Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Law Firm Training Redux

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.


Michael McCann said...

This is a terrific post. A lot these firms remind me of what George Orwell had in mind when he wrote 1984. The constant platitudes, the periodic re-inventions of the wheel, the on-going law school bashing -- it's almost as if all big firms have hired the same marketing and management firms. How else could all firms "value work and family," or "care about mentoring," or "seek to develop professional skills"?

I'm just waiting for one of these firms to call itself "Oceania"!

Anonymous said...

It's amusing to hear a law school professor complaining that law firms don't train their associates. Guess what? that's how things work in the real world. You learn through a process of trial & error and just sheer hard knocks.

Law schools in my opinion are the real problem. Too many professors are like you - they left practice because they hated to deal with these real world realities.

My experience in law school showed me that most professor's would spend endless amounts of time discussing topics that were totally divorced from real world realities. Instead, we'd be subjected to mind-numbling boring discussions of esoteric law review articles written by either them or their colleagues.

Law school should be reduced to one year, with the second year dedicated to a practicum. the third year should be eliminated.

Gregory W. Bowman said...

You should check out my other posts on this blog. I practiced for 10 years, and I did not leave practice because I hated it.

In addition, I work just as many hours as a law professor as I did in practice. You can value that work or not, as you see fit--but the point is that teaching, when properly done, is not a working vacation. It is, on the other hand, incredibly rewarding (and I think important) to teach and to research about problems with the law and possible solutions to those problems.

The problem with eliminating law school is that it is not just a trade school, nor should it be. Again, check out my other posts on this. And thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

Would "annoymous" be a corporate lawyer by any chance? They are usually the ones that believe they already know everything and do not require training. However, he/she is absolutely correct - one method of learning is through trial and error - the point of learning in a training environment is that you can learn without doing any damage unlike the real world.