only in terms of their operations — as billing lawyers. Indeed, the compensation models at many firms almost encourage partners to look at them in this way. If a young lawyer does good work for clients a partner is managing, the partner’s sole objective — for good reason — is to keep the young colleague doing just that.  Don’t mess with what is working. Standing alone, there is nothing wrong with this. However, too often the arrangement is working only from the perspective of the partner managing the work. If the firm and the partner involved don’t actively engage in the development of the long-term sustainability of the young lawyers’ practice, they are hurting their firm.

My AmLaw 200 firm is active in the lateral partner market and often comes in contact with lawyers leaving the mega-firms. On a fairly regular basis, we meet candidates with incredible academic credentials: Ivy League law schools, top grades, federal clerkships, the full package. These are the graduates from ten years ago that the AmLaw 200 or mid-sized firms salivated over, and rarely landed. The candidates are looking to make a move, and when you review their experience, several characteristics often appear:

  • They are part of teams of dozens (sometimes hundreds) of lawyers working on very large matters.
  • They are billing lots of hours at high rates, with minimal client contact.
  • Their experience with even motion practice or depositions (to say nothing of trial experience) is minimal.
  • You get the sense they rarely worked on a matter where the directive was not to turn over every stone.
  • They have never engaged in any business development activity because at [Mega-firm], they felt there was no need to do this.
  • They believe that the clients they have been working for (but have little contact with) love them and will send them work on other matters if their rate was lower.

Sometimes there is a synergy that makes the lawyer a potential fit. Other times, they are entirely content at their present firms. However, most often, neither is the case and the talented lawyer is in a tough spot. He or she is less attractive in the job market generally and has developed very few skills that firms or clients are looking for. It invariably gets me thinking about how much room for improvement there is in the way law firms train and prepare lawyers for sustainable careers.

Law firms too often think of their young lawyers as operations (i.e. billing units) rather than as the product itself, something to be cared for and supported, but also challenged and analyzed in a brutally honest way. Don’t misunderstand. I am not advocating that law firms expect less from their associates and young partners. To the contrary, firms should expect more. But the more they should expect should be geared not toward the short-term bottom line of the firm, but rather toward to the long-term development of talented young lawyers. Clients who are thinking long-term and desire long-term relationships with their outside counsel should also be interested in the development of these lawyers. Often, they end up in an inside counsel or other key management role at clients. While not all lawyers will end their legal careers as equity partners, all should leave armed with skill sets that will enable them to serve clients regardless of their future roles.

In my next segment, I will discuss what I think are three most important skill sets that firms (and their clients) should focus on in the development of their lawyers: business awareness in the delivery of legal services, expertise development, and building client relationships.