8 Ways to Train a Junior Lawyer

Editor’s Note: This post is written by a partner in the San Francisco office of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck.

By Louie Castoria, Partner, Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck LLP

Most new law graduates finish the bar exam and enter their first jobs in the law wonderfully trained to do one thing: pass the bar exam.

A January 25, 2015 Big Law Business article, “Legal Tech Poses Training Problem in Big Law,” remarked on the “rock and a hard place” dilemma facing new lawyers and their employers: needing to receive or give training, but with fewer on the job opportunities to learn by doing some of the time consuming work — and valuable learning experiences — that used to go to novice associates, due to the growth of specialized service vendors.

There’s a third factor that’s putting the squeeze on training: a lot of clients won’t pay for it. They want seasoned people working on their cases.

As one who has long been a mentor and instructor in continuing legal education programs, I think law firms need to provide career development opportunities for associates, especially more recent graduates who show long term potential.

There are ways to do it, without unfairly charging clients or taking away work that should legitimately be done by lower-cost vendors. Here are seven simple ways to build practical training into associate development programs:

1. Homework. Assign all associates a question that has a “best answer” that isn’t in the books, such as, “Opposing counsel has clearly withheld documents from production that they should have produced. What do you do?” Then see if any answers start with, “Pick up the phone.”

2. The buddy system. Take an associate to his/her first deposition, court appearance, mediation, or client meeting, with the sole assignment being, “Take notes,” though there can be private discussions. How can you both bill for this? If the client doesn’t authorize it, you can’t. I suggest that you trade off, with the associate billing for one event and you billing for the next one. It’s expensive, but builds trust and relationships.

3. Co-authorship. Include an associate as co-author of a short article or blog post, or as a joint presenter in a public forum.

4. Assign the associate to attend a day of trial or a morning of appellate oral arguments, and to report back about what worked well and what didn’t.

5. Assign a presentation on a narrow legal topic that is of importance to one of the office’s practice areas at an office-wide attorney meeting—just 10 minutes. Ask the associate not to advocate a position, but to give a fair summary of the topic, including at least two key legal authorities, a source or two from scholarly works or public media sources, and a common sense conclusion about how the firm should approach the topic. Listen to a rehearsal of the topic long enough in advance for changes to be made.

6. Review some documents together. It’s sometimes amazing how people who have spent the last three years intently reading case opinions don’t know how to read ordinary documents. Sit down together with a set of documents, say 50 or so pages that have been produced in a case you have together. Read them one by one and ask, “How does this letter/email/etc. affect the issues in our case? Other than the author, who do we want to ask questions about this document at deposition, and why? How might those questions be phrased to get the answers we want?”

Ask that the associate prepare the written work product that memorializes the key points of the review. If we read for the sake of reading, without creating a record, how is the client helped when we go on vacation and someone else has to recreate the work?

7. Have the associate prepare a Powerpoint or Keynote presentation on a non-law topic and give it at an office meeting. Presentations are vitally important in trials, arbitrations, educational events, and client meetings. By and large, law schools don’t teach presentation skills.

Ask the associate to select a topic that is personally important to them (“growing up in Alabama,” or “What I learned from watching Star Trek,” or “cooking Italian food,” for example). Have the associate read any of the free online resources about effective presentations, then write an outline for your review. Next step: a rough draft of the slide deck, also for your review. Then finally a dry run, with just the two of you present. Give fair, honest criticism, and if a lot of work is needed offer another dry run before the actual event. The goal is to coach, not to terrify.

8. Review a case you’ve worked on together. If the associate agrees to do so, each of you think about a case and separately list the three best things you did on the case, and the three things you’d do differently. Then you compare the lists and discuss, with only the plural pronouns: what “we” did, not “I” or “you.” (After all, that’s how the client sees it, the team’s effort.) This is just for training—no blame or credit, and nothing goes in the HR file.

Can law firms still teach practical legal skills? You bet we can, if we care enough to invest in our future talent.