April 23, 2013

Helping New Grads Be Better Lawyers Faster

Law Practice Magazine | May/June 2013 | The Professional Development IssueHOW CAN LAWYERS HIT THE GROUND RUNNING?

That question reverberates through the halls of academia and legal employers—with particular urgency since the last recession.

With corporate profits pummeled, companies have searched for ways to reduce legal expenses. In January 2009, Microsoft announced the first major layoffs in its history. Those layoffs included in-house lawyers. To reduce costs of outside counsel, Microsoft used a competitive process to consolidate much of its work in 10 preferred firms. As part of that process, Microsoft sought discounts.

Other clients have resisted paying for the work of new lawyers, perceiving senior lawyers to be a better value. In 2010, ALM Legal Intelligence and the Practical Law Co. published the Law Firm Associate Support and Professional Development Survey. In it, two out of five firms reported that clients had expressed reluctance in having junior associates work on their matters.

For decades, the unspoken pact between law firms and clients was that clients would pick up the tab for new lawyers’ on-the-job training. When the recession battered revenues, clients renounced the pact once and for all. Perhaps because the “pact” more closely resembled client acquiescence, even with the economy improving, clients have shown little interest in renewing the bargain.

All of this created a conundrum: All lawyers start out as new lawyers, and they need practical lawyering skills. How do they get them?


Law schools have stepped up in a variety of ways. Pepperdine, Berkeley, Harvard and St. John’s provide just a few examples.

Pepperdine law students must successfully complete a professional development program as a requirement for graduation. The program includes eight required presentations for first-year students covering topics such as professional etiquette, ethics, social media and networking. In addition, the program includes a 120-hour legal experience requirement that students may fulfill through work in a law office or other practice settings.

UC Berkeley has also instituted a practical skills requirement, and all students must take one of several professional skills courses, a legal clinic or a field placement in their second or third year.

Harvard Law School’s Office of Career Services provides a variety of career success programs, including “The Art of Mingling,” a workshop where students learn networking skills, followed by a reception with attorneys. Other programs include Professionalism 101 and Success in the Workplace.

Besides providing panels and presentations on practical skills to its students, St. John’s instituted an advanced practice writing requirement. To graduate, students must take at least one advanced legal drafting course in areas such as contract drafting, license drafting, patent application preparation and family law practice. In these intensive courses, students learn to draft the types of documents that practicing lawyers use daily, according to Larry Cunningham, associate dean of student services and associate professor of legal writing.


Legal employers are also providing more formal practical skills training. In the ALM survey, 56 percent of firms reported that they were providing more training than they had in the previous year.

Some of the burden is falling on new lawyers, who are being asked to demonstrate their value early on. The ALM survey also found that many law firms were showing underperforming associates the door sooner.


In this restructured legal environment, how can new lawyers find the edge they need to succeed? The fundamental skills and strategies outlined below will help them get off to a strong start.

Being proactive. One of the most important realities new graduates need to understand is that even from the outset, they have to take responsibility for their careers. I remember, as a junior associate, grousing about something to a junior partner, and his response was not what I expected: “You have to remember, this is not a dress rehearsal. This is your real life now, and if there is something wrong with your practice, you need to work to fix it.” It was some of the best advice I ever received.

All new lawyers must think of themselves as being self-employed. That puts them in the mindset of taking ownership of their work and being proactive about their careers. New lawyers must remember to work in a way that will earn them new work. In law, second chances can be scarce.

New lawyers also must develop a career plan. Having a plan helps them enhance their skills and build relationships in an organized way—to ensure they are always increasing their value. The plan should include specific steps that new lawyers can take to build their practices, at least in some small way, every single day.

Building relationships. The “real” job of junior lawyers is to do whatever they can to make the lives of senior lawyers easier. The job is not just about research and drafting documents. Law firms solve client problems, which entails far more. The sooner new lawyers understand that, the better.

Junior lawyers at firms should treat senior lawyers as their clients. That mindset helps them build relationships within the firm and gain valuable skills for providing service to external clients, such as learning to anticipate needs and regularly thinking of ways to be helpful.

All new lawyers also need to remember to make the process of completing projects seamless. This is particularly true for solo practitioners. Clients may not be able to tell whether a lawyer did stellar legal work, but they will definitely know whether the lawyer responded promptly and courteously, honored commitments, listened and empathized.

