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Will Practice Make Perfect Lawyers?

With the economy down, law firms have less work. That means they've got more time -- or at least, slightly more appetite -- for training new associates. As the National Law Journal reports, a number of firms -- most recently, 659-lawyer firm Howrey -- are moving toward an apprenticeship model, with new associates spending time attending classes and shadowing partners on client matters. Associates participating in the Howrey program are still expected to generate billable hours, though the requirements are reduced to 700 hours in their first year. And to help subsidize the costs of the $3 million training program, the firm is cutting first-year salaries from $160,000 to $100,000, with a $25,000 bonus that can be applied to repay student loans.

Several other firms have launched similar efforts, including Drinker Biddle & Reath, Dallas-based Strasberger and Price, which recently introduced apprenticeship-type programs, and Atlanta-based Ford & Harrison, whose "Year One" training program was rolled out last year.

From the law firm perspective, the programs offer significant benefits. For starters, the new training programs help soften the blow of salary cuts. Moreover, training programs are a selling point for clients, because firms can demonstrate that they're paying the cost of training, rather than subsidizing associate learning on the client's dime.

Associates potentially benefit from training also. Though they may not engage in much hands-on work, the fact of the matter is that for most associates, hands-on work consists largely of document review.
With apprenticeship programs, staff attorneys assume responsibility for document review, while full associates focus on training. Moreover, back in the boom years, new lawyers expressed their willingness to trade stratospheric salaries and the long hours of drudge work that accompanied high pay for less money and more training and flexible schedules. It seems new lawyers have finally gotten what they wished for, at least temporarily.

Reactions to the apprentice programs from around the blogosphere are decidedly mixed. At The Conglomerate, Gordon Smith views the trend as a "movement by firms to take greater responsibility for skills training, rather than blaming law schools for not doing something that we are ill-equipped to do well."Jane Genova of Law and More wonders whether the programs are intended more as a public relations tactic "to have clients know newbie associates won't be on the account and, just as importantly, they won't be paying for the perhaps inefficient work of newbies." She also writes that in law, you need to learn by doing:

Law is a "practice." It's much like learning to drive, to write for print, to blog. You learn by doing, not by sitting in a classroom. I have never learned a thing about communications by "shadowing" a higher-up in an organization. They tried that when I was employed full-time at GM and I rebelled - successfully. When you're not involved in the actual doing and responsible for the quality of the product or service, you soon enough find yourself on auto-pilot.

Meanwhile, at Adams Drafting, Ken Adams offers some suggestions for how law firms might structure the apprenticeship program. He says that firms have a choice: they can either use the program to teach associates the same-old thing, or begin to train them to adopt better practices. Adams explains:

If all you're interested in is a goosed version of your normal training, you'd dragoon a partner -- perhaps someone who otherwise would be spending much of their day gazing out the window -- to put together a training program. Odds are it would consist of a mish-mash of conventional drafting wisdom, with most of it being devoted to the structure of M&A contracts. What would be conspicuously absent is a coherent overview of the basics of contract language...

If you're interested in a game-changing training program, the first thing you'd do is adopt a style guide for contract drafting. That's something I discussed in this January 2009 blog post. Your only real choice would be to adopt MSCD by means of a short document laying out some explanatory guidelines. (Anything you try to prepare on your own would be impossibly skimpy.) The style guide should be as near to mandatory as is possible in a law firm.

Thinking back on my own experience, after spending three years in law school and two summers as an associate at both a small and large law firm, I was ready to hit the ground running on my first day of work. In fact, that's why I chose to start my legal career with a government agency, where I'd immediately have hands-on experience rather than return to the firm where I'd spent my second-year summer. Perhaps new associates will find these training programs appealing, particularly because the $100,000 salaries associated with them (albeit lower than years past) are nothing to sneeze at. However, I suspect that many will now consider judicial clerkships, the Department of Justice, States' Attorney or Public Defender jobs as a an alternative. After all, if you're going to take a pay cut to get more training, it might as well be the real thing rather than a pallid simulation.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 30, 2009 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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