October 23, 2012

The Secrets of Effective Associate Development Programs.

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Ask Bill

By K. William Gibson

Q. Bill, my firm is thinking about starting a more formal training system for our associates. What's the secret to creating an effective associate development program?

A. Many law firms, large and small, recruit talented new lawyers but fail to provide them with the training they need to make the transition into the real world of law, learn how the firm works, and eventually mature into effective and productive lawyers. Successful development programs don't just happen by accident. Such programs require a lot from the firm, its partners and the administrators.

To find out just what is required, I checked with four experts on the subject who recently collaborated to put on a teleconference titled "Creating an Effective Associate Development Program," presented by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. Austin Anderson and Sandra Boyer have their own consulting firm (Anderson Boyer Group) and run the Network of Leading Law Firms; Martin Camp is Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, and before that was a longtime partner at Jones, Day, where he was in charge of associate development at the firm's Dallas office; and Barbara Miller is a leading communication consultant and trainer who works with international businesses, law firms and individuals on communication improvement. Barbara and Martin are coauthors of the upcoming ABA book with the working title The Law Firm Associate's Guide to Getting Along.

Barbara says the key concept in associate development is building relationships. She also observes that the training needed to help associates build relationships within their firms is the same training needed to build external relationships with clients, potential clients and others. A recent breakthrough in associate development programs has come from the realization by the people in charge of those programs that they must involve the firm's marketing staff to train associates, both new and experienced, to help them develop relationships so they can learn how to generate business.

Sandra Boyer breaks the key components of a development program into two categories: administrative and substantive. The administrative piece involves putting someone in charge of the program, as well as conducting firm research to make sure that the people in charge are knowledgeable about the firm's role in the legal marketplace and that the program involves specific segments. Those segments, according to Sandy, include both internal and external training such as CLE programs, having the associates attend practice group meetings, having associates rotate through different practice groups, delegating meaningful work to associates, discussing potential career paths within the firm, and involving associates in firm social events. To make this all work requires "buy in" from all the firm's lawyers.

On the substantive side, Sandy advocates development of legal skills, including writing and communications skills, as well as teaching associates about the management and operation of the firm.
Austin Anderson focuses on the associates' need for mentoring and recommends that the firm designate a mentor for a fixed period of time and invest the time to determine whether the mentoring program meets the needs of the associates, as well as the firm.

Austin emphasizes the need to expose each associate to several mentors over the first few years, including lawyers whose styles and personalities may be different from that of the associate. Some of the things that cause a mentoring program to fail include a lack of partner commitment, lack of good mentoring skills, time pressures, no meaningful accountability, and a lack of opportunity for women and minority lawyers to develop mentor relationships.

Austin also emphasizes the importance of the mentor getting the associate into a practice group and working with the practice group partner to monitor that associate's progress. He advocates training for the practice group partners as well.

Martin Camp approaches associate development from the perspective of someone who hears about associate development programs from law students and recent graduates. He points out that law firm orientation "is more than an introduction to a secretary and an explanation of the computer system." He encourages firms to have orientation programs that are structured to make sure that new lawyers understand the "culture and expectations of the firm." His view is that "the more integrated new lawyers feel in the firm, the more likely they will be to have positive experiences that will impact how they perceive the firm and are perceived by the firm." Dean Camp sums it up by saying, "Happy and informed junior associates are essential to attracting good new associates." And I could not agree more on that score.