When it comes to budgeting for a fresh crop of first-year associates, it’s not all about paying for rising salaries and expanding benefits. Law firms are dedicating big money and devoting ongoing resources to training and development for their young lawyers, even when the lawyers are less likely to stick around than they used to be.
Firms are spending an average of $12,000 recruiting and training each first-year associate they hire, while larger firms spend $62,000 on average, according to a recent survey by the legal staffing agency Robert Half Legal that focused on expectations for new associate hiring.
Kent Zimmermann of Zeughauser Group said that even though more than one-fifth of the firms surveyed by Robert Half expected first-year hiring to rise in the next 12 months, long-term trends show a slowdown. Associate hiring will likely get less robust, as will the odds that associates will become partners, Zimmermann said.
Sophisticated law firms recognize that reality, he said. They also understand that associates who may have little chance or even expectation of making partner still expect to find ample opportunities for professional development at their firms.
“Well-managed law firms understand that while historically a large percentage of associates join firms with aspirations of becoming a partner and being at one firm for the entire career, they now understand that is changing to a degree,” Zimmermann said. As a result, both the firms and the new lawyers have evaluated what the associates may gain in career development while they are at the firm, he said.
“We see many firms increasing the level of investment in money and time to make their associates successful and valued by the clients as much as possible,” he said.
That investment pays off for the firms even if the associates are relatively transient. Better-trained associates are more valuable to clients, and when they leave the firm—often go in-house—they are more appreciative and loyal to their former employer, Zimmermann said.
An invigorated focus and increased spending on associate training doesn’t surprise Kathryn DeBord, a partner and the chief innovation officer at Bryan Cave.
“We are totally doing different things in terms of our approach and the content of the training,” DeBord said.
Every other year since 2013, DeBord’s firm has brought dozens of its associates together for what it calls the Bryan Cave Business Academy, where participants explore how the legal business is evolving and discuss new ways to adapt. The St. Louis, Missouri-based firm has also paired with the University of Colorado Law School to offer a legal tech-focused, seven-month internship to law students.
Not all firms will go the same lengths, DeBord acknowledges, but the pressures it faces are familiar to any managing partner reckoning with legal industry disruption.
The associates “need to understand how the client’s law department fits into the business. How can you help a client mitigate risk?” DeBord said.
The firm has used a variety of tools to teach those lessons, from inviting partners and outside thought leaders to discuss what they’ve learned about working with clients to setting up mock request for proposal competitions, where associate teams battle each other to win real clients’ pretend business.
Tim Mohan, chief executive partner at Chicago-based Chapman and Cutler, said his firm has started training potential lawyers even before they go to law school.
The firm has been tapping college graduates with finance degrees, inviting them to work at the firm for two-year stints. “We are bringing them in for two years while they decide if they want to go to law school,” Mohan said. While at Chapman, the new hires get “nuts-and-bolts training from a legal perspective” during a monthlong boot camp, Mohan said.
Miriam Rozen covers the business of law with a focus on law firm-client relationships. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @MiriamRozen.