HIT THE GROUND RUNNING?
That question reverberates through the halls of academia and
legal employers—with particular urgency since the last recession.
With corporate profits pummeled, companies have searched
for ways to reduce legal expenses. In January 2009, Microsoft
announced the first major layoffs in its history. Those layoffs
included in-house lawyers. To reduce costs of outside counsel,
Microsoft used a competitive process to consolidate much of
its work in 10 preferred firms. As part of that process, Microsoft sought discounts.
Other clients have resisted paying for the work of new lawyers,
perceiving senior lawyers to be a better value. In 2010, ALM
Legal Intelligence and the Practical Law Co. published the Law
Firm Associate Support and Professional Development Survey. In
it, two out of five firms reported that clients had expressed reluctance in having junior associates work on their matters.
For decades, the unspoken pact between law firms and clients was that clients would pick up the tab for new lawyers’
on-the-job training. When the recession battered revenues, clients renounced the pact once and for all. Perhaps because the
“pact” more closely resembled client acquiescence, even with
the economy improving, clients have shown little interest in
renewing the bargain.
All of this created a conundrum: All lawyers start out as new
lawyers, and they need practical lawyering skills. How do they
SCHOOLS STEP UP
Law schools have stepped up in a variety of ways. Pepperdine,
Berkeley, Harvard and St. John’s provide just a few examples.
Pepperdine law students must successfully complete a professional development program as a requirement for graduation. The program includes eight required presentations for
first-year students covering topics such as professional etiquette, ethics, social media and networking. In addition, the
program includes a 120-hour legal experience requirement
that students may fulfill through work in a law office or other
UC Berkeley has also instituted a practical skills requirement, and all students must take one of several professional
skills courses, a legal clinic or a field placement in their second
or third year.
Harvard Law School’s Office of Career Services provides a
variety of career success programs, including “The Art of Mingling,” a workshop where students learn networking skills, followed by a reception with attorneys. Other programs include
Professionalism 101 and Success in the Workplace.
Besides providing panels and presentations on practical
skills to its students, St. John’s instituted an advanced practice
writing requirement. To graduate, students must take at least
one advanced legal drafting course in areas such as contract
drafting, license drafting, patent application preparation and
family law practice. In these intensive courses, students learn
to draft the types of documents that practicing lawyers use
daily, according to Larry Cunningham, associate dean of stu-
dent services and associate professor of legal writing.
LEGAL EMPLOYERS AND NEW
LAWYERS HAVE A ROLE
Legal employers are also providing more formal practical skills
training. In the ALM survey, 56 percent of firms reported that
they were providing more training than they had in the previous year.
Some of the burden is falling on new lawyers, who are being
asked to demonstrate their value early on. The ALM survey
also found that many law firms were showing underperform-ing associates the door sooner.
FUNDAMENTALS FOR NEW LAWYER
In this restructured legal environment, how can new lawyers
find the edge they need to succeed? The fundamental skills and
strategies outlined below will help them get off to a strong start.
Being proactive. One of the most important realities new
graduates need to understand is that even from the outset, they
have to take responsibility for their careers. I remember, as a
junior associate, grousing about something to a junior partner,
and his response was not what I expected: “You have to remember, this is not a dress rehearsal. This is your real life now, and if
there is something wrong with your practice, you need to work
to fix it.” It was some of the best advice I ever received.
All new lawyers must think of themselves as being self-employed. That puts them in the mindset of taking ownership
of their work and being proactive about their careers. New
lawyers must remember to work in a way that will earn them
new work. In law, second chances can be scarce.
New lawyers also must develop a career plan. Having a plan
helps them enhance their skills and build relationships in an
organized way—to ensure they are always increasing their
value. The plan should include specific steps that new lawyers
can take to build their practices, at least in some small way,
every single day.
Building relationships. The “real” job of junior lawyers is to
do whatever they can to make the lives of senior lawyers easier.
The job is not just about research and drafting documents. Law
firms solve client problems, which entails far more. The sooner
new lawyers understand that, the better.