The View From the Top

The legal profession has been under much scrutiny the last few years. Do new graduates possess the right lawyering skills to be practice ready? How can we improve skills training and professional development? What measures are needed to increase diversity, especially in the upper ranks of the legal profession?

The American Bar Association (ABA) and state bars have been organizing and brainstorming to help answer these questions and more. In 2012, the ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education was formed and charged to examine the problems and conditions in American legal education. The task force released a comprehensive report in early 2014 with key findings and recommendations, which include encouraging law schools to continue expanding their skills curriculum and practice-preparation opportunities for law students.

Similarly, state bars have increased efforts to improve new lawyers’ readiness to practice law. For example, the California State Bar Task Force on Admissions Regulation Reform has recommended new competency skills training requirements for newly admitted attorneys, including 10 hours of competency training MCLE in the first year of practice.

Diversity in the profession—or, more accurately, the lack of diversity—also continues to present a strong challenge. A recent update by the National Association of Legal Professionals shows that minorities account for 7.33% of partners in law firms and 21.6 percent of associates. The picture becomes even dimmer when it’s broken down to different minority groups.

As the much-needed reforms and discussions in the legal profession take shape, I talked with three of America’s top corporate clients: Lucy Helm (general counsel of Starbucks Corporation), Sandra Phillips (general counsel of Toyota Motor North America), and Neal Rubin (associate general counsel of Cisco Systems). I got their perspective on core competencies they expect in their outside counsel and recommendations for improving training and diversity at law firms.

Essential Skills for Stellar Attorneys

Even though legal research, analytical reasoning, and persuasive writing continue to remain on top of everyone’s lists, the interviews highlighted the high value clients place on an attorney’s business acumen, professionalism, and “soft skills.”

Business Acumen and Judgment

Truly grasping the bigger picture and putting a legal problem in the appropriate business context is what makes the difference between good and great lawyering. “I want a counselor and problem solver, not merely an academic or legal technician,” said Lucy Helm. The reason is that “it’s not a zero-sum game. Cases resolve for hundreds of reasons, so understanding the business is critical to the remedy and result. Your legal advice informs our business decisions, so you should try to think like a business person that has a J.D.,” Neal Rubin continued.

The clients agreed that junior attorneys should take the initiative to start learning and understanding their client’s business from day one. This should include understanding the client’s products and services, as well as their industry dynamics, history, key competitors, accomplishments, challenges, and worries. “Even in bigger firms where the junior attorneys at the bottom of the hierarchy need to give proper deference to their supervising attorneys, they can start by trying to understand for what that leader of the team is accountable to the client,” Sandra Phillips advised.

New attorneys can start learning about their client’s business from a variety of sources, including reading the Wall Street Journal, setting up Google and litigation alerts, and following company social media pages. The top suggestion from our esteemed panel, however, was to talk with supervising attorneys or clients about overall case strategies and the broader business picture.

Professionalism and Networking

All lawyers should have subject matter expertise, but it does not distinguish them. In addition to stellar work product, the clients stressed the importance of professionalism and nurturing the business relationship. Even at larger law firms, new attorneys still have some opportunities to interact with in-house lawyers. The opportunity may arise in client meetings or in the context of some of the less popular tasks, like coordinating the collection of documents for discovery or due diligence. Phillips, Rubin, and Helm advised new attorneys to use these opportunities to start building a personal connection with the client and to demonstrate good judgment and professionalism.

The clients also showed a genuine personal interest in the development of new attorneys staffed on their cases. “In-house attorneys can mentor you and advocate for you to get good opportunities on their matters,” stated Phillips.

“If we like your work and who you are, we can help you become an integral part of your firm’s business relationship with us,” stressed Rubin.

In a nutshell, human connection still matters greatly. “We hire people, not firms. The relationship is important. And I consider our outside attorneys to be an extension of our company. They should have the same culture and values, and believe in the things Starbucks believes are important,” Helm explained.

Communication Skills

Nothing excited the clients more than talking about the importance and challenges of professional communication. In today’s age of information overload, it has become even more important to produce efficient, practical, and user-friendly oral and written communication.

Rubin, Helm, and Phillips agreed that new lawyers should learn to communicate professionally and succinctly, regardless of the medium. They should also learn to deliver their work product in a user-friendly format, like always starting with or highlighting the answer or purpose of their communication. “After 30 seconds I need to know exactly why you’re here or emailing. Start with the answer, and then give as much detail as you think the client or partner wants to hear,” advised Rubin.

“The market place for newly admitted lawyers is different than when I started 24 years ago,” Phillips elaborated. “You have to cultivate your skills but in an efficient way. It’s not just about writing the perfect memo. We want to see efficiency and spending time only on issues that add value.”

Improving Training at Law Firms

Teach Associates Everyday Practical Skills

The clients agreed that professional development and training has to go beyond the bread and butter written and oral advocacy training. “Teach them to communicate effectively and efficiently. Train them to format their written communications. The needs of the in-house lawyer are often different from professors or supervising attorneys. We can’t always digest long memos, so succinct practical writing and formatting make a difference,” recommended Rubin.

