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June 21, 2018 Articles

Educating New Lawyers—Top Tips for Growing Top Legal Talent from the Trenches

By Jeana L. Goosmann

Managing a law firm and growing a thriving legal practice require law firms and lawyer leaders to be great educators. What are current best practices for training new law grads after they pass the bar, beyond learn as you go? What skills do attorneys need if they want to grow their practices and nurture top talent? Law firm training models need to be innovative to keep new lawyers engaged and stay in private practice. As the chief executive officer and managing attorney of one of the nation’s fastest growing law firms, I launched Goosmann University in 2017, and have learned a lot along the way! These are the top six tips for growing top legal talent.

1. Focus on Fostering a Successful Mind-Set
Much like the wildly successful training program BOLD put on by Keller Williams in the real estate industry, the legal industry needs to acknowledge a young lawyer’s success in private practice will have more to do with the lawyer’s mind-set than the lawyer’s skill set. New lawyers need to get out of their own way and set aside what they’ve heard about the firm, what they think they know about the practice of law, and how they can accomplish their dreams at the firm. Teach the attorneys to be intentional and to take ownership of their career. Not to let their career happen to them, but to design it. Show them how they can do so by showcasing successful lawyers inside your firm and have them tell their stories on how they got to where they are today and connect the dots on how the young lawyer may do the same. It’s hard to predict the future of the legal industry; the new lawyer’s success path will be different than the path taken by the lawyer who started practicing in 2000. By recognizing that it is up to the individual to ensure his or her own success, new lawyers will be able to help the firm advance as they advance. They will also stop looking for someone else to make them successful and will not blame the firm. Just as law school provided the framework for success, it was up to the student to be successful at the school.

2. Overcome Self-Limiting Beliefs
Deal with imposter syndrome. “Imposter syndrome” refers to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” Most law grads are high achievers. Now that they are in private practice, they do not have a way to measure their achievements with top grades. In your first years as a lawyer, it’s common to believe everyone else knows what they are doing except you. It’s only with experience that you gain the perspective that we call it the “practice” of law for a reason.

Jealousy and anger about what others do or accomplish are good indicators of someone stunted by self-limiting beliefs. You want to have competitive people in the law, but it’s important to your firm culture that they not compete internally.

Recognize that success takes time. Depending on how you define success, it will take more than three years to get where you want to be and people have different life experiences. Teach them to take one bite of the elephant of a project at a time. So put one foot in front of the other and just get started.

Young lawyers often struggle with the hourly rates that firms charge their services out to clients because they don’t think they are good enough to have their fee set that high. They need to believe they belong in the room.

Teach them to develop a mind-set where they believe in developing positive self-talk and faking it 'til they make it. Eventually, they will believe that they have just as much right as the next guy, to get there just like anyone else. Success is not a private club.

3. Connect to a Higher Mission
New lawyers want more than a paycheck, although they certainly need that to pay off those loans. They want to spend their time on something that is bigger than them and part of a greater mission. While I haven’t found a way to mimic Elon Musk and his drive to put a human on Mars that appeals to so many young engineers, law firms can at least try. At Goosmann, we’ve shortened our mission to “worth it” after we found no one could remember the longer multi-sentence mission. We use this as the barometer for just about all decisions. Is it worth it to represent this client? Will it be worth it to spend these sponsorship dollars? Then the ultimate: Is it worth it to be a member of the firm? Discuss what makes it worth it for your lawyers to work at the firm, and encourage dialogue on the topic. You’ll discover that your training program is part of the solution.

4. Set BHAGS
Big Hairy Ass Goals. Provide your new lawyers a simple goal sheet with room for five lifetime goals, three-year goals, one-year goals, and this quarter’s goals. Make them write down their goals and share them with each other, with their family, with their mentor, with their supervisor. Then have them update their goals quarterly. Encourage them to review their goals monthly. Research has also shown that writing goals out by hand helps imprint them in your brain. If goals are written, they are much easier to track, and if goals are shared, it helps create self-accountability for reaching the goals. It’s amazing; not everyone wants the same things. By learning what your new associates want, you will be able to help them accomplish their goals and you will learn what really matters to them. Coaching them for future success will become easier when you have this insight.

