In 2009, Drinker Biddle & Reath launched its First-Year Associate Development Program. Many viewed the program as a creative solution to the dip in the demand for legal services during the financial crisis. While the program certainly helped to occupy incoming associates fully and productively, it also provided a way to further the firm's commitment to associate training and client service. Notwithstanding the uptick in the demand for legal services since 2009, the program's momentum has continued unabated.
The program creates a training ground that enables newly minted lawyers to transition effectively from the study to the practice of law. The goal is to position participating associates such that they add immediate value to client work when they begin their practices. During the program, the associates have abundant opportunities to tackle sophisticated assignments in a risk-free environment as well as to shadow experienced lawyers in ongoing client matters.
The substantive knowledge gained through this experiential training is apparent. Less obvious but equally important advantages that equip a new lawyer to excel immediately also derive through this concentrated learning experience. These include (1) understanding the big picture in litigation or transactional matters, (2) developing a practice founded upon client service and (3) establishing an awareness of the importance of ongoing professional development. A new associate will position himself or herself for success moving forward by staying mindful of these goals when engaging in any training opportunity.
Seeing the Big Picture
One of the most significant advantages an experienced lawyer has over a novice (comparable to the advantage a 3L has over an incoming law student) is the ability to step back and see the big picture. In a litigation matter, for example, a seasoned lawyer may shape the case for a successful summary judgment motion by filing a motion to dismiss as a way to learn how the court might treat a questionable legal issue. On the transactional side, a skillful lawyer may create a specific plan for structuring and negotiating an acquisition based on information revealed through the due diligence process. Without having experienced the complete cycle of a litigation matter, it is unlikely that a new lawyer would be thinking ahead to summary judgment at the outset of a case. Likewise, a new lawyer reviewing due diligence materials for an acquisition probably would not realize how specific pieces of information could impact the parties' negotiations.
As a legal intern or summer associate, there is not enough time to observe a case or deal from beginning to end. An associate's first opportunity to see the start of a new matter usually arises in the first year of practice, often not concluding until the associate's second or third year. In contrast, my firm's program is designed to move new associates through all steps of a litigation or transactional matter (albeit in a condensed format). Program lawyers get hands-on experience at each phase while also developing an understanding of how each phase fits together.
While completing the development program does not mean that new associates will oversee cases independently, they will be equipped to analyze each step in a client matter by considering both the implications of the discrete issue at hand as well as how that issue might affect the overall matter. For example, a memorandum produced after researching the statute of limitations for a tort claim might simply identify the pertinent statute and address any applicable case law. Alternatively, considering the issue more broadly, if the case law suggests that the discovery rule could defeat a motion to dismiss, the memorandum also might address the discovery needed to align the case with key decisions that have awarded summary judgment. The latter memorandum can be used as a case map as opposed to being limited to a synopsis of one legal issue.
Because the program introduces associates to the intricacies and interrelatedness of the different components of a matter, the new associates can immediately add value by thinking like more experienced lawyers.
Developing a Client Service-Based Practice
The direction of a program for entry-level lawyers is driven in large part by the efforts of those who conduct the training. The success of the firm's program is the result of tremendous energy and support invested by the law firm's most accomplished lawyers (as well as many others). Through the involvement and observation of these lawyers, new associates not only develop strong internal relationships but also learn to approach practice as problem-solvers who are focused on the client and providing superior service.
Exposing new associates to the importance of stellar client service at the beginning of their careers provides a framework within which they can establish practices that are based on clients' needs and expectations. The integration of a client-service mindset into an associate's development is an ongoing message through the program. The importance of this training benefit cannot be overstated.
Establishing a Foundation
The practice of law changes constantly. Lawyers who keep pace with or stay ahead of change are those whose mindsets are to find and create learning through all aspects of their work experience. Ad hoc opportunities to build skills and knowledge arise naturally from client representation. This learning can be supplemented and targeted by taking advantage of structured training.
The mantra "practice makes perfect" may as well have been created by lawyers. Senior lawyers build wisdom and expertise through years of experience. But there is a first time for any skill-building effort. New lawyers should jump in and find ways to earn as much first-hand experience as possible. Structured training programs provide this opportunity in a relatively risk-free environment and at no charge to clients. No doubt, it can be tempting to use CLE as a chance to catch up on emails. Why not utilize its benefits for your practice? Graduates of the firm's program take with them an awareness of the value of actively engaging in formal training as a tool to build knowledge and gain experience going forward.
The profile of a typical first-year lawyer would likely not include a lawyer who understands the big picture in litigation or transactional matters, whose practice is founded upon client service and who embraces structured training opportunities. Yet this is exactly the type of first-year lawyer that the firm aims to develop through its program. This also is exactly the type of first-year lawyer who is positioned to provide superior service to clients immediately and, ultimately, to succeed in his or her career.
Robert J. Mancuso is an associate in Drinker Biddle & Reath's insurance group, where his litigation practice focuses on representing insurers across the country in a broad range of life insurance and annuities and coverage dispute issues. He completed the firm's First-Year Associate Development Program in 2010 and is currently working in London pursuant to a secondment with Atrium Underwriters Ltd., a Lloyd's of London managing agent.