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Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

Yesterday, I dined at a restaurant in San Francisco.  Generally, this would not be news worthy, nor would it be relevant to a website devoted to law firm issues.  Except for the fact that this was no ordinary restaurant.  It was a dining establishment in the basement of another restaurant in a windowless room with no lights.  Yes, you heard correctly.  There were no lights and no windows.  The entire restaurant was pitch black.  All the waiters and waitresses were blind.  Our waitress, Courtney, guided us to our table by forming a human train, with Courtney leading the way.

My first reaction was, holy shit, it really is dark.  Duh.  But let me clarify.  There’s dark, and then there’s dark.  Most of us are accustomed to darkness when we go to sleep at night and turn off the lights.  But there’s always some sort of ambient light filtering through a window.  Moonlight, street lights, the occasional sweep of headlights from a passing car.  Usually, you can still make out faint outlines of objects, furniture, something.  In other words, you can still see.

Not here.  This darkness was the blackest, craziest “I’m in a friggin’ black hole” kind of darkness.  The true absence of light.  Light sucked out completely, never to return. Okay, perhaps I’m being a little dramatic, but that really was how it appeared.  I couldn’t see anything.  I had no concept of how small or large the room was, how high the ceilings were, or how many tables were there.  I put my hand up to my face, two inches from my eyes.  Nothing.  I waved my hand in front of my face.  Nothing.

On top of the pitch blackness, once we had been seated, I realized that there was no sound either.  No ambient noise–no music, no conversation from other diners, not even the sound of a heating vent.  It was absolutely silent.

This was really disturbing.  My first instinct was to get up and run out.  But of course I couldn’t.  I had no idea where the hell I was.  The darkness and silence were overwhelming, oppressive, threatening to crush me.  I was used to seeing and hearing things.  Take those away from me suddenly, and I felt helpless.  I could sense panic rising at an alarming rate.

So how is this related to Biglaw?  Of course, I’m not suggesting that partners use sensory deprivation as a method to torture associates.  But, associates do experience moments of panic, especially early on, that are not dissimilar to what I felt at this restaurant.

Consider an associate asked to take a deposition after only a few months out of law school.  Or asked to go to court alone to face a peevish judge and opposing counsel who has a reputation for making mincemeat out of his opponents.  The natural reaction is this:  PANIC.  The thoughts running through your head are probably, in no particular order: What the hell do I do?  Am I ready for this?  I have no clue what I’m doing!  What if I royally fuck this up?  The partner will kill me if I screw up!  I’m going to get fired, I know it.  This is the end!

What causes this panic?  It’s the same cause for my panic in the restaurant: being thrown into a foreign environment suddenly.  I wasn’t prepared for the darkness, and didn’t know how to deal with it.  Associates aren’t prepared to take their first deposition or argue their first motion, and they don’t know how to handle them properly.

This is why, despite all the desire by first year associates for such “early responsibility,” it’s important to first get the proper training.  Courtney, the blind waitress, wasn’t going to panic.  She’s blind, after all, so she understands the environment and knows how to operate, even flourish, under such conditions.  Similarly, partners won’t panic about a deposition or a court hearing.  They’ve done it before, have accumulated the experiences, and know how to succeed under these conditions.  The key is to prepare yourself for doing something that you’ve never done before.  That’s why training and mentoring are so important early on in your career development.

It turned out that there was no ambient sound because we were the first to arrive at the restaurant.  Shortly thereafter, music started playing and other tables were filled around us.  I got used to the total darkness after a while, and figured out how to eat an entire three-course meal, complete with amuse bouche and other culinary surprises, without spilling anything.  At the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and even got to listen to a blind waitress recite her own poetry in the dark.  Surreal.

So, find yourself a mentor to show you the way.  Don’t stumble in the darkness all by yourself.

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Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do associates leave law firms in part because they don’t feel that partners invest in their personal growth and development, or do partners fail to mentor because they are disheartened by the high level of associate attrition?

Partners who don’t put much weight into training or mentoring will offer various arguments for why the status quo exists: Partners are too busy. Firm hierarchy is set up so that senior associates, not partners, should be training junior associates. Associate turnover is so high that the extra time and personal effort spent training an associate is simply wasted when that associate leaves the firm (sometimes within the year).  I’ll address each of these arguments in turn.

“Partners are too busy.” Really? Everyone is busy. Being “too busy” is simple code for “not a priority.” In the law firm environment, where the priority is to maximize profits, being too busy simply means not being willing to take on one fewer case and use that time for associate training.

“Senior associates should mentor.” True, they should and they do. Some of the best mentoring occurs from another associate who is more senior and has more experience. That happens all the time, and it’s a great thing. However, it doesn’t replace partner mentoring. Partners, after all, are privy to the high-level decisions and legal strategy sessions that even the senior associate may not be aware of. They also have tons of real-world experience. It really helps to have both partner and associate mentoring.

