Training of New Associates in Small Firms

A million years ago, I was a brand-new associate.  Fresh out of law school, I was eager to impress with my knowledge, and painfully aware of my thin experience.  I was the only associate at my small firm, and I quickly found the other new associates in my building so we could have lunch, compare notes, and ask each other the rookie questions we were too embarrassed to take to anyone in our own firms.

Now with the benefit of years, and having raised a few of my own associates, I offer a few suggestions about how to raise your associate to be a good future partner.

  1. Invite new lawyers to observe everything. Initial consultations with clients, group presentations, telephonic hearings, Rule 26 / 16 conferences, actual hearings.  Let them observe the difficult moments, too, the ones where it is hard for you as a lawyer, because the facts are bad or the law is not on your side.  Bring them back in chambers if possible.  While you may not be able to bill for their time, being able to observe how a variety of lawyers handle these situations will help them find their voice when their time comes.

When I clerked for a trial court judge, we enjoyed a steady stream of visitors to our chambers.  My judge was always most pleased when local lawyers brought new associates to be introduced.  He would always be sure to tell them to come see him after he issued his rulings on their cases – he wanted to make sure they knew what they did well and what they did wrong.

  1. Teach them how to be the bearers of bad news to clients.  We lost that argument, I could do that but it will be expensive and you can’t afford it, sudden surprise bad development.  As with all communications, this takes substance and style: they have to actually give the bad news with a CYA letter where appropriate, and make the client feel they appreciate how bad this is, in a way that the client doesn’t have unrealistic expectations.  I am convinced that many malpractice / ethics complaints would be avoided if clients were dealt with promptly, honestly, and compassionately.

Giving the bad news is hard, particularly if we, as lawyers, are to blame for the bad circumstances.  But, as the saying goes, “Good news will wait; bad news won’t go away.”  Teach them to give the bad news promptly.

  1. Have new lawyers prepare case summaries of new opinions in their area of practice, and give a five-minute presentation about them to your other lawyers at regular intervals.  This requirement helps keep them up to speed on their area, and prepares them for presenting an expert and facing questions from a judge.
  1. Set a good example by being a lifetime learner.  Go to CLEs or presentations outside your practice area.  Learn new technologies.  Have a hobby.  New lawyers will never know everything about everything, no matter how hard they try.  Neither will anyone else.  So show them it’s okay to be someone who asks questions, who is willing to be taught.

Learning a hobby will have the secondary effect of aiding their marketing.  Being able to chat about an interesting new trail they explored, or the latest iOS8 developments, or the bicycle they are reassembling will make them more relatable to your clients.

  1. Let the associates speak in court. Nothing focuses the mind like knowing you will have to present an argument all on your own with the eyes of the court resting only on you, and a client sitting adjacent hearing every word.  I like to send my associates to the ex parte docket, and I encourage them to stay and listen to the other lawyers on the docket. On the way back to the office, we discuss the lawyers’ performance and the court’s reactions.

If nothing in your firm is appropriate, look for volunteer opportunities with legal aid or a pro bono client.  Many legal aid organizations will train your associates on the fundamentals of restraining orders, evictions, or misdemeanor defense, and in relatively short order, send them to court to represent clients.  Practicing law is a privilege, and such volunteer work is an outstanding way to recognize that privilege while gaining practical experience.

I can still remember my first legal argument–I bet you can too!

  1. Talk to the associates about the business of your firm. They will not know, if you do not tell them, about how your firm budgets for salaries, marketing, and rent.  Don’t make your compensation plan a mystery.  Some firms fear disclosure of this type of information will disrupt the power balance within the firm or will lead to disclosure outside the firm.  If this is your fear, try a gradual approach.  As you build a relationship with your associates, you will be able to trust them more.  Remember, if your associates are fresh from law school, they likely have more student loan debt than you can imagine, and finding ways to be profitable is as important to them as it is to you.  Respect their ambition and put it to good use.
  1. Be clear with associates about how one becomes a partner at the firm. Is it based on client generation, revenue generation, specialty area, marketing concerns? Is there a buy-in?  Do the other partners vote?  What time frame is realistic?   If there is no formal plan, be willing to talk to them about the considerations that go into this decision.
  1. Encourage your associates to join local lawyer organizations and national bar organizations. It will expose them to a whole world of practice beyond the small firm and connect them with similarly situated lawyers.

I am very proud of my associates.  Here’s the hard truth–sometimes you sink your time, your resources, and your heart into an associate, only to have them leave for greener pastures.  I like to think that they shine in those pastures in part because I helped to raise them right.   And I hope they are doing the same for their associates.

About the Author

Susan D. Pitchford is a partner in Chernoff Vilhauer LLP, an intellectual property law firm in Portland, Oregon. She can be reached at 503.227.5631 or




(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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