Managing time. Time management is a challenge for all lawyers but particularly for new ones. For them, this may be the first time deadlines have been absolute and that missing them comes with major consequences. Recent graduates may be juggling numerous projects—for numerous bosses—for the first time.

It’s common for new lawyers to feel overwhelmed. When they understand this is not unusual, that alone helps relieve anxiety. When feeling overwhelmed, new lawyers must slow down. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s critical to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Taking a time-out provides needed space to develop a plan of attack. That may mean delegating, asking for help or taking other steps to make sure all critical matters get accomplished on time.

Besides learning to plan their work for each day, every day, new lawyers must find their rhythm. Some people work best in the morning. They may want to tackle the most challenging work right away, leaving more mundane tasks for later in the day. Others are best served by wading into complex work only after several cups of coffee.

All lawyers also need to be strategic about nonbillable time. This is especially true for student-body-president types. Junior attorneys need to carefully consider opportunity costs and make sure nonbillable endeavors align both with their career goals and the goals of their firm.

Being efficient. A close relative of time management, efficiency today is more important than ever. Although efficiency naturally improves over time, new lawyers can employ strategies to boost their efficiency.

First, they must understand precisely what they are being asked to do. With surprising frequency, senior lawyers receive assignments that are not what they expected. Starting over is never efficient.

Senior lawyers often assume junior lawyers know more than they do, and junior lawyers are often reluctant to ask questions. That combination is a recipe for a project gone awry.

Before getting started, junior lawyers should confirm their understanding of the project with the assigning attorney. The junior lawyer also needs to know the name of the client, the billing information, the deadline and the time the senior lawyer expects the project to take.

Seann W. Hallisky, principal corporate counsel at T-Mobile USA, also recommends law firms make sure their junior lawyers understand how their work provides value to the client. This helps them stay focused on client needs. New lawyers also need to know to check in the instant they believe they may be heading down a rabbit hole.

Developing a logical plan for completing an assignment will promote efficiency. Senior lawyers can help by providing samples of similar work. As part of the plan, junior lawyers should keep track of their research so they don’t continue to revisit the same authorities time and again.

Finally, because new lawyers often suspect they are not efficient, they may shave their own time. But recent graduates have little perspective on how long projects should take or what they should cost. Thus, firm management needs to regularly reiterate that all decisions on write-offs must be left to senior attorneys.

Paying attention to detail. Practicing law usually requires more attention to detail than anything new graduates have ever done. At the same time, the heightened focus on efficiency may tempt them to cut corners. That’s a mistake: Ending up with the wrong answer is grossly inefficient.

New lawyers must understand even small errors are problematic. In law school, typos and small mistakes are often forgiven in the name of not elevating form over substance. But in the “real” world, typos irk clients and make senior lawyers fear that larger mistakes lurk behind the smaller ones.

As Drew Berry, the late chairman of McCarter & English, put it, a lawyer’s job is to force the reader’s mind to move forward through ideas. A grammatical or typographical error “derails the train of thought.”

It is more efficient to keep errors at bay than to find and correct them at the last minute. Various habits can help, such as cutting and pasting information rather than retyping. New lawyers should verify information carefully the first time, limiting the need to check and recheck.

As one partner at a global law firm counsels new associates, “We never guess. We always look it up.”


Even with an increased focus on providing new lawyers with formal training and career advice, some new lawyers don’t get it. But certain best practices can make teaching more effective.

To help ensure that lawyers pay attention when getting career advice, be clear about the benefits. “Junior lawyers are more likely to follow advice if the person giving advice can identify someone who succeeded by taking the recommended path,” said Elaine Ventola, assistant director for JD Advising at Harvard Law School and former senior manager of training at Goodwin Procter LLP.

Credibility is crucial. Lawyers are trained to think critically, which can lead to skepticism about career advice. Those who provide career advice should be explicit about their credentials. An endorsement from another party, such as a dean or managing partner, also promotes credibility.

Ventola added that junior lawyers are more likely to follow advice if they hear it from multiple sources. Repetition helps new lawyers remember and also emphasizes the importance of the message. Make sure advice from various sources is consistent. One of the main reasons new lawyers fail to follow career advice is that it conflicts with other information they have received.


To succeed in the new reality of legal economics, new lawyers must learn early on to manage their careers proactively and build their practices, engender trust with senior lawyers and focus on providing value to clients. Those lessons will take hold more quickly if numerous credible messengers repeat them regularly.