On November 29, 2005 I posted a diatribe called "Law Firm Training is a Sham." Having been in practice for years, I saw how associate training typically does not occur in law firms. I think this is abominable, and it is one of my missions in teaching to turn out new lawyers who, once they are in positions of authority, will better understand the need for training and mentoring of junior attorneys. (Check back with me in 20 years to see if I have succeeded.)
The funny thing is that every few years or so a series of articles appears discussing law firms' "new" dedication to associate mentoring. Apparently we're in such a cycle right now. The National Jurist magazine for law students has a piece in its November 2005 issue called "Law Firm Mentors Associates Around the Globe," which praises the many wonderful things that my former firm, Baker & McKenzie, is reportedly doing to train and mentor its associates.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that this is not a "Baker bashing" article. Baker is a fine place to work in comparison to many other firms. I enjoyed my time there and am proud to be an alumnus. But so help me, I cannot resist exercising my First Amendment rights and commenting on this article. There are several things that bother me about it, namely:
ONE: "Baker & McKenzie . . . is one of a growing number of law firms emphasizing mentoring today."
- News Flash: law firms always say they "emphasize" mentoring. No firm ever says, "we don't believe in mentoring, and we really work to de-emphasize it." So to me, this statement means nothing.
TWO: "A new program recently launched by the firm requires all Baker & McKenzie partners to mentor all associates."
- What is really interesting about this statement is not what it says, but what it doesn't say. Does it mean that partners were not previously required--and accordingly many did not--mentor associates prior to this program? As a former B&M associate, I know the answer, but my lips are sealed.
THREE: "The point [of the new mentoring program] is to establish a standard for developing [associate] careers . . . to give all employees the same skills sets so they could work in any Baker & McKenzie office."
- OK, I'll buy that. It's an aspirational statement to be sure--I really do doubt there will be identical basic skills sets for lawyers in, say, Washington, D.C. versus Baku, Azerbaijan (yes, B&M has an office there). But that's not saying it's not a worthy goal.
FOUR: "According to Nicholas Coward, a partner with Baker & McKenzie . . . 'Law school these days provides students with only the basics of legal training and a lot of aspects such as people management are not covered, but are critically important to being successful.' "
- My question is this: Exactly how is this a new problem? Law schools have never provided any more than basic legal training. Law school is only a 3-year program. In fact, law schools today do a better job than ever before of preparing lawyers for practice--through programs such as legal clinics, trial advocacy programs, required (and optional) moot court competitions, law practice management courses, negotiations courses, and the like. What has changed is that firms typically do not mentor associates anymore. Associates no longer spend their careers at one firm, so there is less incentive for firms to train people who will leave. And with many starting associate salaries in the six-figure range, law firms need quick learners and self-starters who can be thrown in head first, fend for themselves, and pay for their exorbitant salaries through high billing.
- So in other words, I agree with Nick (my former boss, by the way) that law schools only provide students with basic training. But the problem lies with firms, not schools. Who knows--maybe he agrees with me and is leading the charge to fix it. This upbeat article certainly suggests so, but we'll see. I will stay tuned to see if this latest cycle of enlightened law firm mentoring has more impact than previously ineffective cycles.
One final point: in fairness, I should point out that (according to my decidedly anecdotal evidence) Baker has better associate retention than other firms I have been exposed to. In Baker's D.C. office, for example, there is a larger percentage of lawyers who started with the firm as summer clerks and are still there--even some who are partners. Including Mr. Coward himself.