By Sherry Karabin
Clients demand more value for their dollarfrom law firms. From efficient project management to alternative fee arrangements, the bottom line remains important and entry-level associate costs are no exception.
Many companies refuse to pay for the so-called "training" of these newer lawyers, who often get assigned to help handle their matters. Some firms hire fewer first-year associates, but others come up with ways to get them up to speed without billing clients.
Chicago Lawyer spoke to firms and associates to see how these new programs work.
The push for training
Susan Hackett, former general counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel and now chief executive officer of Legal Executive Leadership, said eliminating junior associate costs may have been on clients' minds for some time, but they started to take action on the issue about five years ago.
"After the economy tanked, many in-house lawyers had to examine if they could afford to have large leveraged teams doing their work," Hackett said. "They rediscovered what they probably already knew, that four hours from a $600 per hour partner was a better use of their limited budget than 40 hours from $300 per hour associates, who might take longer and deliver a less experienced answer.
"Once clients began to refuse to pay for first- and second-year lawyers, firms began focusing more attention on hiring professional development staff, whose job it is to focus on training."
More firms connect compensation and advancement "not to the number of years at the firm, but to the demonstration of defined 'competencies,' which many of these programs teach," she said.
"Project management, financial acumen and efficient service delivery skills are some of the new tools being added to the nascent lawyers' toolkit," Hackett said.
Ford & Harrison, which operates an office in Chicago, became one of the early law firms to offer associate training programs.
"We rolled out our Year One Associate Development Program in the fall of 2007," said Margaret Holman, chief strategic officer at the labor and employment firm.
"We created ours before the downturn hit in response to rate pressure, and a growing intolerance by clients to have junior associates staff their matters, and pay for what they perceived as training time."
Associates who go through the program do not receive any billable-hour requirements, but must put in 1,800 hours of clinical time, she said.
"Associates are encouraged to attend trials, depositions and collective bargaining sessions with partners, getting involved as much as possible. While some of their work may generate valuable work product that may be billed to a client, the firm's first priority is the value of the learning experience to the associate," Holman said.
In addition to the clinical hours, they must complete a 100-hour classroom requirement that includes internal firm training and outside workshops. Associates must also complete an independent research project on a legal or industry topic.
A client service secondment got added in 2009, allowing the associate to spend six weeks to three months working full time at a client's business.
"It gives the client an extra hand at no charge, while allowing the associate to learn firsthand about our clients' business operations and about the demands placed on in-house legal departments," Holman said.
The training occurs in the office that hires the associate. The Chicago office has not trained anyone, but the office's Managing Partner Craig Thorstenson said he currently uses an associate in the program and worked with others in the past.
"I have been very pleased with all of their performance and skills," Thorstenson said.
"Clients love the program because they recognize that we are trying to meet their needs without charging them for training costs. They also give us credit for being proactive since we put the program in place before others were doing it."
Drinker Biddle & Reath created its first-year associate development program in May 2009, beginning a six-month pilot that fall. Associates that participate receive reduced compensation during the training period.
"Many firms at the time were putting their summer hires on hold, but we opted to take ours on but require them to go through the program instead," said Stephanie Dodge Gournis, hiring partner in the firm's Chicago office.
"We were also aware of the increasing demand by clients that we staff their matters with those possessing the appropriate education and skills."
The first portion of the program teaches the associates basic lawyering skills, including client service, problem solving and time management. The second part addresses the laws and regulations that pertain to a practice area. It concludes by giving the associates a chance to shadow attorneys in their practice area.
"There are no billable-hour requirements, so there is no undue pressure on the associates," Gournis said. "Our goal is really to help these associates transition from law school to active practice and hit the ground running when they do."
"I think it definitely gave me a leg up and a chance to explore what I was really interested in without billable-hour expectations," said Nicolas Guzman, who participated in the September 2009 pilot.
"The second part of the program was most valuable to me because we were put in a small practice group setting. I was in the corporate group and we went through various training modules that involved real-life deals that partners had worked on previously," he said.
"We were able to work on the deal from the offer letter stage to the closing and come up with our own solutions along the way without fear of harming the client."
Guzman said his in-depth exposure to the international trade subgroup during the pilot program allowed him to realize how much he enjoyed practicing in that area.
"I think these training programs are the best way to start," he said. "The big problem for many people is that law school and the practice of law are so different. My program let me know what was expected while giving me a chance to explore and feel free to make mistakes without repercussions."
Alexius Cruz O'Malley worked as a summer associate at Drinker Biddle in 2012. She said she wants to receive an offer and one of the reasons is the training program.
"I actually spent 10 years working in the business world before I decided to attend law school and I created training programs for employees so I know how important it can be to build that foundation," O'Malley said.
Jumping on the training bandwagon
Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg rolled out its associate shadowing program in the fall of 2010.
"We were hearing more and more about apprenticeship programs and were looking closely at our associate development for awhile," said Maria Minor, professional development and pro bono manager at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg.
"Overall associate development has moved away from the system of lockstep advancement in favor of core competencies and benchmarks," Minor said.
"Our clients and in-house counsel were asking for better value as well."
The program requires first-year associates to bill 1,600 hours with another 400 hours being set aside for development.
"Much of the time should be used for shadowing other attorneys so that the associate can get up to speed on preparing depositions, negotiations and other matters," Minor said.
"Shadowing involves thoughtfully discussing legal nuances, strategy development and relationship building, without worrying about the clock running."
Kevin Schneider, an associate in the financial restructuring and bankruptcy and finance practice groups at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, worked in the program in 2011.
