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Washington Lawyer

The Professional Development Imperative: Ongoing Training Keeps New Lawyers Invested

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2015

By Sarah Kellogg

Mentoring. Image courtesy of Getty Images. The secret of law school is that no one really comes out prepared to practice law. The justice system is far too arcane and complex to be learned in a lecture, and the administrative intricacies of jurisprudence are best taught by watching and doing rather than by reading and discussing.

Certainly, legal analysis, research, and writing—law school’s meat-and-potatoes subjects—are essential in a legal career, but so are filing depositions, knowing brief page limits, and figuring out court procedures by asking the clerk’s office—with a telephone call. Administrative minutia has always accounted for so much of the daily practice of law, and most of it is only learned in the trenches.

For today’s lawyers, the challenge is even greater. New lawyers need to manage the legal bureaucracy but also be well versed in social media, Google Scholar, and the Cloud as law firms, large and small, and government agencies shift increasingly to the Internet. It is surely a brave new world.

“We all learn on the job,” says Rebecca Gray, who was an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP before going off on her own at GrayLegal PLLC. “I learned so much more by doing than anything else. The most valuable training I got at Gibson Dunn was working closely with extremely talented, experienced litigators and watching how they did things.”

Then how best to transition from law school to lifelong learning? Experts say the answer is simple: A robust personal learning and training strategy, no matter if you’re a solo practitioner, in-house counsel, big-law associate, or government attorney. Such an investment improves productivity, fosters business expertise, and fortifies the hourly value of lawyers in the eyes of both their senior colleagues and clients.

In the past, the legal industry’s professional development model centered on the associate apprenticeship and mentorship system. A critical component has always been the mentor who was equal parts confidante, career counselor, and case whisperer. New lawyers were given time to grow into their roles through on-the-job training, nurtured under the watchful eye of a senior attorney.

Things changed after 2008, especially in big law firms. Clients were no longer interested in paying full freight for associates who were learning on the job. Law firms found themselves second-guessing the conventional route associates took to partnership, a path that had been forged decades before. Post-recession, the mentorship was too deliberate and slow. It devoured the time of both mentor and student. And, most disturbingly, the time wasn’t billable.

“The recession shifted the power to clients in the big-firm world where firms had always been in the driver’s seat,” says Daniel M. Mills, assistant director of the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service. “They were clear that they couldn’t staff their cases with associates and train them at the same time on their dollar. Partners weren’t delegators anymore, they had to practice law again. There wasn’t as much time for mentorship.”

A new professional development model was needed for this new era. The majority of lawyers and law firms understood that professional development adds value in building a broader knowledge base for the firm as well as an internal and external “brand” for lawyers. The challenge was in redesigning internal programs for this new age of thrift, productivity, and prosperity.

“As the industry moved past the recession, we continued to focus on continuing legal education (CLE), but we’ve increasingly directed our attention to leadership and business development skills for associates and newer partners,” says Joseph M. Maguire, professional development and continuing legal education manager at Reed Smith LLP. “Out in the marketplace, they have to have a level of credibility with clients, who expect them to be well versed in the practice subject matter but also in the other key elements of client management. Can you effectively budget and run my matter? Do you have good client service skills? Can you be a trusted advisor?”

Given the significant pressure to prove to clients that associates and junior partners are worthy of their hourly rates, most new lawyers have embraced in-house training programs with gusto. Acquiring new skills, tactics, and knowledge to advance client interests is the surest way for these lawyers to convince clients of the value of their abilities. It’s also a strong risk management strategy for firms still ironing out the kinks from the economic downturn.

Yet, not every firm has embraced the accommodation in professional development. Smaller firms face financial pressures, and solo practitioners are on their own. Some doubt that investing in business development and leadership training for associates and junior partners will pay off over the long term, especially if it comes at the cost of billable hours. Instead, many firms still rely on a combination of mentoring, CLE courses, and periodic professional development seminars to flesh out their professional development practices.

“The amount of time and energy that people have in firms to devote to skills training has just gone down,” says Michelle Richards, a Washington, D.C.-based executive coach and former lawyer who has been coaching lawyers and other high-achieving professionals since 2007. “[You’re] lucky if you’re able to find somebody who has the time inside the law firm for that kind of mentoring. People feel so pressured by their billable hours that if you’re going to ask someone to give you time, it’s going to have to be essential to the firm.”

Determining what’s essential has become a critical test for most professional development programs in large and small firms, as well as in government offices, and it often presents some problems for the talent experts who have to justify hours and days attorneys spend away from the office. Learning remains one of those endeavors where only the most concrete instructional programs can be easily quantified—and billed to a client.