In a nutshell, “let’s teach associates the day-to-day practical things about how to be a lawyer who actually solves client problems,” Helm elaborated.

Help Associates Understand the Bigger Picture

Not only should good training help new lawyers learn all tasks they need to undertake on a daily basis, but it also needs to put each task in the context of the bigger business picture. “Train associates to think and understand how their research and writing might fit into the legal strategy for the case, the client’s business, and changes and trends in the industry,” recommended Phillips.

Helm also provided an example of how even an administrative task like billing could be taught more effectively: “Firms should not just teach associates how to write down their time but how that works in the big picture—what actually gets billed to a client and what is written off. Teach new associates how a law firm operates and how partners eventually get paid for the work they bill.”

Improve Business Development Training

Law firms also should substantially improve the way business development is taught as an associate goes up the ladder. “The way law firms encourage business development is not sufficient. It’s not simply about getting clients. It’s about keeping and retaining clients. Encourage associates to read proxy statements and learn about a specific client’s business strategies. Talk to them about the culture of each client and how to build long-term relationships,” advised Helm.

Take Your Associates Off the Bench

Law firms need to invest in building confidence by involving associates in all aspects of matters they are staffed on, even if they cannot bill for it. “New lawyers need confidence. If associates sit on the bench for too long without doing things, they lose their confidence,” observed Phillips.

“Junior associates should not be viewed as part of a factory for billing hours in the office. Involve them as much as you can; bring them to trials, closings, or commissioner hearings, sometimes at the firm’s expense,” continued Helm. “In the long run, it’s going to pay off because you will have more people at your firm who understand the bigger picture and the client’s needs.”

Phillips also advised law firms to teach the associates how to take on leadership and speaking engagements at bar associations or in the community to further build their skills and confidence. “We are all still learning. We all make mistakes. So we should create an environment where learning can continue,” she said.

Diversity: The Non-Negotiable Essential

Helm, Rubin, and Phillips strongly value diversity and consider it when hiring outside counsel for their matters. They embrace diversity in their own workforces to reflect their customers and core values, and expect their law firms to do the same. “I want my lawyers to look like my workforce,” said Rubin. “Not only is diversity important to our values, but having a variety of thinking and ideas is critical to excellent legal problem solving,” he elaborated.

The clients adopted a refreshing and all-encompassing approach to diversity, embracing race, ethnicity, gender, age, veteran status, disability, and life experiences. Everyone also strongly agreed that diversity in the legal profession needs substantial improvement.

  • Recruiting the talent: “Become innovative in your recruiting efforts. Go beyond the checkbox criteria of pedigree and grades. Participate in pipeline projects. Provide scholarships for minority students.” Sandra Phillips
  • Retaining the talent: “Implement substantive long-term diversity programs. The law firm model has made it hard to retain associates, particularly women and minorities. All associates should be valued, and for attorneys of diverse backgrounds, the firm has to feel inclusive and worth a long-term commitment.” Lucy Helm
  • Training the talent: “Actively encourage talent where diversity is involved. Put them in positions of leadership on our matters. You’ve hired and built the right team, so bring them to the meeting and give them a role. Let them talk.” Neal Rubin
  • Encouraging the talent: “Praise is universal—it has a common meaning and denominator. Reach out and tell your diverse associates who are doing well to hang in there with you and that you’re looking for good opportunities for them.” Sandra Phillips

When it comes to diversity, counting statistics in back rooms has simply not proved enough. Improving diversity will require effort and collaboration among all sectors of the legal profession. Helm, Phillips, and Rubin all stated that they are willing to brainstorm and work with their outside firms. “Let’s all share best practices and learn from each other,” Phillips volunteered.

Helm agreed: “Things will only change if we make it a priority.”

About the Clients

Lucy Helm is general counsel, executive vice president and secretary of Starbucks Corporation. She leads the global Law & Corporate Affairs Department, including hundreds of legal and compliance employees in 16 offices around the world. In 2014, Ms. Helm was recognized as one of America’s 50 Outstanding General Counsel by the National Law Journal.

Sandra Phillips is general counsel and chief legal officer of Toyota Motor North America. She oversees Toyota Legal One, the legal services function for Toyota’s operations in North America. Ms. Phillips is the first African-American woman named to this position. She is also a founding member of the University of Texas Center for Women in Law and a 2008 recipient of the Defense Research Institute’s Diversity Pioneer Award.

Neal Rubin is associate general counsel and vice president of litigation at Cisco Systems. He heads the company’s global litigation in intellectual property, commercial, securities, employment, and compliance arenas. He has spoken on a number of high-profile panels including the White House Panel addressing health and safety risks associated with sale of counterfeit networking equipment. He has also testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the need for patent reform in the International Trade Commission.

About the Author

Niki Moore is an attorney and is the founder and CEO of PracticePro, a San Francisco-based education and consulting startup. Follow her on Twitter @myPracticePro.

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