“Associates rarely stick around long enough to make it worthwhile.” This is the biggie. A number of firms keep internal statistics tracking their turnover rates. What they find is that the vast majority of attrition occurs in the first couple years. In other words, entry-level associates are the most likely to leave. Because of that, partners find themselves more unwilling to mentor someone fresh out of law school as opposed to someone who has stuck around for a few years and proven to be a staple of the firm. The irony, of course, is that the associates who end up receiving the least mentoring from partners are the entry-level associates who need it the most, and the associates who receive the most mentoring (senior associates working directly with the partners) are the ones who need it the least.

Back to the chicken and the egg. Put yourself in the partner’s shoes for one second. You are a partner excited about mentoring an associate. You spend a lot of non-billable time grooming this associate for stardom. You do all the things you can within your power to ensure that she gets good work experience. She repays you, after two years of training, by telling you that she’s leaving the firm to go work at the DOJ. Your plans to have her work as your trusted associate for many years, and then perhaps as a junior partner when you are a senior partner, have just vanished. You vow never to make that mistake again.

The partner’s viewpoint is certainly understandable, but it’s too narrow in focus. Let’s zoom out for a second and see what’s really going on. First year associates start work in the fall. They are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and eager to please. For some of them, it’s their first job ever. They want to make a good impression, and will do whatever they can to please the partners. They have high hopes for the profession and for their future. In short, the vast majority of these first year associates come into the profession wanting to succeed, wanting to stay long-term, perhaps wanting to make partner. There are always a few exceptions: the outliers who decide to work at large law firms to pay off their student loans, figuring they can game the system by lying low under the radar and doing as little work as possible and just “getting by.” But those are the exceptions. Most want to succeed at the firm, and they do not go in having plans to leave.

So why do they leave? That’s a complex question, and I’ll be exploring all aspects of this in the months to come. But I submit to you that it has to do in part with the lack of investment by partners in associates, particularly first years. If the assumption that most first years do not enter a job with their exit strategy already secured is accurate, then it must follow that something is causing them to change their minds within the workplace environment itself. So it seems to me that associates leave because they aren’t getting the feeling that partners are investing in them, which in turn then causes partners to invest even less time in associates. It’s a vicious cycle, but unlike the chicken and the egg, we know where the head is.

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If you’ve been following the posts from the past week, you’ll know I don’t place much hope in the effectiveness of mentoring circles, “buddy” systems, or a general “open door” policy. But that doesn’t mean that associates can’t get assistance.

Contrary to popular belief, the ideal mentor doesn’t have to share your personality; you don’t have to both love sports or food or a particular TV show; he or she doesn’t have to be close to you in age. Instead, the ideal mentor is a partner or senior associate who really loves to mentor and who has the time and patience to do so. The defining quality is EMPATHY. Someone who actually can see the world through another’s eyes. These people exist. They are rare, because the boiler room conditions and pressures of working at a law firm are such that the types of personalities that make partner are generally not those of kind, empathetic individuals who take a vested interest in your personal growth and development. That said, there are exceptions. There always are.

So how do you find this ideal mentor? Unfortunately, the most effective way is to simply be staffed on a case with him or her. When associates start work, they hear rumors from more senior associates about which partners are good to work for, and which ones aren’t. But in general, at least when you first start out, you don’t choose the partner; the partner chooses you. More on staffing next week.

Let’s say that you haven’t found the ideal mentor yet. You think about all the cases that you’re staffed on and you don’t think any of those partners fit the profile I just described. Out of luck? Nope. Even the most ornery partner usually has a human side. You just have to figure out when it’s exposed. Here’s my secret: Mentoring occurs best in the middle of the night. You’re working side by side with a partner, and it’s already 10 pm. The staff have gone home and it’s just the two of you. For some reason, the night strips away the formalities, the hierarchies, the appearances. For a few hours, you and the partner are just two human beings, striving to obtain the same objective of finishing a brief or finalizing a contract, and then going home. Shoes have been kicked off, sleeves rolled up, and Chinese take-out ordered. No phones are ringing, no client e-mails pinging the BlackBerry, no distractions. During these rare moments, the partner is more relaxed, more approachable, less “partner-like.” These are the moments that partners recount their own associate experiences, thank you for working so late, and if you’re really lucky, offer a glimpse of their own personal vulnerabilities and doubts. Those are the moments to ask questions and receive advice. But one note of caution: if it’s a partner that you can relate to only during brief moments in the middle of the night, just remember that, when you’re back at work the next day, he or she will still be a partner and you’ll still be an associate.

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Sometimes, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You’re a first year litigation associate only a couple months on the job. You’ve probably written some legal research memorandums, and likely started to do document review. The most exciting thing that’s happened to you is sitting in on a client call or a meet and confer with opposing counsel, where you’re told to “be a fly on the wall.” In other words, don’t talk. Don’t mess it up for the partner.

