In today’s rapidly changing and increasingly complex legal profession, it is interesting to note how addressing the challenge created by one trend may lead to the start of another trend.
For example, since the recession began in 2008, there has been a steadily growing trend for in-house counsel to refuse to pay for inexperienced associates who work on their matters. Faced with this challenge, how can firms train their associates?
Beginning almost three years ago, Drinker Biddle and Frost Brown Todd started putting first-year associates into an intensive training program for their first six months on the job. During this training period, the firms either did not bill them out or, in some cases, billed them at lower rates. To my knowledge, this has not developed into a major trend. Furthermore, in Drinker’s case, the non-billing period was reduced to four months.
ADDRESSING TWO CHALLENGES
Now, however, as reported by legal writer Jeff Blumenthal in the Philadelphia Business Journal, Cozen O’Connor is taking a different and creative approach to address not only the challenge of training associates, but also the challenge of meeting the increased need for pro bono services. The firm is combining pro bono services and professional training programs under the same umbrella.
Cozen has given the responsibility for combining pro bono services with professional training programs to partner Hayes Hunt, a white-collar criminal defense litigator and chair of his firm’s Pro Bono Initiatives and Advanced Advocacy Programs. After graduating from law school, Hunt spent three years with the Defender Association of Philadelphia prior to joining Cozen. Having tried case after case with what he describes as “lots of supervision and collaboration and advice from senior trial lawyers” while with the Defender Association, he was able to try cases soon after joining Cozen. As a result, he is able to show the benefits of pro bono work in professional development and in providing opportunities that many associates from other big law firms don’t get.
SOME FEATURES OF THE PROGRAM
During my conversation with Hunt, he emphasized several things about the program:
- It is designed to give associates transactional as well as trial experience.
- Associates earn credit of up to 60 hours a year for pro bono work, although some of them record considerably more time.
- To further encourage them to volunteer for pro bono work, associate performance is evaluated as part of their compensation.
In addition, a formal program is being developed, which will include skills training sessions in various areas including case management, client relations, deposition and negotiating techniques.
Hunt also emphasized that Cozen’s CEO, Thomas A. Decker, along with other members of the firm’s senior management, have taken the lead in providing strong support for the program.
This program also addresses a major drawback that I have seen in some of the pro bono initiatives at other firms—lack of supervision or review of the associates’ pro bono work. In Cozen’s case, senior partners supervise each associate, review the work in their particular area and participate in the evaluation of the associates they have worked with.
Cozen is not, however, including one of the original features of the training programs launched at Drinker and Frost. Initially, the associates in those firms were paid a lower salary, although if they completed the program they could earn a bonus based on their performance. They would also be given the opportunity to return to the regular paycheck after their first year.
One question comes to mind. History has shown that some trends are cyclical. They may gain a lot of momentum for a while, but then die out. The trend for in-house counsel to refuse to pay for the training of inexperienced associates is certainly hot right now. But if corporate profits continue to be strong, will the pressure on GCs to curb legal spending ease up to some degree? Will GCs then return to the historic practice of paying for associate training? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, I hope the Cozen program initiates a new trend. If it meets the expectations of the firm and Hayes Hunt, it could be, so to speak, a marriage made in heaven.