How Large Law Firms Are Leading the Way

Volume 38 Number 5


About the Author

Marcia Watson Wasserman is a law practice management consultant and president of Comprehensive Management Solutions Inc. She often speaks and writes about practice management issues and is a member of Law Practice’s editorial board. 

Law Practice Magazine | September/October 2012 | The Recruitment and Retention Issue
Associates must stay competitive with the skills they have learned and focus not just on billing hours but on giving value to clients. Sponsorship is a significant opportunity for women because it formalizes what men have done unofficially for years.

In today’s “era of the client,” law firms are expected to deliver high-quality legal services that provide value to the client. To respond to client expectations, some large law firms are taking the lead by investing in professional development training and mentoring programs as part of their overall strategic plan. While researching this article to uncover trends in large-firm associate development and retention, I spoke with law firm leaders, managers and consultants who shared their unique perspectives with me. What follows is a synthesis of the best practices in associate development and offers advice to associates on why they need to proactively manage their careers.


Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, with 1,200 lawyers across 21 offices worldwide, has been ranked in the 2012 Vault Guide as third among the Best 20 Law Firms to Work for Overall. One of the reasons may be its focus on associate development and formal mentoring.

Among other practice-area training programs, Weil produces a Trial Skills Weekend with approximately 100 attorneys participating every few years. A typical first-time participant is a fifth-year lawyer who has completed certain training prerequisites. It opens with a workshop on Thursday, an introduction to the nuts and bolts of witness examination that uses demonstration and lecture. On Friday and Saturday, there are exercises on opening statements, witness examination and closing statements. On Friday, the associates meet with trial advisors in groups of six, where they are video-recorded giving opening statements, and direct and cross-examination. They then review the videos and are privately critiqued. On Saturday, they continue the same format and are video-recorded and critiqued giving closing arguments. They also get to meet with “witnesses.” On Sunday, mock trials are conducted. At a closing luncheon that afternoon, they receive the verdicts in their trials.

According to Lori Pines, a litigation partner and chair of the Litigation Training Program, “Weil takes training seriously, which helps people feel better about the firm and gets people enthused about staying at the firm. The associates love the opportunity of receiving one-on-one feedback, working in small groups, networking and seeing attorneys’ different styles. It is hard work, but they have fun.”

David Yohai, coleader of Complex Commercial Litigation and chair of the Professional Development Committee, told me that the firm also takes mentoring of associates seriously. When first-year associates arrive, they are assigned a mid- to senior-level associate as a mentor. At the end of their first year, associates choose a mentoring partner and also are given a career development partner in their practice group for career advice.

Associate development at Weil has a four-part focus:

  1. First up is mentoring, which includes an annual mentoring week for associates and which highlights exceptional firm mentors.
  2. Associates are given development goals that target skills by seniority level. For example, in litigation, by what year should an associate take or defend a deposition? It’s a practice area list by skills, and it tracks how associates are performing.
  3. Associates receive training on legal skills specific to their practice areas and department as well as on leadership, business development, networking and case management.
  4. Associates are encouraged to become involved in community leadership, such as not-for-profits, community groups and bar associations. What they learn outside the office can influence their progress inside the office.

Yohai advises: Associates are responsible for managing their careers. Mentoring is a two-way street. Associates need to be proactive, look at their colleagues and be cognizant of what year they are and what their skills are. They must stay competitive with the skills they have learned and focus not just on billing hours but on giving value to clients. Associates should keep up with their network of contacts, draw upon it when helping clients and use it to build their own practices.

Because clients are cost-conscious, young associates need to quickly acquire skills and experience to provide value.

Although smaller than Weil, another firm that takes associate development seriously is Stites & Harbison PLLC, with 240 lawyers in eight offices. Jeanne Picht, its director of professional development and recruitment, shared special initiatives the firm has undertaken to develop and retain associates. Picht described “Stites University” as an integrated and comprehensive talent development platform. “It’s the umbrella structure for all of our talent initiatives. It’s more than formal training programs, though it certainly has plenty of those. It’s designed to encompass everything from our affinity groups for women and attorneys of color to our various mentoring programs, our evaluation and feedback processes, outside CLE, all in-house programming and workflow. This is an ambitious structure for a firm our size, and we are building piece by piece with an eye to an integrated whole. Large national and international firms have been building similar structures for several years, but size, while a plus in some areas, also can make it very challenging to ensure everything is working together across the firm.”

Picht sums up the goal for Stites: “Stay focused, think long term, experiment with new ideas, and embrace flexibility in expanding our Stites University platform and talent development strategies. Easier said than done, but we are committed to providing a great learning environment for our associates and delivering excellent solutions for our clients. We believe these goals are inseparable. We’ve had a unique level of support from the firm’s top-level management, from our previous chairman, Kennedy Helm, to our new chairman, Ken Sagan. Kennedy had extraordinary vision for building Stites University, beginning in 2003. Ken is committed to expanding this platform to include partner-level development programs, which is something fairly new to legal professional development.”


I asked Deborah Epstein Henry, president of the international consulting firm Flex-Time Lawyers LLC and author of Law & Reorder: Legal Industry Solutions for Restructure, Retention, Promotion & Work/Life Balance, to explain the difference between mentoring and sponsorship.