Even so, there is a recognition that the lifelong learning movement is here to stay, which may account for why so many new lawyers are taking command of their own professional development, shouldering the cost of acquiring new skills and tools. This is especially true with Millennials who bring a 21st-century understanding to the urgency of staying relevant through marketing and social media.

Ultimately, law firms, government agencies, and in-house offices that look to the long term are more likely to invest in professional development programs that nurture culture and build leadership, while still remaining focused on the competing pressures of client development and budget cutting. Talent development is harder to sell if the firm’s goals emphasize short-term gains or budget balancing. Like so many factors inside firms, professional development is becoming a clear differentiator for both associates and partners as they weigh whether to join or stay with firms. 

A Wealth of Options
The stated purpose of most professional development programs is to provide new lawyers in any size firm or government office with the skills they need to both be ready and able to begin their work. These programs help associates integrate into the firm, absorb its culture, and get to know its people, including those in other offices and other countries. Most importantly, these programs are designed to turn novices into contributing members of the organization.

There is no one-size-fits-all development program that can be equally as effective for a sole practitioner as for an associate in the largest of firms. Rather, talent development programs must be tailored to the firms and individuals they serve, reflecting the culture and priorities of each firm.

While associate mentoring and associate development programs are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. Associate development programs are an extensive package of programs that educate new lawyers to be a part of the firm and participate in its work. Mentorship is based on building a relationship between a senior partner and an associate to share resources and answer questions.

Despite the recent push for more variety in professional development offerings, mentoring has been and continues to be the gold standard for training associates and junior partners for many law firms. Around as long as lawyers have been practicing law, mentoring remains a key ingredient of the learning process for associates because it emphasizes on developing personal relationships between associates and partners.

At Feldesman Tucker Leifer Fidell LLP, a mid-size firm that specializes in family law and health care law, mentoring is a crucial part of the culture—and an essential element to the successful development of its corps of associates and junior partners. Each partner is assigned an associate, and provides the kind of soup-to-nuts guidance that encompasses everything from how to fill out time sheets to how to deal with abusive clients.

“From the management perspective, your lawyers are your most valuable asset,” says Jonathan Dana, co-managing partner at Feldesman Tucker. “You want to grow them and help them succeed. At this firm, it’s important that everybody succeed. Family law can be kind of tough because you end up absorbing a lot of emotional stuff, and you need to be prepared for whatever comes. The mentoring helps.”

For Elizabeth Selmo, a family law associate at Feldesman Tucker, the firm’s culture of collegiality is a potent force in growing her career. “It’s so helpful to be able to get off the phone and just go and revisit what made [the case] challenging,” Selmo says. “It’s important to be able to understand what’s the legal piece of the problem and what has to do with the client. I appreciate getting advice on how to help the client through it.”

An advantage of mentoring over heavily scheduled development programs is its ability to manage matters and how lawyers should act in theory and practice. “I think there’s always going to be a major seasoning process,” Dana says. “You can learn the law, but a lot of it is discretionary and based on broad statutory provisions. What really is important in our business is experience, seeing something 5, 6, 10, or 300 times.”

One of the rare drawbacks of mentoring, however, is the fact that new attorneys can become sequestered in a specific practice group, with a mentor from that same group as well. That means new lawyers end up having less access to more diverse experiences and learning opportunities. In such cases, talent development leaders say it’s important to work harder to ensure associates are able to round out their knowledge and experience.

That’s why many learning officers inside firms have pushed for a two-track approach to associate development—establishing a mentorship where possible as well as a vigorous professional development program centered on classroom training and workshops.

Professional development as practiced by the nation’s largest law firms can look more like an institution of higher education than a subsection of the human resources or recruitment office. A number of large law firms have opened “universities” that oversee their talent management programs. They are as varied as their owners, but they all share a common goal: preparing their attorneys for the future.

A prominent example is Reed Smith University (RSU), which launched in 2004 as a partnership with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Comprised of five “schools,” RSU was the first of its kind to offer hundreds of classes to support lawyers, clients, and staff. Its schools include Law, Leadership, Business Development, Technology, and Professional Support, which serves support staff.

Meanwhile, the Kirkland Institute at Kirkland & Ellis LLP provides year-round training opportunities for its associates, partners, and clients. New attorneys are encouraged to participate early at the firm, defending depositions, drafting transaction documents or security filings, and arguing motions in court. The Kirkland talent team provides the firm lawyers with the kind of training that could change their futures.

