November 01, 2018

Practice Management Advice

The Reverse Sponsor

Linda Klein and John Hinton IV

As seasoned lawyers, we know that we have a responsibility to mentor the next generation of lawyers in our firm. But have you fully considered what these members of your team can teach you? Indeed, it’s a lot! Time to learn.

Recently we handled an important appellate case. When we formed the appellate team, we decided to include one of our first-year associates. This was a rare opportunity for a very new lawyer to have meaningful involvement in a case of great significance. It was an opportunity for the firm to sponsor one of our junior attorneys. We saw that it would be “good for” this first-year associate to work on the appeal. It was. What we later learned was that it was “good for” the rest of us too.

What Was Added?

The senior attorneys on the team certainly wanted to provide our client excellent representation, but this was an appeal. Appeals don’t have the excitement that comes with courtroom drama. Not so for our young colleague. For her it was an opportunity to learn, to stretch beyond her own notions of her limits and to work alongside more senior lawyers to add value to a very important case.

Our youthful co-worker looked forward to the meetings where the team discussed the appeal, brainstormed what issues to cover and refined the strategy and legal research. She brought to these sessions the enthusiasm of a young lawyer embarking on novel and exciting work.

Her passion was infectious. The more seasoned lawyers experienced a renewed eagerness by working on the appellate team. Although some of that excitement arose from mentoring this new lawyer, it was primarily the result of the energy that she brought to the team.

The issues on appeal were matters of first impression for the court—the type of problems where creativity is a necessary ingredient to success and often the necessary ingredient. This is exactly the situation that needs a diverse team. (Previous columns have addressed the overwhelming research supporting the axiom that diverse teams make better decisions.) In this case our young colleague brought her gender, her ethnicity and her status as a Millennial to the team. Her perspectives helped shape our approach to the appeal, even though she was the least experienced member of the team. And the team needed her creativity to be successful.

Creativity Through Technology

One way that she brought this skill to bear on the appeal arose from her superior ability to use technology. New lawyers have the benefit of technology fluency that is not a part of senior lawyers’ education and experience. They know the latest and greatest. They live in the social media world and can find evidence that senior lawyers would not know how to locate and likely would not even think is available. New lawyers can perform legal research more efficiently than older lawyers—and often find authority that would otherwise be missed. Have you ever had the experience of wondering aloud to younger lawyers in your office about a legal issue only to have them find the answer on their phones while you are explaining the subject? We have, more than once.

For our appeal the first-year associate brought something to the group that would have otherwise been missing. She needed our experience and wisdom, but we needed her talents as well. It made the team more productive. It made for a better result for our client.

The young lawyer’s excitement about her work benefited more than this appellate team. She increased morale throughout our office. She told everyone about the case and her role in it. She even told the (social) media.

Who Sponsored Whom?

Yes, it was important for us to mentor our youthful lawyer. Yes, giving her this assignment as a first-year associate was beyond mentoring, it was sponsorship. We were “sponsoring” her to learn how to work an appeal with unique legal issues. She will benefit greatly from seeing the big picture of litigation that can only be learned by working on its latter stages.

But the truth is that we got more out of this than our associate did. We could not have opened the doors she opened for us. The enthusiasm that she brought to the team and the firm, the creativity found in her unique viewpoint and the technical assistance that she provided would not have been available from a more senior lawyer. Although we may have sponsored her, she also sponsored us. And while our sponsorship impacted one young lawyer, her sponsorship impacted numerous colleagues.

Financial Burdens vs. Associate Development

Given the financial pressures that all law firms face these days, younger lawyers are often viewed as an investment whose benefits the firm will experience in the future, but not necessarily today. This is particularly true given the explosion in associate salaries and the attendant reluctance from clients to allow young associates to work on their matters.

These financial pressures can create incentives not to involve younger lawyers in cases. Clients don’t want to be billed for junior associate time for work on strategy, and we need lawyers at maximum productivity to cover their costs. For this reason we have junior associates performing research and other important, but discrete, tasks associated with the practice of law—the tasks that we no longer want to perform or that are not cost-effective for senior lawyers to do.

Before you staff your next case, consider the doors that recent graduate lawyers can open for your firm. Our young colleague provided value to the team that we needed because of her inexperience, not despite it. So contemplate how you can tap into the unique talents of your younger co-workers for their benefit—and for yours. And when you do, let them know the impact that they make. You might unleash a cycle of enthusiasm and creativity that benefits your firm many times over.

Linda Klein

Linda Klein is a past president of the American Bar Association and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. Email her.

John Hinton IV

John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. Email him.