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January 29, 2020 Feature

Developing Successful Lawyers

By Sandra J. Boyer

People. Other than paying clients, there is nothing more integral to law firm success than the right people serving that client base. Recruiting, training, mentoring, and retaining the requisite associate lawyers is a critical part of what builds a perpetually strong team.

The benefits of a focused and effective associate recruitment and retention program far outweigh the time and effort required for such a program to be successful. Valuable benefits include attracting lawyers who fit within the firm culture and will become part of the firm succession plan, creating future firm leaders while avoiding costly associate turnover, and forming effective client service teams.

Investing in people by instituting a quality on-boarding program will lead to an effective firm succession plan. Effective associate recruitment followed by effective training and mentoring programs naturally result in a successful retention program.

Effective Associate Recruitment

An effective associate recruitment program should include several steps. First, identify the type of person who will be successful in the firm. Think about the firm’s most successful associates and identify the skills and characteristics they exhibit that allow them to thrive. Create the associate position description based on these observations. Second, create an organized plan to recruit and interview candidates. Begin with the development of process goals. Produce a written interview process document that includes candidate expectations post-hire to ensure clear communication among all involved. Third, the interview itself should include a list of questions that illicit information to determine a candidate’s work ethic, experience, and commitment. Interviewers need to be prepared to describe the firm’s core values, associate compensation system, partnership opportunities, client development, and marketing expectations. Fourth, listen with intention to the responses of the candidate.

Effective Associate Training Program

An effective associate training program is based on two priorities: (1) facilitating associate acclimation to get each associate up to speed quickly so that they begin to bring value to their client service contributions early in their tenure, and (2) ensuring that associates believe that the firm is committed to their success and actually wants to support their development into skilled lawyers. To do this, the firm needs to develop an effective associate orientation program that supplies the information needed to understand how the firm works; the firm’s values, norms, and culture; and concrete things like firm policies and procedures. Further, the associate training program must include several actions, such as monitoring a task performance list in specific practice areas, developing a secondary task performance list for associates to learn the basics in each practice area, providing in-house CLE programs, allowing outside-provider CLE programs, and adopting an associate training hours policy.

Mentoring Program for Associates

A mentoring program often works in conjunction with an associate training program. Effective lawyer mentoring demonstrates commitment to the new associate who joins the firm. Mentor and mentee roles need to be identified and implemented. Putting these in writing clarifies for the mentor and mentee what is expected and guides their relations with one another. The mentor’s role often is described as helping the associate understand how the firm works, being a confidant and good listener, guiding the associate through office-related issues, being an advocate for the associate or providing balance to any discussion, and assisting the associate with their own career goals in coordination with the firm’s strategic plan. The role of the mentee is equally important and includes reading and becoming familiar with the firm’s handbook, regularly communicating with their mentor, preparing for and attending prescheduled meetings with the mentor, developing an individual practice plan with which the mentor will assist, taking the initiative to reach their goals and the firm’s goals, requesting help when needed, and regularly assessing themselves regarding their progress toward each goal.

Associate Evaluation Program

Effective associate retention includes a consistent evaluation program. The evaluations should be conducted every six months for the first few years and then annually thereafter. The evaluation process should be in writing. Useful feedback on a regular basis is key to the continuing investment in and development of young lawyers.

Invest in people, build loyalty, and create succession.

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By Sandra J. Boyer

Sandra J. Boyer founded and is president of LEGUS, an international network of law firms. She is also president of Boyer Greene, LLC, a law firm consulting business in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has worked with thousands of lawyers around the world regarding all aspects of the business of the practice of law and may be reached at [email protected].