What distinguishes some of the larger firms is their requirement that associates, junior partners, and partners participate in talent development programs. There is no free pass out of them. The firms make it clear that learning is a priority for the organization, and it should be for the individual as well.

“By having mandatory programs, it tells people that in addition to the expectations on associates for work and office commitments, training is important, too,” says Gregg LoCascio, P.C., a partner at Kirkland & Ellis. “It’s not just something that is available, it’s required.”

For Arnold & Porter LLP, professional development became a natural extension of the firm’s pro bono work in the District, providing a win-win for the firm and its attorneys. Its Criminal Practice Institute’s annual training program is devoted to the issues of criminal procedure and criminal law in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The six-session program prepares associates and partners to work on everything from simple assault cases to homicides. The in-house training continues with monthly lunches and moot court for whenever cases go to trial.

“I think our associates are coming out of law school fully capable of doing the work. The lawyers go through the training, and if they are members of the D.C. Bar, they become eligible to work on cases with me representing people in Superior Court,” says Mary C. Kennedy, counsel at the firm. “The orientation program and class training is to get them acclimated to Superior Court. As they progress at the law firm, they are exposed to client representation. . . through the pro bono commitment.” 

More Responsibility, Less Experience
With law firm metrics changing so dramatically after the recession, firm leaders have become exceedingly cost conscious, looking for efficiencies and employing associates in a more cost-effective manner, filling gaps and expecting more of new lawyers.

Most senior associates and junior partners today have much more difficult assignments than they did before the recession. Many of them have enormous responsibilities and those duties come to them much sooner than they did in the past. Some are supervising matters that would have been the purview of partners, often running large teams, presiding over budgets, and managing client relationships.

“Twenty years ago, today’s senior associates would look like partners,” Reed Smith’s Maguire says. “That’s why they need help developing skills around delegation, feedback, and assembling teams, as well as interacting with clients and generating additional work from clients.”

Strikingly, though, the focus of most professional development programs in the past was not on best practices in project management. Certainly, if a mentor had a great track record at project management, associates could learn from him or her, but it wasn’t until recently that professional development staffers began looking at ways to provide these basic skills.

No surprise, of course, that associates are eager to take on more responsibility and for a chance to develop proficiency, if only to increase their value to the organization. After all, they have borne the majority of the downsizing in the last seven years, and they face intense pressure to find and keep jobs at law firms. If the law firm is less interested in meeting every need, it’s no wonder these lawyers have become, in effect, free agents.

As free agents they understand that their knowledge and skills are portable, and that the only security they have these days is their ability to manage those talents and take them from one firm to the next. In that sense, they are more entrepreneurial and less willing than their more experienced peers to be compartmentalized into practice niches with narrow futures.

“The challenge for young associates coming up to the partnership stages is they haven’t all had access to the professional development that they need,” says Richards, the executive coach and lawyer. “Firms have been in such survival mode that these kinds of best practices are seen as additional and desirable, but we need to work on the fundamentals first.”

Recognizing the shifting dynamics, a number of larger firms have begun to arm associates with the tools they need to succeed, even if they risk the associate or junior partner leaving for another law firm. Firm executives say the risk is calculated, and worth it. More often than not, associates appreciate the effort and are more willing to stay at organizations that invest in their employees.

“You look at the current people we recruit,” LoCascio says. “They don’t want to be a cog in a big machine. We’re at a point where people are much more vocal about their expectations and what they want from a firm. They want to know their voice and their contribution to the team is valued.”

It not only makes good business sense, it’s a good human resources move. Associates who have expressed satisfaction with their work are more likely to stay, especially if they receive regular feedback on their work, have access to ongoing training, and are given a mentor. In this sense, professional development becomes a route to job security.

The financial vulnerability of law firms even calls into question the notion of “paying your dues” in order to earn a place among the partners. No wonder many new attorneys want to speed up the learning process and vetting phase of their “apprenticeship” to accept a promotion to partnership.

Resilient CLE
One of the many steps on that path to partnership has always been CLE programs. They have been the core of professional development for attorneys at every level of the profession and in every position. CLE is especially valuable for solo practitioners, in-house counsel, and some government attorneys who have fewer chances to participate in well-orchestrated learning programs. The distilled information found in CLE courses on issues ranging from drafting contracts to medical malpractice to personal injury litigation is the essence of knowledge transfer.

CLE also is a bridge between what new lawyers learned in law school and the realities of practicing in law firms, government agencies, or corporations. CLE programs can put new lawyers on a firm footing that prepares them for the next phase of their legal education, or they can be helpful for veteran lawyers making career transitions, such as switching from a government post to a smaller firm. CLE also happens to be an efficient way to stay up to date with case law.

