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How to Train Junior Lawyers (Hint: Not the Big Law Way)

The Careerist

January 24, 2014

Susman_SteveGuest blogger Stephen Susman, the founding partner of Susman Godfrey, writes about the right and wrong way to train junior associates.

I’ve been reading lately about the steep decline in law school enrollment, and the number of young attorneys abandoning the profession. A 2013 survey by CareerBliss.com even proclaimed that law firm associate was the unhappiest job in America.

In response, some law firms have established apprenticeship tracks, offering new associates sharply reduced salaries in exchange for less responsibility and more on-the-job training.

I believe law firms should take the opposite tack: Give new associates more responsibility—not less. Not only will firms recruit better candidates as a result, but it will also help junior lawyers develop their skills exponentially faster. This will also enable the firm to leverage its resources, staff cases more efficiently, and achieve better results for its clients.

This is not the typical way most big law firms operate, but it has worked effectively for us. Here are the five key ways we approach associate development, starting from their first year:

 1. Send them to court! The best new associates don’t want to spend weeks or months doing research in the law library. They’d rather cut their teeth in the courtroom. And they shouldn’t just sit there. Have you ever noticed the number of lawyers who go to court but never say anything? Our firm has a rule: If you go to court, you get to stand up. And if you write it, you get to speak it in court. New associates like that.

 2. Staff your cases leanly. Instead of having new associates “shadow” more experienced attorneys, firms should afford them greater independence. Too many law firms have become accustomed to assigning three lawyers to take a deposition when one would do. Staffing cases leanly and efficiently translates into greater opportunities for new attorneys.

3. Give them a vote: Our “one lawyer, one vote” policy gives the firm’s newest associate an equal voice—and an equal vote—with the most senior partner. And we vote on everything: Each week, all firm attorneys participate in a telephone meeting where we decide whether to take on contingent fee cases, fixed-fee cases, and pro bono cases. Every lawyer receives a short memo in advance from the attorney proposing to take the case, and after a discussion all attorneys vote. Associates never hesitate to vote against a case proposed by a partner: I’ve had a number of cases that I proposed get rejected because I couldn’t get the requisite majority vote.

We make this system work with 100 attorneys; in larger firms, the decision on which cases to take could be made by all lawyers in the litigation department.

4. Open up the books: At some law firms, attorneys have to make partner before they gain any meaningful exposure to the firm’s operations. At Susman Godfrey, associates review the firm’s monthly financial statements, have access to partner compensation information, and receive copies of the minutes of all executive committee meetings. By adopting a policy of financial transparency, firms can help their new associates gain valuable insight into negotiating fee agreements and other important business aspects of the profession.

5. Show them the fun: I love being a trial attorney. I don’t know of anything I’d love to do more. And if you convey that enthusiasm, new associates will more likely find that being a trial attorney and practicing law can be a lot of fun.

We’ve found that giving new associates substantive responsibility, plus a greater voice in firm operations, have enabled us to recruit and retain better lawyers. Smart people with big egos don’t mind living by rules that they’ve had a hand in creating.

Related post: Want a job at Susman Godfrey?

Comments

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The basis for Rule 1 is a bit confused. Most litigation, and almost all appellate work, is accomplished through writing, not talking. The great lawyers are great writers. It's certainly not predominantly the case that the "best" new lawyers would rather chat it up in court than craft winning briefs, strategies, and analyses.

As a former associate at Susman Godfrey, now 20 years out, I would only confirm that Steve's comments are all true. And this approach enormously benefits everyone at the firm, including non-lawyer staff, who receive many indirect benefits from this flat and candid structure, and especially lawyers who do not stay at SG, but leave with this training, rather than a few years in the stacks.

Susman is right IF you are recruiting top talent like his firm is. Many (most) firms can't attract that kind of talent, and a majority of the entry level attorneys they hire do not have the ability to thrive with this approach. And just as often will not have the desire to take on that level of responsibility from the outset.

This approach works when you are hiring people who are really damn smart, really driven, and really good on their feet. Otherwise not so much.

That said, I do think associates at all levels and of all abilities shoud be looped into the larger picture as much as possible, should be given as much client contact and responsibility as they are willing to and able to handle, and should be made to feel part of the team.

Smart.

In his book "Drive," Daniel Pink describes three core needs for which humans are hard-wired anthropologically:
1) Autonomy
2) (Pursuit of) Mastery
3) Purpose larger than oneself

I'll posit that the reason why Mr. Susman's system works is because it satisfies all three of these needs.

Umm!! I'm a Connecticut Attorney that no longer practices. Can I go back to work for this firm. I'm willing to wear the boots!!

If more partners thought like you, I wouldn't have to research why young lawyers are so miserable. Thanks for this great article.

Dan Bowling
Duke Law School

Agree with experience and communications themes running through this post. Same is true re: experience on the transactional side. Let the associate see the whole deal, will empower them to really think through and to do more with the pieces they're working on so they grow faster (and clients are calling for this value from associates!). Communication is key - associates who feel a part of the firm are often more committed to its growth and can really surprise partners with their ability to contribute to marketing, client service, and firm development if only given the necessary information.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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