How To Train New Associate Lawyers

A little under a year ago, David Segal exasperated the legal blogging world with a New York Times article about how law schools fail to adequately train lawyers, leaving the hard work of an apprenticeship up to the law firms that employ recent law graduates. (My thoughts on the article, along with links to several others’ posts, are here.)

 

Not much has changed since then. There are still too many law schools, admitting too many students for too few jobs, and holding them for the unnecessary third year to collect an extra year of tuition. Earlier this week the Wall Street Journal again noted “some companies do object to paying [law firms] for inexperienced junior lawyers [to work on their matters], reasoning that the law firms should bear the cost of training first- and second-year associates.”

 

So it falls to the more experienced lawyers — sometimes themselves just a few years out from law school — to figure out how to train the new hires. Mark Herrmann’s “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law” does a good job of conveying to new lawyers the gestalt of how a lawyer manages himself or herself, and his columns still convey that same sense of professionalism, though they’re not quite as helpful for lawyers who are not in-house.

 

There’s an old saying, “fast, good, and cheap — pick two,” and it applies just the same to training newing lawyers, though with some modifications. “Cheap,” in my humble opinion, is a mixture of how much time you spent finding and vetting potential employees and how much you offered to pay them. The more effort you put into finding the right candidate and the more you pay, the better the candidate you’ll hire. Looking beyond grades to other factors like indications on their resume they have initiative or offering summer internships that give you a longer period to evaluate candidates will help you separate the truly-talented from the merely-good-at-grades. Money, too, is always an issue: sure, it’s a bad market for most law graduates, but not for all law graduates, and if you want to attract and to keep quality lawyers, you need to compensate them appropriately.

 

So the “cheap” part of the equation is resolved beforehand or resolved in the salary and bonuses you offer. That leaves fast versus good, and that’s where the problems start. 

 

Google “how to train your associate,” and the first result is “11 Tips on How to Clicker Train Your Dog.” Well enough, because the advice works just as well:

 

Positive reinforcement is a method of training based around giving rewards for good behavior, instead of punishment for bad behavior. …

If you’re trying to train your dog to fetch a beer from the fridge, for example, you don’t expect your dog to get a beer for you on the first try. Instead, train small steps at a time – training your dog to open the fridge, to hold a beer can, etc. – and eventually create the entire behavior. This is known as “shaping” a behavior. …

Fix bad behaviors by [encouraging] good behaviors. For example, instead of yelling at your dog for barking, try clicking the clicker when your dog is quiet.

 

By referencing “positive reinforcement,” I of course don’t mean that you need to give your associates a cookie for everything they do right, or that you should refrain from criticizing them. Some of the most useful experiences I had as a new associate involved getting my teeth kicked in, like at the Academy of Advocacy (discussed a bit more in my post on My Cousin Vinny.)

 

I reference dog training to reiterate that partners must pay attention to what lesson they’re reinforcing when they instruct associates. A young, inexperienced lawyer is simply incapable of producing high-quality level of work in a short amount of time. Their research is haphazard and peripatetic. Their briefs begin as unstructured rambles that are then painfully contorted in non-Euclidean ways to create a superficially appealing argument. They can somehow spend three times too long to half-complete an assignment. They can spend hours with a client or a witness and not ask the dozen or so questions that would have resolved the issue. They don’t recognize what needs to be done next, and so fail to take the initiative to complete it.

 

That’s life. I suspect that many partners themselves weren’t much better when they started, despite what their selective memories might tell them.

 

Remember: fast versus good. A partner doesn’t need to remind an associate that, in the law, time is money; that’s inherent in the process, and it will be more than apparent to them when they’re overloaded with assignments. If a new lawyer has failed to satisfactorily complete an assignment in the time allotted, and the partner chews them out for the time it took to complete the work, which will the associate learn to value more, “fast” or “good?”

 

As Aristotle said, “excellence is not an act, but a habit.” Speed comes with practice and experience, but quality can only come from a lawyer’s own motivation, willpower, and habits. Focus first on the quality of the work, and the efficiency in creating it will follow.

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  • John Day

    Excellent post, Max. I will go further and say that the skills and ethics of the young lawyer’s first employer paly a major role in that lawyer’s future. My advice to young lawyers: find the best lawyer you can find in the area of law where you want to practice and do everything you can to work for that lawyer.

    We need to get rid of the third year of law school and have a mandatory residency program for trial lawyers. That program should last at least three years. This change would greatly improve the trial bar and the justice system.