Often lawyers are mandated to take a certain number of CLE courses annually by state bars. In the District of Columbia, attorneys are not required to, although newly admitted lawyers must complete the Mandatory Course on the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct and District of Columbia Practice within 12 months of their Bar admission.

CLE programs also serve as a vetting opportunity for different practice areas. If new attorneys are uncertain about their career choices, they can delve deeper into the subject matter. They can also use the sessions to build their network.

Post-recession, CLE has become a harder sell in some firms, although it remains especially popular with government attorneys and in-house counsel for acquiring knowledge in an organized and accessible fashion. In mid-size and large law firms, associates may ignore entreaties from professional development staffers to attend workshops, staying hunkered down over their work. Even for in-house and government attorneys, attendance at CLE sessions can be difficult given the pressures to produce, but CLE remains one of the best ways for lawyers to network among their peers.

Of late, the competition for professional development dollars has gotten fiercer. The traditional CLE approach of delving deeply into a point of law or revealing new tools for attorneys has been supplanted, in part, by practically focused sessions. The nuts and bolts of the law are more important than ever.

“I think it’s an indication of how things have shifted,” Mills says. “A lot of lawyers are looking for a more entrepreneurial approach. There’s a recognition that the skills you need to be a great problem-solver for your clients are not the skills you need to grow your firm.”

Beyond CLE
Most firms have recognized the urgency of responding to an evolving legal industry and the price sensitivity of clients by adopting a more business-oriented mindset. That business culture has prompted new interest in leadership and business development programs that serve both partners and associates.

Beyond mentoring, Feldesman Tucker has adopted some of the new professional development practices that might be part of the portfolio of a larger operation. The firm invited a public relations person to meet with associates to review their personal business plans. The idea is to build a meaningful biography for each associate and create a social media face to promote services. “Everybody is involved in getting the word out,” Dana says. “We have a firm image, not necessarily a focus on individual lawyers.”

While communications and marketing courses have been elevated to must-haves, many of the training programs that operate away from CLE are focused on growing individual knowledge about the business community, leading teams, and managing massive projects. Law firms still seek out leadership as one of those qualifications in people, but aren’t always satisfied with the results of that leadership.

“This investment in professional development is an enormous commitment by the firm, but it’s part of the culture,” LoCascio says. “It’s seen as a differentiator for the brand. It’s about everybody here working to keep our clients happy, and what clients want are people who are partners in the work and who have the skills to work effectively with them.”

Many firms are lagging behind their corporate counterparts when it comes to their business acumen. Leadership courses emphasize building the governance and supervisory skills that will serve attorneys not only in the courtroom but also in the boardroom. Additionally, talent development courses focus on creating and managing teams, project management, and time management, “soft skills” that sit outside the law.

“I’ve started offering my time management seminars to law firms, and it’s been surprising how many lawyers have welcomed the advice and tactics,” says Dan Simons, a professional development coach and co-owner of the Founding Farmers Restaurant Group. “They are swamped with work. They have very little time in their days to cope, and they don’t have the tools they need to manage the deluge. I help them think through their priorities and give them effective tactics to make sound choices.” 

Where Apprenticeship Still Matters
For some attorneys in Washington, D.C., a long legal apprenticeship is not only helpful, it’s required. The Office of the Legislative Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives is home to a fairly unique brand of the law and 46 well-trained attorneys who specialize in it: legislative drafting for members of Congress.

“Lawyers spend about one year in the tutorial program where you’re really not a contributor to the workload during that time. It’s nothing like a law firm. It really is an apprenticeship,” says Warren Burke, the office’s assistant counsel and a past president of the Federal Bar Association (FBA). “We want them to learn first.

“After you graduate from tutorial, you receive your subject areas. During the tutorial you have an attorney supervising everything you’re doing. Once you graduate, you have your own clients. It can be a thrilling but perhaps a scary moment for you,” he adds.

The work is eclectic enough that it’s nearly impossible for even an experienced attorney to hit the ground running in the Counsel’s office. Few of the legion of lawyers who populate the Hill are trained in the intricacies of legislative drafting and procedure. The Counsel’s office becomes a resource, and House staffers come to the office with ideas for drafting and drafts for vetting. (A similar office exists in the U.S. Senate.)

Burke says Counsel attorneys can usually tell whether there’s an enforcement mechanism included or not, and they are able to determine whether the new law would work with existing laws on the books.