"I would say it helped to smooth the transition from law school to practicing," Schneider said. "It gave me the chance to watch seasoned lawyers in the courtroom, sit in with clients, preparing me to do things on my own. I got a full picture, as opposed to just being part of the research or writing end of things."
Seyfarth Shaw addresses associate training through two fellowship programs designed for those who want to practice labor and employment law. Bill Schurgin (left), who runs the summer and senior fellow programs, with fellows Annie Harris and Chris Busey.
Photo by David Durochik.
Seyfarth Shaw addresses associate training through two fellowship programs designed for those who want to practice labor and employment law.
Bill Schurgin, the Chicago chairman of the firm's labor and employment practice group, said the firm runs one for summer associates and another for senior fellows offered positions at the firm.
"Our summer program is independent," said Schurgin, who runs the summer and senior fellow programs. "We do require students to have a demonstrated interest in labor and employment in order to be accepted, but I don't expect that everyone who goes through it will want to practice in a large firm.
"During our summer program, we try and get all the fellows together from different offices twice a week. We do presentations on subject matter areas, teach them how to write for a large firm and explain how we operate. We have been using Lean Six Sigma principles in our SeyfarthLean initiative to deliver better value to clients, which is important for them to understand."
A faculty advisory board helps determine the curriculum for both programs.
The firm encourages summer fellows to observe depositions, court motions, labor negotiations and other matters. They get a chance to do work for clients, but they do not bill for the hours.
Summer fellows who receive offers get placed in the four-month senior fellowship program in September following graduation.
"It is very similar to our summer fellowship, but more emphasis is placed on obtaining practical experience so that when these associates join other attorneys in January, nothing is new," Schurgin said.
The summer fellowship program began in 2011 and eight of the 10 associates now work as senior fellows. Schurgin said the firm plans to expand both programs to other practice areas.
After not hiring first-year associates for a number of years, at the end of 2011, Much Shelist began a new apprenticeship program with two new associates.
"We started looking at the idea in the fall of 2011," said Mitchell Roth, chairman of the firm's management committee. "In our case, eliminating our summer program and not hiring first-year associates was not a response to pressure from clients who did not want to pay for training costs.
"We just found that in the past when we hired young associates we would invest in their training and development, and notwithstanding whether working at Much Shelist was a good experience, they would inevitably leave, often to take a position working with a larger firm."
The one-year apprenticeship track allows the associates to "float" among the practice groups, taking on assignments from various attorneys.
"For all intensive purposes they are considered first-year associates," said Jennifer Gallinson, director of Much Shelist's attorney recruitment and development. "They participate in the same activities, but they have less billable-hour requirements.
"Instead, they are able to spend time learning the practice of law by shadowing experienced attorneys, taking part in training programs, participating in community service and working on pro bono matters.
"At the end of the year we will evaluate their work and decide if we want them to stay on and whether they want to do so."
"The idea is still in the experimental phase," Roth said. "If the program continues to be successful, we will likely do it again."
Caroline Belloff started at Much Shelist in December 2011.
"I was not certain which practice area interested me the most, so this has been a great opportunity to learn about the different options," Belloff said.
"We are encouraged to observe client calls and negotiations and it is great not having the pressure of billing everything that I do.
"I think a lot of people in law school are not sure what category of law suits them best. If more firms had programs like this one, students would take advantage of them."
"I like the mentoring aspect of this program the most," said Shawn Ronda, who started at Much Shelist in February 2012. "Most first-year associates are just thrown into the deep end of the pool. Here experienced attorneys actually walk you through fundamental concepts of law and have a vested interest in your career development.
"Caroline and I are both pretty optimistic that we'll have a position at Much Shelist when the program ends, but we understand that this depends on the needs of the firm and the state of the economy."
In January 2012, DLA Piper began a pilot program in its Chicago office for 10 associates who work in a variety of practice areas.
"We implemented our New Associates Chicago Group to give first-year associates the opportunity to gain broader experiences across different practice areas and expand their network of professional relationships, while at the same time increasing the flexibility of partners and practice group leaders to align work needs with the professional interests of first-year associates," said Ken Schmetterer, hiring partner in the Chicago office, who helps oversee the summer associate and pilot programs.
"All DLA Piper first-year associates have substantially lower billable-hour expectations compared to other associates."
He said those in the pilot group receive the exact same training and pro bono requirements as everyone else at their level, with the only difference being that they do not get assigned to a specific practice group during their first year.
When it concludes, the firm will decide whether to continue and/or expand the program.
An outside perspective
Pauline Levy, senior counsel at Oak Brook-based McDonald's Corp., said she likes seeing firms provide more training to associates.
"Firms that come up with creative ideas to improve the value of their services and reduce the cost are the ones we look at closely," Levy said.
"We generally would use a first-year associate in a supportive role to help with research and writing. I do not think that will change even if we know that the person has gone through one of these training programs. We will still opt for more experienced attorneys to do the significant work."
Some law school advisers said these programs garner a lot of interest from students.
Greg Miarecki, executive assistant dean for career planning and professional development at the University of Illinois College of Law, who worked with Much Shelist to identify candidates, said the programs could be an effective way to utilize the talents of entry-level lawyers.
"The program at Much Shelist lets young attorneys figure out where their real strong suit is," Miarecki said. "They might think they want to be a litigator, but realize they fit in better in the corporate area."
David Diamond, interim assistant dean at the Center for Career Strategy and Advancement at Northwestern University School of Law, said the programs "complement the practical training students receive at Northwestern law."
However, Diamond said he feels unsure about whether the idea will catch on.
"The move to institute apprenticeship programs has slowed compared to a few years ago," Diamond said. "It is unclear how many additional firms will move to an apprenticeship model in the future."