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HR LESSONS FROM THE TECH WORLD

It’s clear why so many view technology as a necessity. Indeed, most of us can’t imagine life without our computers, our smartphones or even our iPods. But it’s also tough to imagine life without the people who work for your firm

Among the questions facing law firms is how to train new law school graduates in the art and practice of law in the midst of billing pressures and clients’ concerns that they’re paying to train individuals inexperienced in their matters. One very promising answer is to design programs that both emphasize the early development of junior lawyers and deemphasize the need to bill in the first year or two of practice.

Meeting the Challenges of Today’s Practice Demands

Several firms have taken a new look at this old problem—the tension between training junior lawyers and managing billing pressures—and implemented new strategies. They’ve borrowed the concept of lawyer apprenticeship from our nation’s colonial period and put a 21st-century spin on it.

■ Philadelphia-based Drinker Biddle & Reath started a new training program for its class of 37 first-year associates this fall. The associates are starting off at a lower salary of $105,000 instead of the current market rate of $145,000. They will return to market rate salaries in spring 2010 after completing the intensive program, which includes shadowing partners at client meetings and court appearances, as well as doing course work in brief writing, client service and deposition taking.

■ Ford & Harrison, an Atlanta-based labor and employment firm, has eliminated the billable-hours requirement for its first-year associates and initiated a skills-development program designed to teach what wasn’t learned in law school courses. In addition to that training, new associates get the opportunity to attend depositions, witness interviews, hearings and strategy meetings.

■ The Dallas firm Strasburger & Price has taken a different approach. It has cut the billable-hours requirement for its first-year associates by 320 hours to 1,600 hours, with the new associates required to spend 550 hours in training, working on pro bono projects and shadowing experienced lawyers.

■ Frost Brown Todd, which is based in Bluegrass Country, has initiated a one-year apprentice program, paying a lower starting salary to first-year associates and billing clients at a lower rate for their work. The emphasis for the year will be on the development and mastery of legal skills. Bonuses after the first year are possible, as well as entry into the regular pay track, if they meet performance standards. (Read Steve Taylor’s feature in this issue to learn more about this program.)

■ Washington, D.C.-based Howrey LLP, known for its innovative approaches to professional development such as its summer associates’ Howrey Bootcamp and Howrey U for firm associates, launched a new two-year program called First Tier for its incoming associates this fall.

At Howrey, a Two-Year Program on the Cutting Edge

Howrey’s two-year apprenticeship program may possibly be the most extensive initiated so far. So to learn more about it, I contacted the firm’s chief professional development officer, Dr. Heather Bock. (She holds a Ph.D. and is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in addition to her role at Howrey.) The information she shared sheds light on how young lawyers and firms of all stripes can benefit from these types of programs.

According to Dr. Bock, Howrey’s program will significantly reduce billable-hours requirements for the firm’s first- and second-year associates. With the increased time available for professional development, the goals are to provide program participants with the following:

  • Extensive training in all aspects of advocacy and successful law practices
  • Mentoring and opportunities to shadow experienced attorneys
  • Client interactions through externships
  • Timely, constructive feedback

The program’s curriculum covers a variety of areas, including:

  • Introduction to the Firm and Your Role
  • Understanding Our Practices
  • Setup and Organization of a Case
  • Legal Research and Analysis
  • Discovery Basics; Pretrial Process
  • Effective Team Behaviors
  • Communication Skills and Presentation Skills
  • Introduction to Mediation and Negotiation
  • Fundamentals of Writing

In addition, associates will also gain practical experience through pro bono cases and secondments.

Dr. Bock went on to describe the one-on-one assistance participants will be receiving throughout the program. Each associate is assigned a supervising partner who will aid in his or her development. But the more unique mentoring and coaching aspect of the program will come through peer learning groups facilitated by a coach. According to Dr. Bock, here’s why this approach works:

“It taps into the learning style and preferences of Gen Y, including a focus on feedback, teamwork and creating a high degree of challenge. For associates just out of law school, it presents a unique opportunity to jump into a different kind of learning environment where teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills are emphasized and valued along with critical thinking. Our hope is that peer learning will contribute to fun, stimulating learning, and will serve as a platform to deepen individual learning, create connections among associates, and shared learning experiences.”

Associates took significant pay cuts to do so, indicating they are motivated and investing in their own development. Howrey reduced its prior first-year associate salary to $100,000, with an additional $25,000 to help reduce law school debt. The participants will be paid $125,000 in the second year and a bonus of $25,000 at the end of First Tier if they successfully complete the program. The Mutual Value Proposition For firms considering implementing a similar program, Dr. Bock says:

“It’s important to position your professional development strategy as part of your value proposition to associates. When you hire an associate there are many features that may attract him or her to your firm. Your training strategy, if developed properly, can be a selling point for new associates. However, even after they are hired, associates may continue to ask themselves if they have made the right decision in joining your firm and assess whether the value proposition is greater than what they’d find at another. I recommend asking the following questions: Why would a talented person want to work here? What does our firm offer that others don’t? How can our firm develop associate talent to the fullest potential?”

Howrey’s own commitment to talent development is evidenced by the many resources it invested to implement this two-year apprenticeship. In turn, one of the expectations is that participating associates can become profitable for the firm much faster than they typically would absent such an emphasis on new lawyer training.

No one can predict whether Howrey’s and similar creative initiatives will make a significant difference in how first- and second-year associates are introduced to and developed in the practice of law. But it is clear—and impressive—that these firms are not just doing the same old thing and expecting different results. They have put significant time into thinking about how the practice can be different and they are putting their money behind it. Frankly speaking, I believe their investments will more than pay off.

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of the ABA book Recruiting Lawyers: How-to Hire the Best Talent.

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