As we know, important transactions in our economy always involve the law. That wide range of possibilities underscores the professional development challenge facing new lawyers as they embark on their careers. The equally wide range of possible clients suggests being at least somewhat knowledgeable about changes in the law and in industries, and alert to new client opportunities. The lawyer development process can be a positive and unifying experience for your firm, and can enable the lawyers in your firm to get to know each other in a neutral (non-client project or task) and more relaxed way. While this article concerns firms that primarily represent entities, some of these concepts apply to any new lawyer or firm.
Have a Structure
First, focus on the lawyers’ internal need to both “fit in” and be able to complete tasks and projects as effectively as possible. Then focus on the external client-centered topics.
Firms that have at least a somewhat organized professional development program are better placed to offer new lawyers information that both informs and enables new lawyers to self-assess their commitment to certain practice areas. Practice areas require an in-depth understanding of not only the relevant law, but also industry trends and particular risks that clients face. The credibility of your professional development program will be enhanced if you reduce the billable hours goal of each new lawyer during this period.
Let Me Count the Ways
What skills are necessary? When should the necessary skills be imparted? How long should it take? Is it possible to measure results?
New lawyers first require guidance on how to “fit in” and manage their workload. Fitting in includes respect for staff, when to close the office door, and even anger management and other firm cultural issues deemed important enough to discuss. Next, new lawyers will benefit from insights about supervising the work of others. This ranges from knowing whether they have actually been given a project to knowing when to seek assistance to avoid wasted effort. Has your firm experienced a partner’s disappointment when an assignment the partner had delegated was not perceived as being delegated by a new lawyer? A good professional development program also recognizes that the new lawyer faces a balancing act of competing priorities, managing interruptions, and personal work-life balance concerns.
The first program might include these topics (with real-life examples for each topic):
- Our Firm Culture & History (tips on fitting in, major client successes, who from the firm is on the bench)
- Time Management (priorities and procrastination)
- Project Planning (resources and outcomes)
- Use of Resources (what the firm provides as well as outside resources)
- Managing Information Overload (how to channel email)
- Effective Communication (requesting, questioning, saying no, how to listen)
- Contributing to the Team (when and how to support, when to get out of the way)
- Understanding the Value of Initiative (anticipating, questioning, spotting wasted effort)
- Taking Responsibility (taking ownership, keeping the client’s goals in mind)
- Creative Thinking (problem solving, a safe environment for ideas)
The first six months of employment is the best time to address the above topics. The amount of time required for each topic will vary. Involve as many of the partners and senior lawyers as instructors as possible. Throughout the development period, all supervising attorneys will observe the results based on improving performance of the new lawyers. The learning process is both a “ramp up” and a “light switch” depending on the individual new lawyer. Ponder your own professional development scenario of years ago and remember the maxim, “The best way to learn is to teach.”
Understanding how to supervise the work of others is the next phase. Here we might include these topics:
- Organizing Necessary Resources (what the firm offers, staff with particular expertise)
- Delegation Skills (the task, the purpose, the deadline, communicating completion or delay)
- Motivational Skills (praise, properly counseling error, safe environment for ideas, giving feedback)
- Team Building (who should be on the team, who can be on the team, who wants to be on the team, involvement and information sharing)
- Evaluating Results and Providing Feedback (very important for GEN-X, GEN-Y, and Millenials)
- Budgeting Time (how long should/can the project and sub-tasks take)
- Managing Meetings (prior notice, clear purpose, start on time, encourage participation, limit chit chat, end on time)
- Monitoring the Work and Anticipating Problems (milestones, watching for frustrations or delays).
This second list of topics might be spread over the next 12 months in a less rigorous fashion than the first list of topics. Use the same “faculty” as above and consider adding outside facilitators on occasion.
Client relations skills and client development skills should be expected from all new lawyers. Understand that not all lawyers are created equal for these skills (or have the desire to learn and use them) but that does not mean anyone is totally off the hook. If the new lawyer has an interest in partnership some day, the firm will notice and pay attention to those who develop these skills. While books have been written about these skills and these books are worth referring to, an equally valuable resource is the successful partner who walks into the new lawyer’s office, closes the door, and begins to describe a fascinating fact pattern, client idiosyncrasies, and a subsequent triumph of client relations. And this success was because that partner understood the client’s industry and context. That partner perhaps subscribed to the same trade publications as the client. Such anecdotal story telling will supplement a program that may include these client development topics:
- Understanding and Responding to a Request for Proposal
- Writing a Personal Business Development Plan
- Understanding the Importance of Networks
- Improving Interpersonal Skills
- Recognizing Business Development Opportunities
- Appropriate Ways of Working Prospects
After the client is on board, we might move on to topics such as:
- Good Listening Skills (the client is more than a file number)
- Ensuring the Client Receives Value (describing what is not needed to be done)
Keeping the Client Informed (know the client’s preferences as to how and when)
- Understanding the Goals of the Client (are they realistic, if not—how to address this)
- Visiting the Client Premises Not on the Clock (very important where feasible)
- Understanding the Client’s Industry and Attendant Risks (have this conversation with the client, invite the client to an all-attorney meeting)
- Building Rapport to the Point of Trusted Adviser (you have reached the summit!)
Back to the Future
If the new lawyer has a future with the firm, another area to focus on is the business side of the firm, and business in general. The fourth and fifth years of employment are likely the best time. Include these topics:
- Your Firm’s Structure (legal entity, committees, etc.)
- Law Firm Economics (where the money comes from and where it goes)
- Fee Alternatives (what the firm does or may consider doing)
- Billing Protocols (how does the billing process happen)
- Management Reports (very important to understand)
- Competition to the Firm (probably obvious but worth a discussion)
- Financial Statements (balance sheet, income statement, cash flow)
- Institutions Such as the Federal Reserve, financial markets, regulatory agencies
- Functional Areas of Businesses (human resources, finance, operations, marketing, technology)
- International Markets (how important are exports and imports to your clients)
Faculty may include your legal administrator and CPA.
Don’t Forget the Anecdotes
The informal knowledge about clients, industries, fact patterns, and foibles your firm possesses is priceless and should be encouraged in an engaging and consistent way. That is why a somewhat structured new lawyer development program is essential to ensure the major pieces of the professional development puzzle are not overlooked. Your new lawyers should understand the importance of and welcome your investment in them with these basic areas of knowledge, and they will appreciate how this investment will help ensure their success throughout their careers.
About the Author
Peter Roberts is a private practice management consultant for lawyers and formerly was the practice management advisor in the Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP) of the Washington State Bar Association. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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