“You go to law school and you’re taught cases,” Burke says. “You get the impression that the law starts with judges and their opinions and not with the legislative branch and members of Congress. A lot of times that gets lost in the shuffle at law school. Legislative lawyering is not really focused on in legal training in law school.”

For congressional and government attorneys like Burke, general professional development is a hit-or-miss proposition. Most of their talent development options come through the FBA and the Women’s Bar Association. Both groups present a suite of CLE offerings. Additionally, Burke and his colleagues are able to access subject-matter training from the Congressional Research Service. These more esoteric courses focus on topics such as public policy, foreign affairs, trade, and domestic social issues.

One program that has received a great deal of attention is the National Advocacy Center (NAC), which is operated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Located at the University of South Carolina, more than 20,000 people in U.S. Attorneys offices are trained in advocacy skills and management operations annually. 

On Your Own
For sole practitioners and in-house counsel, there’s a recognition that professional development may hold the key to greater success, but the opportunities for learning will be homegrown and discrete. Tracking legal developments, learning about new technologies, or figuring out how to best use social media applications all constitute important elements of the practice for an ambitious attorney.

An in-house attorney or solo practitioner with no major infrastructure to back up professional development needs to be creative in looking for programming that serves his or her needs but also happens to be affordable and timely.

“I’m a trial-focused litigator,” says Gray of GrayLegal. “Before a trial, I pick an aspect of it and then bill time to myself for working on that. I’ve been focused on voir dire lately because I think I could learn more about that. I spent a lot of time over a weekend or two reading everything I could get my hands on about best practices and different techniques. Obviously there’s a benefit to my client, but it’s something that I’m doing for myself, too.”

Small law firms and solo practitioners are the prime targets of CLE courses offered by local bar associations, specialized online courses and workshops, and CLE retreats and conferences. In fact, legal conferences are a valuable way to make connections and to find knowledgeable experts in a field that could be of later use. A number of organizations offer specialized training programs to address specific practice areas. A fine example is The National Institute for Trial Advocacy program, which provides comprehensive trial advocacy training for attorneys.

The Internet also presents a new and relatively deep opportunity to cull information about the law practice and legal issues. An illustration of this is Larry Kaye, a litigator and founder of Litigation Strategy and Training, who posts brief articles on his LinkedIn page that attorneys can access and read. And the Environmental Law Institute invites lawyers to participate in Webinars of their presentations on key environmental issues.

For individual attorneys, mentors can be found in a variety of ways. They can seek out someone at a conference, a workshop, or a former firm where they worked, engaging them in a mentoring relationship that could prove quite beneficial. Or they could reach out to a coach and pay a few for their services as both mentor and educator.

“People coming to me for help want to be happier and more successful in their law firms or in their own practice,” Richards says. “For them, they’re looking for a way to believe that things can be better. They’re setting a goal. They’re engaging their strengths and values.”

A more unconventional way to access professional development for solo attorneys can be through altruism, of sorts. By volunteering for an organization or serving on a bar committee, many attorneys build up expert networks, develop mentoring relationships, and learn handy tips and tricks about the legal profession. 

A Competitive Advantage
If law school is a strong footing for the law, then professional development—whether self-initiated or mandated by the boss—becomes the building blocks for a long and varied career. It provides opportunities and networks, mentors, and coaches, and it opens up new areas of the law for pleasure and for work. But its value is also more tactical and specific. It creates a competitive advantage for the learner, as well as for the agency, company, or firm.

For that reason, the legal profession needs comprehensive talent development now more than ever, experts say. “A lot of what I hear about business development is really code words for marketing,” Mills says. “We told ourselves we’re above marketing. We don’t have to do it because we bought into the notion that as long as we’re brilliant problem solvers, the business will come to us. We’ve come to grips with the fact that that doesn’t necessarily work. The phone just doesn’t ring. We have to do something for ourselves to make it happen.”

As the profession has morphed, mid-size and large law firms are having to settle in with the discouraging thought that the golden years of near-limitless budgets may be gone for good. What’s left is a more sobering and scrappy environment, one that reflects the tough decisions made over the last seven years and the consequences of those choices.

And individual lawyers, on their own or inside organizations, have discovered that professional development is no panacea, but it is the best way forward to preserve the profession and to greet this new era with the agility and presence it demands.

“I think today is more challenging than before the recession,” Maguire says. “Even though the recession has passed, everything has changed. It’s not going to change back. There’s a whole lot more that is going to be required of individual lawyers, practice groups, and firms. We need to be prepared for that reality.”

Sarah Kellogg wrote about legal policy challenges in fighting infectious diseases in the April issue of Washington Lawyer.