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?