Train the Heck Out of Your Most Promising Associates

The cover story of the July/August 2015 issue of The Washington Lawyer magazine is entitled, “The Professional Development Imperative.”  It’s a well-written piece that discusses the need for lawyers to undergo comprehensive professional development after they graduate from law school, and various options for obtaining that training.

From the point of view of a law firm client, the article contains eye-opening comments. Consider the article’s opening sentence:  “The secret of law is that no one really comes out prepared to practice law.”  Acknowledging that most of what lawyers know is learned on the job, the article presents a sober picture of the professional development challenges facing new lawyers. These include the following:

  • “For today’s lawyers, the challenge is even greater. New lawyers need to manage the legal bureaucracy and also be well versed in social media.”
  • “The amount of time and energy that people have in firms to devote to skills training has just gone down,” quoting Michelle Richards, A D.C. based executive coach and former attorney.
  • After 2008, clients at big law firms “were no longer interested in paying full freight for associates who were learning on the job.”

As a result of these changes, senior associates and junior partners are described as being less prepared for the nature of work they are required to handle.

“Most senior associates and junior partners have much more difficult assignments than they did before the recession. Many of them have enormous responsibilities and those duties now come to them much sooner than they did in the past. Some are supervising matters that would have been the purview of partners, often running large teams, presiding over budgets, and managing client relationships.”

The focus on the importance of client development is admirable and the editors of The Washington Lawyer deserve credit for paying this issue in the spotlight, as does the article’s author, Sarah Kellogg.

But imagine how some corporate clients might react to the picture painted by this article. It’s deeply at odds with the marketing materials law firms are putting in front of their clients. And more importantly, it’s not sustainable. Corporate clients are not going to pay more than $400 an hour for lawyers that have years of experience, but are nonetheless overmatched by their responsibilities. This is one more sign that the business model underlying many law firms is deeply flawed. You don’t need to be a revolutionary or a conspiracy nut to sense that over the next few years we may see a lot of carnage among the ranks of mid-level associates and junior partners.

So what strategy should law firm leaders adapt to address the training gap described in the article? One underutilized strategy is to identify stars early on and devote more training resources to them. That is what many large corporations do with those that are deemed to have potential to serve as high-level executives. Too many law firms wait six years or more before they begin to assess who has partnership potential. This strategy made more sense when law firms could more easily pass along inefficiencies to their clients. But do you really need to see 72 months of billing to figure out who your best associates are?  A good way to avoid having overwhelmed junior partners is to devote more training resources to your most promising junior and mid-level associates.