Henry indicated that a sponsor is a power broker who will use his or her power to endorse someone with high potential. A mentor, on the other hand, may not be in a position of power. The “sponsee” needs to be a high-potential individual, not just anyone. They have to prove they are worthy, that their work and personality justifies the sponsor going to bat for them. With sponsorship, there is a causal relationship to advancement and increased compensation, whereas with mentoring, that is not necessarily the case.

Henry advises that sponsorship is most effective at career transition points. The fifth year, for example, is a valuable time for sponsorship because it could help direct fitting associates to partnership.

Firms also need to focus on increasing leadership roles for women on executive, compensation and equity partner promotion committees.

According to Henry, sponsorship is a significant opportunity for women because it formalizes what men have done unofficially for years. “We have to be much more thoughtful about the infrastructure in which women work,” she observes. “Women have comprised 40 to 50 percent of law school graduates for 25 years, yet they represent only 15 percent of equity partners nationally. There needs to be a holistic approach within law firms as to compensation decisions, how committees are staffed, work/life flexibility, the promotion process and how new business is attributed. Sponsorship is a big opportunity for law firms, and they should be thoughtful about how to execute it.”

Brande Stellings, the vice president of advisory services in the professional services practice of Catalyst Inc., a global organization dedicated to expanding opportunities for women and business, also weighed in on sponsorship:

“From where I sit, we see great interest from our corporate members about sponsorship; many have launched or are in the process of designing or piloting formal sponsorship programs. Catalyst has published several profiles of current sponsorship programs at corporations or at professional services firms (i.e., finance). And, although there is interest in sponsorship from law firms, it doesn’t appear to be at quite the same level. That said, I have heard of a few firms that have established or are in the process of establishing sponsorship programs. Interestingly, I was presenting at the International Women in Law Summit at the Law Society of the United Kingdom in March about our sponsorship research. At the end of the day, we polled the participants on several items, one of which was about whether law firms should institute formal sponsorship programs. Although 66 percent voted yes, that means one-third voted no and are opposed to formal sponsorship programs! There seems to be some ambivalence and concern, I believe, among law firm members about how these programs translate to the law firm environment.”

Eve Birnbaum, a consultant and former corporate partner at Winston & Strawn, also was a former legal director of the corporate practice at Proskauer Rose. She shared her views on why there is a need for sponsorship for women in law firms: “I think that ‘sponsorship’ takes into account the dynamic that male associates instinctively pair with powerful partners as mentors—or is it that the powerful male partners gravitate to the male associates to take under their wing?—while women associates are more prone to turning to the few women partners at their firm, who are typically not in the power seats at the firm.”


I asked Kelli Dunaway, who is a professional development manager, and Gillian Murray, a senior manager in firmwide professional development at Bryan Cave LLP, a firm of more than 1,100 attorneys in 24 offices worldwide, what advice they would give associates to assist them in managing their own professional development in a large law firm. They told me:

Own it. It’s your responsibility to proactively manage your career. Ask questions, be curious, and ask for the projects, work opportunities and exposure to the law you seek in your practice. Find mentors, enlist the help of sponsors, learn the politics and the business side of the law and the firm. There are people in the firm who want you to succeed, but you have to find them, ask for their guidance, and be willing and able to take their advice.

Picht offers the following professional development advice to associates: “If you want to build a long-term career, do not get sucked into believing that only billable hours matter. Yes, it is essential to hit your firm’s billable target, but don’t let the lure of big bonuses for dramatically exceeding those targets keep you from spending time on the other elements that make for a productive and fulfilling career. Spend time building relationships early and often if you plan to build a client base. It takes consistent, long-term focus to develop that ‘book’ of business you see senior partners managing. Learn to understand yourself, what motivates you, what frustrates you, what causes you stress, and learn to manage yourself. Find ways to include in your life what you enjoy and what motivates you. Learn to manage stress—whether that is through exercise, meditation, a good book—anything that is productive versus self-destructive. Learn how to work effectively with others—what motivates them, frustrates them, etc. Developing high levels of emotional intelligence will serve you exceedingly well. It is what will distinguish you from all the other very bright attorneys. Your clients will appreciate it, your colleagues will appreciate it, your family and friends will appreciate it. Understand and treat people well, regardless of rank or position, and they will want to work with you. Note, I said work with you rather than work for you. This is a key attitudinal shift that also will serve you well over the years.”

Finally, as someone who works with both associates and partners, Todd Moster, who is president at Moster Legal Placement Inc., shared his professional development advice: “Given the increasingly competitive nature of the legal market, it is no longer realistic for associates to expect a long and stable career on the basis of hard work and excellent work product alone. The key to survival is to develop an independent book of business, starting on their very first day of private practice. My advice to associates in that regard is to take advantage of every opportunity that a law firm offers to develop their marketing abilities, but to not depend on them exclusively. Instead, they must take ownership of their need to bring in new business, just as they do in competently representing their clients. That means proactively seeking out the most successful rainmakers at their firms and actively seeking advice and the opportunity to shadow them in their marketing efforts—and even, if necessary, retaining outside client development consultants on their own to enhance and accelerate their rainmaking potential.”





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