OK, so the title of this post is a bit incendiary. But I am convinced that training at big law firms often ends up being a sham. No, I have not done a survey, and yes, I realize many firms have formal training and mentoring programs in place. But I stand by my statement.
When I was an associate I was actively involved in trying to improve training for junior associates, and we failed miserably. We tried hard, we had at least tacit management support (no one is "against" mentoring), but we failed. Why? Time. No one has time for real mentoring, and sadly that includes the junior associates who really need it. The urgent matter always takes priority over other matters, even vastly more important ones like training your people.
This boggles my mind, frankly. It was always--always--my experience in practice (and now in teaching) that if you tell people what you expect, then you usually get it. "Here's the background of the case, here's where we stand, here are the major issues, and here is the part I want you to do" is a great way to hand off an assignment. And the poor associate has some context and an expectation of what needs to be done. But what you get all too often is something like "Go read the file and then do X" (if I only had a dime for every time I heard that one), or "Call the client and talk to her about it," which is often code for "I want you to call the client so she can yell at you and not me." My all-time favorite, though, is the classic "Just take care of it." As for feedback, too many times it is an explanation of why you are a terrible mindreader: someone tells you to do a memo on X, and then you get "What you should have done was Y." Again, that's a classic. While this post is not meant as a screed against former colleagues, I am trying to call them as I see them.
It would make far more sense--and money, for that matter--for lawyers to train and mentor their people. I saw a lot of time written off over the years because an associate was left flailing in the dark. I saw some careers cut short because people were bad mindreaders. I saw associates learn by trial and error, and then, fed up with a lack of training, leave for another firm--which is a huge loss to the firm that ate that associate's losses as a new attorney. But perhaps most importantly, training and mentoring is good because it breeds loyalty. Associates have someone to turn to, someone they can trust for feedback, someone who does not say "Go and read the file" and then hang them out to dry when they guess wrong. So a firm not only gets better and more efficient work product, but people are less likely to leave.
You will note, of course, that I left. By the time I did I had figured out what the people I worked for wanted (when so-and-so said X, what he really meant was Y), but by that time it was too late. I stayed around as long as it was in my interests, but once I decided I should be elsewhere, there was little reason to stay.
So a word of warning to any senior people out there in a law firm: make the effort to train your people. They will make you more money, and they will be more loyal. Training takes time and significant energy (throwing a file at someone is easy), but the payoff is enormous. You almost never see it in practice, so if you do it you may rise to the top like cream.