Guidelines for an Effective Associate Training Program

The following is an excerpt from the Law Practice Division’s publication The Survival Guide to Implementing Effective Law Firm Management Strategies.

A well-designed and properly implemented associate training program will pay huge dividends.

There are two main issues. First, develop a training plan that will ensure that associates get up to speed quickly and are able to bring value to their client service efforts. In this market, sophisticated clients are skeptical about paying high associate rates when associates are learning their way through cases at the clients’ expense.

Second, and equally important, is making associates feel as if the firm is committed to helping them develop as effective lawyers with a career plan. Associate turnover is expensive, but even worse is the fact that the associates with the best potential will be the first to go. If you don’t have an associate training program, develop one.

Step 1. Develop a Useful and Informative Associate Orientation Process

Law schools do not prepare their graduates for the complexities of the workplace or working in an office setting. To ensure that an associate gets off to a successful start, the law firm needs a thoughtful, organized, and phased approach to orientation.

Orientation should include an office tour and information regarding these topics:

  • Salary and benefits,
  • Associate evaluations, salary reviews, and partnership criteria,
  • Associate training and CLE policy,
  • Rules of professional responsibility and trust accounting,
  • Secretarial and administrative support,
  • Policies and procedures,
  • Practice management,
  • Timekeeping, calendars, and docket control,
  • Filing systems,
  • Billing procedures,
  • Financial aspects of a law firm,
  • Firm management.

Participants may change, depending on the subject matter. Because the information is best absorbed if it is spread out in digestible chunks, most firms schedule a series of two-hour sessions over a two-week period.

Step 2. Develop an Organized Associate Training Program

Gone are the days of rotating new associates through several departments in six month intervals to expose them to each area of the law. Unfortunately, high associate salaries have made it impossible for most firms to give their associates a two-year training rotation before having them select their focused practice area.

Opportunities for learning by doing or watching others have diminished as clients insist on clear value for the hours they pay for. At the same time, high associate salaries put pressure on law firms to bill out every associate hour they can find. These competing dilemmas have resulted in most firms hiring new associates for specific practice areas and getting them to bill as many hours as possible. Some old-timers will say the new associates will never be as good because of their limited training and narrow focus.

There is another aspect to this issue. When associates get thrown into narrow practice areas, they are not capable of picking up work should the need arise to assist overloaded lawyers in other practice areas. From a financial vantage point, having lawyers who are versatile will allow the shifting of work from time to time,
which will result in greater profits. While rotation of practice areas may be out of the question, consider ways to allow each associate to develop some ability to work in a second practice area.

An associate training program should include:

  • Monitoring a task performance list for associates in the practice area,
  • Developing a secondary task performance list for associates to learn the basics in each practice area,
  • Providing in-house CLE programs,
  • Allowing outside provider CLE programs, and
  • Adopting an associate training hours policy.

Making sure all associates in the practice area can learn by performing all of the tasks set out on a list is a good way to ensure that each associate attains a certain level of experience in learning by doing. Some firms develop a shorter list for each practice area to guide associates in some level of cross training. .

In addition to on-the-job experience, CLE is critical. In-house CLE programs and outside CLE courses provide different types of information, and each has a place in a well-designed associate training program.

The associate training program should be managed by a lawyer assigned to that role or, if the firm has more than ten associates, by a committee. The lawyer or committee in charge of the program should be supported by the firm’s administrator, who can take on many of the duties. Some firms look to one or more experienced paralegals to have a role in the associate training program.

Step 3. Develop and Implement a Mentoring Program

Mentoring is a critical component of developing successful lawyers. Unfortunately, most firms have difficulty getting their partners to take the time to effectively mentor associates. The best mentoring success stories involve matches of partners and associates that develop naturally, rather than in response to a compulsory program.

The mentor’s role is often described in these ways:

  • Helping the associate understand the workings of the firm,
  • Being a confidant and a good listener,
  • Guiding the associate through personal or office-related problems,
  • Being an advocate for the associate or providing balance to any discussion,
  • Assisting the associate with career plans,
  • Joining the associate at bar association and community events,
  • Socializing and becoming a friend.

A fundamental question is whether the mentor should be a lawyer with whom the associate works regularly. Some claim that the close working relationship makes for an ideal mentor-mentee relationship. But it is better to have a more neutral and objective mentor, someone who is removed from day-to-day work. The mentor is then in a position to assist if a difficult issue involves the supervising partner, which often can be the case.

For a mentoring program to be effective, the mentee also has a vital role. The mentee must be willing to learn from the mentor, be able think independently, be willing to ask questions, be committed to personal and career growth as well as the overall success of the firm, be willing to accept direction and constructive feedback, and be proactive.

The mentee’s responsibilities should include those shown below:

  • Reading and becoming familiar with the orientation manual and the mentoring program guidelines; understanding the mentee’s role in the process,
  • Regularly communicating with the mentor,
  • Attending prescheduled meetings as agreed to with the mentor,
  • Bringing any problems with the mentor and/or the mentoring process to the appropriate individuals within the firm,
  • Developing an individual practice plan with personal and professional goals and updating the plan as needed,
  • Taking initiative in meeting career and personal goals,
  • Requesting help when needed regarding firm processes, procedures, culture, and philosophy, as well as substantive work,
  • Regularly evaluating progress against goals and objectives.

Unfortunately, the increased cost of providing legal services to clients has affected many firms’ commitment to time-consuming mentoring programs. Firms committed to making a mentoring program work will include mentoring as one of the factors considered in setting partner compensation. Compensation is always the ultimate management tool.

Step 4. Consider Associate Training Hours

Many firms have developed an associate training hours policy, which is designed to give all associates some opportunity to learn by watching partners practice law.

For example, such a policy might be that associates in their first two years of practice have annual billable hour commitments of eighteen hundred hours, but three hundred of those hours can be training hours, which do not need to be billed to the client. To operate under such a policy, firm management must be prepared to see only fifteen hundred billable hours from each associate in the first two years.

This can be an effective way to provide necessary experience to associates without requiring clients to pay for the time and without the risk of adverse ramifications.

Create a Positive Law Firm Environment 
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication The Survival Guide to Implementing Effective Law Firm Management Strategies. In this book, authors Arthur Greene and Sandra Boyer share the groundwork and policies you need to create a positive and successful law firm environment.

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