But one day, a partner walks into your office (a momentous occasion in and of itself because usually you are summoned to the partner’s office). He says to you, “I have a wonderful opportunity for you. How would like to go to court?” Of course, you think you’ve hit the jackpot. Maybe you’re a little scared, because you aren’t sure whether you’re ready for this. After all, you just found out that you passed the bar exam. But you continue to listen to the partner: it’s a great opportunity to get your feet wet, there won’t be a whole lot for you to do, the stakes aren’t high so you can’t really mess it up, and it’ll be real court time. How many first years can say they went to court by themselves?

It all sounds good, perhaps too good. If you’re like most first years, you just accept on the spot and go down the hall to brag to all your fellow associates about how you’re going to court. But let’s pause. Think about this for a second. Why is a partner so eager to have you go to court? Is it really because he wants you to have this “opportunity?” Or is there something else going on? What are his motivations?

It’s possible that you did hit the jackpot, and the partner is really interested in your personal growth and development. Less innocuous, but still okay, is the partner who wants you to go to court, perhaps to a CMC, because she is too busy to go herself and it’s routine and boring for her. The worst, however, is something that happens more often than you may think: the partner is managing a case where he’s really managed to piss off the judge. He knows that the hearing will involve yelling, berating, or perhaps even sanctions. And he’s too scared to appear so he wants you to go: to be his scapegoat and take the beating for him.

Of course, he doesn’t sell you the offer like that. He doesn’t say, “How would you like your first court experience to be one where you get yelled at and sanctioned by an angry judge?” Instead, he says, “I have a wonderful opportunity for you, one you’ll never forget.” True, you won’t forget it, but not for the reasons you think.

So, the moral of the story is this: when offered the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, ask yourself this: Is it too good to be true?

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I remember the first day I showed up for work as a first year associate.  A junior partner showed me to my office, and left me with a bunch of office manuals and forms to fill out.  I distinctly remember filling out health care and tax forms, setting up the welcoming message on my office phone, and then wondering to myself: “Now what?  Do I just go ahead and practice law?”

There was no official training or mentoring program in place when I first started working.  Instead, on my third day of work, I was staffed on my first case: a family dispute between two brothers over a company that they jointly owned.  A senior associate wanted me to prepare a draft complaint.  With no one telling me how to prepare a complaint, I turned to the Rutter Guides as well as some exemplars–prior complaints drafted by other attorneys at the firm for different cases.  I pulled my first all-nighter on my fourth day at work, and filed the complaint that Friday in court.  This is what the firm means when, during recruiting interviews, it tells law students that the training is “hands on.”

Training or mentoring entry-level associates has been a hot button issue for law firms.  Most firms offer some kind of training for first year associates, whether it’s a mentoring circle, a “buddy” system, or at the very least, an “open door” policy that supposedly represents the ability of a first year to simply walk into any partner’s office and ask for advice.  I’ll talk briefly about each of these.

In my experience, the mentoring circle is generally ineffective.  The circle usually consists of a partner paired up with a group of associates, varying in class and age.  The idea is for the mentoring circle to meet on a regular basis to discuss firm issues using “Vegas rules”, i.e., what is said within the circle stays within the circle.  Many groups don’t have the proper dynamics because the personalities simply don’t jive.  These circles, instead of serving as a forum for mentoring, tend to be reduced to free lunches with the partner, but not much else.  Even the groups that get along well end up being social gatherings.  The main problem appears to stem from the artificial nature of the environment itself.  Partners are paired randomly with associates of different levels.  Sometimes, the partner’s practice area may differ from that of some of the associates in his or her circle.  Moreover, a group environment is usually not the occasion to approach someone about a delicate work issue.  Even with “Vegas rules,” most associates don’t believe there won’t be a leak, and they probably don’t trust the partner either.

The “buddy” system is similar, except that it matches individual entry-level associates with a more senior associate or a partner.  Again, this system is subject to the whims of differing personalites, but it has worked with some success.  The reality is that most buddy systems are only effective for first years just starting out.  Once they start working with other attorneys in the office, natural alliances will form.

The “open door” policy is the most deceptive.  It sounds great in theory, and as a first year, any reassurance that there are other, more experienced attorneys available to help you is encouraging.  The reality is quite different.  Big name partners who tell you that you can walk in anytime to ask a question are, to put it frankly, unrealistic.  The intentions may be there, but those partners are generally so busy juggling 20 or more cases, they have no time to mentor a first year.  These big partners have lines of associates (and sometimes junior partners) waiting outside their doors, and are the ones attempting to hold intra-office meetings in their offices while their phones are ringing off the hook.  Forget it.  Even if you happened to catch them on a slow day, they likely won’t have the patience to answer your basic questions.  Generally, the lawyers who have the true “open door” policies are not the ones who advertise them: the associate who is just one or two years above you.  Those are the people who are most likely to help you in your time of need.

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