5. Teach Business
Most lawyers did not take business courses. Even lawyers who want to be transactional attorneys may not know finance. While every law firm relies on fundamental business functions to be profitable and most of your business clients expect the lawyers will be able to give advice that matters to their business, very few law grads actually know what EBITDA is.

At most law firms, to be a rainmaker is to be at the top. Teach them business development. While some people have a natural tendency to develop business, activities that lead to origination can be taught. Help them answer the question “What do you do?” in a memorable way. Explain why it’s important to get involved in professional and community organizations, and help them do so. Have your rainmakers share their stories about how business development takes time, and they shouldn’t just believe these are activities reserved for senior partners.

Have your firm finance leader teach the attorneys the basics of law firm finance. When they understand why their billable time entries matter and how cash flow works, they’ll have a greater appreciation for the nagging supervisor who wants them to get their time entered concurrently. Discuss your financial team, how the firm is structured, how the firm budgets, and the mechanics of the firm systems. Teach them more than just how to submit for reimbursement. All the while, work on their belief system to help imprint that profit is not a bad word.

As law firms are made up of people, teach them about your firm’s human resources. Go beyond the obvious discussions of understanding benefits. What should they expect for their annual review? How will they be measured? Focus on respect and how the firm expects them to interact. Explain what are the parameters for working with staff and how to effectively delegate. Be proactive and teach them what to do if they are having trouble with someone in the firm.

While you may assume new lawyers are more IT savvy than you, you still need to teach them your systems. How to be efficient using your systems and what to do if they have an innovative idea to make the systems even more effective. Let them know what the firm’s policies are on personal use, cybersecurity, social media, and remote access.

6. Teach Time Management
Time capture is still the fundamental way most law firms make money. While some clients won’t even allow firms to bill for first year time, those who will want the time to be well spent and “worth it.” Certainly, you can benefit by teaching the new lawyers time-saving strategies and techniques. Poor time management skills are rampant, and time management is the area I see most new lawyers could use the most help in. While I used to assume that if they did well in law school and juggled a job and extra activities with their family before they became lawyers, they must have some time management skills, I was wrong. Teach them basics like carrying a pen and paper with them to the partner’s office, making lists, prioritizing, meeting internal deadlines, turning off email during focus time, limiting social media, using templates and samples, keeping a clean desk, and creating effective agendas.

It’s also important to discuss a work-life mashup. While most articles on millennials talk about balance, it’s more realistic to call it a “mashup.” Most lawyers work remotely and it can be more efficient to blend your time to help you get the most out of your career. Use your lunch for business development, get involved in professional organizations, and take your family to conferences and tack on vacation days. Yet, also know when to keep work at the office and not look at your phone. It’s important to be realistic about major projects that are going to require more than a 40-hour workweek and make a plan for your support systems.

Malcolm Gladwell teaches that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Be open with associates on what your firm really expects in order to hit different benchmarks. This should have started in the interview process. By being up-front, you will benefit from consistent expectations.

In sum, teach and train, but be realistic. While a great onboarding program like what we are creating with Goosmann University will help keep your associates sticky, you need to have realistic expectations. Attrition will still happen. Private practice is hard. It is not for everyone. At the end of the day, you have to work very hard, get your documents edited by senior attorneys who may not give the greatest feedback, juggle lots of commitments, deal with the demons in your head that say you aren’t cut out to be a lawyer, while seeing your friends who took other career paths enjoying their 8-to-5 gig. Training and developing your young talent will help you ensure you are opening dialogue and will help you protect the deep investment you are making every time you hire new talent. To help justify the time away from the billables, create metrics and determine in advance how you will define success. As your firm needs change, you’ll also need to adapt the program in size and scope, in addition to the topics. A great onboarding program will help you not only retain your new hires but also recruit new top talent.

Jeana L. Goosmann is the chief executive officer and managing attorney of Goosmann Law Firm in Sioux City, Iowa.

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