New Era in Professional Development for New Lawyers

Having difficulty transition from law student to practicing attorney? It's not a new problem and you're not alone. It's an old joke that law school doesn't really prepare law students for the actual, day-to-day practice of law. Legal analysis and legal research are critically important, but it can be hard for students to translate classroom experiences, legal theory, and case studies into the representation of real clients in real legal problems in a real legal practice setting. Nor does sitting in a classroom prepare students for client management, navigating the county clerk's office, tracking their time for client billing, and social media policies. In many ways, it's a worsening problem. Previous generations of lawyers had the advantage of an apprentice system, where upon graduation they were taken under the wing of experienced attorneys and shown the ropes. But that was before law became big business. And it was before the recession put pressure on lawyers to maximize their billing while facing significant pushback from clients and growing competition from other solutions and alternative legal services providers. Experienced lawyers don't have time to train new attorneys anymore since their clients aren't willing to pay for that hands-on training.

So how can new lawyers get their training today? Clinical courses are part of the answer (and I encourage law students to get as many practical skills training as they can), but clinical courses can only do so much. Law firms are embracing more CLE options, as well as their own internal, formalized professional development programs and mentoring programs. According to Sarah Kellogg's "The Professional Development Imperative: Ongoing Training Keeps New Lawyers Invested" in the D.C. Bar Association's Washington Lawyer magazine: "Ultimately, law firms, government agencies, and in-house offices that look to the long term are more likely to invest in professional development programs that nurture culture and build leadership, while still remaining focused on the competing pressures of client development and budget cutting. Talent development is harder to sell if the firm’s goals emphasize short-term gains or budget balancing. Like so many factors inside firms, professional development is becoming a clear differentiator for both associates and partners as they weigh whether to join or stay with firms."

Attorneys need to take charge of their own professional development and, indeed, many are very aware of this need to be entrepreneurial. "No surprise, of course, that associates are eager to take on more responsibility and for a chance to develop proficiency, if only to increase their value to the organization. After all, they have borne the majority of the downsizing in the last seven years, and they face intense pressure to find and keep jobs at law firms. If the law firm is less interested in meeting every need, it’s no wonder these lawyers have become, in effect, free agents."

"As free agents," the article continues, "they understand that their knowledge and skills are portable, and that the only security they have these days is their ability to manage those talents and take them from one firm to the next. In that sense, they are more entrepreneurial and less willing than their more experienced peers to be compartmentalized into practice niches with narrow futures." Outstanding junior, mid-level, and even senior level lawyers who feel like they are no longer developing get restless, as well as concerned about their impact of stagnation on their careers. They start to look for other employment options, even if they're doing quite well with their current employer. (Indeed, a significant percentage of my clients fall into this category.)

Read Sarah Kellogg's "The Professional Development Imperative: Ongoing Training Keeps New Lawyers Invested" in the D.C. Bar Association's Washington Lawyer magazine.