Thursday, August 11, 2011

New lawyer training programs often fall short

"Does your law firm have a formal attorney training program for new lawyers?"

I have been on both sides of this question. As a 2L interviewee seeking a summer associate position in a Chicago law firm, I was counseled to ask this question of each firm I interviewed with. Later, as an active member of my law firm's recruiting committee, law students routinely inquired about our in-house training and new lawyer development programs.

As a rule, the answer to this question is a resounding "yes." This "yes" derives from a number of things. Invariably, the interviewer hopes to convey a positive impression of the firm. The interviewer can probably even recall some mandatory in-house continuing legal education programs for new lawyers (deposition training and negotiation skills are routine topics for in-house CLE courses and arguably constitute new lawyer training). And, for the most part, law firms do intend to provide formal training and mentoring for their new lawyers.

In reality, however, most law firms provide cursory, if any, training for new lawyers. With some exceptions, comprehensive, jurisdiction-specific practical skills training programs for new lawyers almost universally do not exist. Any training law firms do provide is typically disjointed and spread out over months or years. In short, law firm training often falls far short of preparing new lawyers to actually practice law in a law firm. (On-the-job training for new lawyers also falls short. Senior attorneys — in large firms, in particular — expect new lawyers to pick up practical skills on the job but are hesitant to give new lawyers the substantive legal work that would help develop these skills. And some clients prohibit new lawyers from working on their files entirely.)

Law firms are not to blame. Developing a comprehensive in-house training program for new lawyers is a cumbersome and costly undertaking. Developing such a program is certainly counter to a firm's immediate and pressing concerns of servicing clients and watching the bottom line. Small and midsize firms do not have the resources to devote to such a program. Likewise, with the increased pressure to bill hours at both the partner and associate level, attorneys in big law firms cannot afford to spend the nonbillable time necessary to develop an effective training program. For every hour a firm associate or partner spends developing and presenting a new lawyer training program, the firm loses hundreds of dollars and delays important client work. (Also, just as not all law school professors make the best lawyers, not all law firm practitioners make the best teachers.)

With this said, there is significant value in training new lawyers in practical skills. Well-trained new lawyers will contribute meaningfully to their law firms from day one. When new lawyers can independently handle basic practitioner tasks, senior attorneys will no longer have to spend otherwise-billable hours answering rudimentary questions or coaching new lawyers through such tasks (saving the firm literally thousands of dollars in both the senior attorneys' and new lawyers' time). Finally, when new lawyers undergo intensive training before starting at law firms, fewer costly, embarrassing mistakes will be made.

The subject of new lawyer training and development and the difficulties with implementing this training is increasingly a topic of conversation in the legal community. One palpable solution is for law firms to outsource new lawyer training. This ensures that all incoming new lawyers are, at a minimum, trained in fundamental practical skills before they even set foot in a law firm. It also ensures that new lawyers are exposed to fundamental skills in a uniform, comprehensive manner by professionals who have experience in both law and teaching. From a business standpoint, outsourcing new lawyer training (to the proper company) is a prudent investment with a tangible return on any money spent up front. The expense of the present model, whereby new lawyers are often paid a six-figure salary but are unfamiliar with, and unable to perform, the most basic tasks, is far greater. Likewise, the expense of developing a comparable program in-house easily surpasses any outsourcing costs. (This proposed outsourcing model is not new. Fortune 500 companies routinely outsource performance training, from sales employee to management personnel training.)

New lawyers are bright, ambitious people. If given the opportunity, they can easily master the core, practical skills required to succeed in a law firm. And new lawyers are eager to learn these skills. As it currently stands, however, new lawyers are not given the opportunity to do so.

Does your law firm have a formal attorney training program for new lawyers?

By Desiree Moore

Source: The National Law Journal

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