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TURNING THE TABLES: How Young Lawyers Can Educate Your Firm

Fresh from the learned halls of law school, baby lawyers arrive at their first law job with a graduation-gift briefcase in hand, newly scrubbed ears and a head that seems to be full of (mostly) useless academia. At times like this, it’s hard to resist warbling in your best Yoda voice, “You have much to learn, young Skywalker!” But if you can quell the urge to constantly play Jedi master, you can actually learn a thing or two from new hires that will improve your firm.

Here are five ways you can mine the golden insights that young lawyers have to offer.

1. Blinders Off!

Certainly those of us who have been around the block a few times know how to get things done. We have our practice routines and we get results. But in our settled modes of practice, we may lose the ability to see clearly. Young lawyers’ eager eyes, in contrast, haven’t developed the blind spots that sneak up on more seasoned attorneys.

Take advantage of those fresh eyes by asking young lawyers questions about their learning experiences in your firm and prompting them to offer a critique on current practices. For example, you might say, “What did you think about the training on motions? I know the e-filing stuff can be confusing at first.” Your young Jedi might answer, “Actually, the e-filing was easy.” Slight pause during which you smile and nod encouragingly and, thus, after a brief hesitation, Young Jedi offers up, “This is just a small thing, but I noticed the motions in the brief bank are a bit outdated.” Yikes.

An important note, though: For these Q-and-A sessions to be effective, the more senior lawyer must be both trusted and diplomatic because new lawyers won’t talk if they think they’re going to be thrown under the bus later. Imagine the despair on their face should they overhear the following grist from the rumor mill: “Newbie’s griping about the brief bank, what a whiner!” You’ll never get as much as a squeak from the newbie again.

In addition, if your solution to the issue raised isn’t gracefully thought through, all the time spent figuring out the problem will evaporate like smoke from a forbidden office candle. So please resist the itching temptation to shout down the hall, “Update our brief bank, you slackers, Newbie says it sucks!” Even if you use fancier words and don’t shout in the halls, that’s the message that will be received if you implement solutions in a knee-jerk fashion. Take a bit of extra time and strategize how to get the best information from young lawyers and how to optimally utilize the information received. Again, trust and diplomacy must carry the day.

2.Uproot and Destroy

We all have procedural weeds growing in our office, those patches of scraggly dandelions in the form of outmoded policies or systems that we artfully pretend don’t bother us because it’s always been done that way and nobody has come up with a better idea. New lawyers can uproot and destroy these dandelions if you give them some tools and let them creatively whack away. Maybe there isn’t a better alternative than the cumbersome old familiar, but a new lawyer with a fresh perspective might come up with a unique angle on it or at least some alternative suggestions.

And don’t forget, new lawyers have the advantage of having recently received the most current training law schools have to offer. Particularly in the field of legal technology, they are a step ahead of the rest of the people in your office, especially those of us who remember the time when e-mail accounts and cell phones didn’t exist. Make the most of new lawyers’ spanking-new knowledge by engaging them as a group in a brainstorming session so they can throw around all kinds of ideas. Even if they don’t hit on a solution (for all of technology’s advances, many of my clients are still waiting for the software that can read a judge’s mind), one of the newbies’ ideas could generate an alternate direction to explore or reframe the issue in a different way.

3.Debrief and Refine

What better resource for improving or tweaking your training practices than young lawyers? Sometimes what firms predict new lawyers need out of a training program is different from the reality. For example, I thought our new lawyers would appreciate their offices being located in various spots throughout our building, thereby surrounding them with access to a wide range of attorney experience. However, as it turned out, they preferred being closer together so they could bounce ideas off each other and clarify issues before approaching a senior attorney for assistance. Another of my brilliant-yet-doomed ideas was to have initial research and writing projects assigned to all new lawyers the second they arrived. A much better idea, as I learned later, was to discuss the initial assignments with them and get their input on which project they were most interested in first.

To mine your newbies for feedback on the pros and cons of your training approach, let them know right from the start that at the end of the training period (however long or short it may be) there will be a debriefing session and their feedback will be essential for improving future training practices. Ask them to keep notes as they participate in training or give them evaluation sheets at different points along the way to capture this information.

4.Get Fresh with Your Elders

Bringing a new lawyer into established relationships can add spark, shake things up and, as an added benefit, improve client service. A while back one of our seasoned attorneys realized a certain judge was holding a grudge against him for some unfathomable reason. Nothing would melt this judge’s heart and the attorney was starting to worry about his effectiveness on behalf of clients in this particular courtroom. Imagine the unexpected warmth on behalf of the judge when this seasoned attorney brought by a baby lawyer to make an official introduction. Suddenly the judge came alive again, telling the new lawyer all his legal war stories and reliving the days of his early career. The thaw had melted.

The same thing can work with other established relationships that may need fine-tuning. Sense a client is grumpy? Tired and irritable from the fight? Next time, include one of your new hires in the interaction, clap him or her on the shoulder, and brag a bit about the newbie like a proud parent. It will increase the new lawyer’s confidence while inspiring old-timers to feel young again. It’s foolproof—everybody loves a baby!

5.Peer into the Crystal Ball

Want insight into the future of the legal profession? Ask your new lawyers—after all, they are part of that future and can help you steer the best course toward it. Among other factors, statistics show the ballooning number of women and minorities who’ve entered the profession over the past 25 years, and trends point toward greater numbers ahead. Another ingredient thrown into the mix is the fact that different generations have varied expectations regarding goals, work-life balance and work environment. Like any other business, the practice of law must evolve to meet the needs of its players, both lawyers and clients, or it will stagnate.

Recently I read an article where a founding partner of a law firm expounded on the value of tradition (including blood, sweat and tears) and doing things the good old-fashioned way. Boiled down to its essentials, his argument sounded like this: “That’s the way we’ve always done it and that’s the way we’re going to keep doing it! Young lawyers, brace yourselves!” Sounds inspiring, doesn’t it? Not really.

And don’t be fooled: While the recession may have forced some young lawyers to make compromises about their work environment, it’s a good bet that when the economy looks up again the young lawyers who don’t see a future with your firm will flee for greener pastures, taking with them a hearty chunk of the firm’s investment in them.

Don’t be left in the lurch. Find out what young lawyers are truly looking for in a legal job and make appropriate adjustments to meet their needs. Reasonable people don’t expect their jobs to be perfect in every way, but if the job doesn’t provide some kind of satisfaction (and it’s got to be more than just the money), newbies won’t stick around longer than the few painful years it takes to pay off their loans.

A Course Summary

So here’s the gist of it all. When the newbies show up in their shiny new work wardrobes, remember that while your firm must spend time to educate and enlighten them on the daily practice of law, don’t forget to turn the tables and have them enlighten you. Mine your young lawyers for the nuggetsof gold they carry in their brand-new briefcases. Ask them gentle, Yoda-like questions and let them know it is okay to give honest answers. Use this valuable information to strengthen yourfirm and, as an added bonus, transform the newbies into future Jedi Knights.

About the Author

Ryan Sullivan

has practiced criminal defense for 11 years and is currently the Training Director and Chief Deputy at the Washoe County Public Defender’s office. In addition to successful mentoring and training, shefocuses on issues of attorney stress management and how to be a positive professional.

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