Hands-Off Training

June 1, 2022

Key Takeaways:

  • Remote and hybrid work models are here to stay. Traditional in-person modes of mentorship and professional development aren’t sustainable.
  • Instead of relying on serendipitous “teachable moments,” senior partners and firm leaders should make younger lawyers’ on-the-job training more formal, with defined goals and schedules.
  • When it comes to training and other important workplace communication, hybrid environments work best when everyone is treated as remote.

There has long been a disconnect between how people are trained to be lawyers and what it actually takes to be a successful lawyer. That gap has only grown in recent years as the practice of law is being continually reshaped by ever-faster developments in technology, business and culture.

If law firms’ mostly informal systems of apprenticeships and mentoring were flawed and barely keeping pace before the pandemic, young attorneys’ on-the-job training since 2020 has ranged from patchy to nonexistent. In fact, many leaders intentionally held off on advancing new professional development programs until offices could return to “normal.”

Since normal doesn’t seem to be coming, it’s time to consider what a truly modern, inclusive and productive professional development program should look like in this changed era.

Here are five things to keep in mind:

Articulate what the value is. First, what is the content that you need to teach? You may think you know it, but do you really? If you yourself don’t fully have a handle on what the client values about you, how can you teach someone else to deliver that?

Increasingly, we hear general counsel saying things like, “We don’t want lawyers. We just want the problem-solving that lawyers deliver.”

If the basis of your business — client experience — comes from intangible (even non-billable!) value, like brokering relationships between clients or helping people think differently about risk, how can you help put younger lawyers in a position where they will someday be able to deliver that value too?

As automation and alternative legal service providers take on more of the grunt work that used to occupy associates’ time, how can you help prepare them to deliver the high-value, “soft”-skilled services that clients need?

Assume everyone is remote. As a recent Harvard Business Review article made clear, “Hybrid cultures … only thrive by treating everyone as remote.” As the piece explains, “This means giving everyone access to the same information, people, tools, and opportunity to succeed.”

In practical terms, it means no longer relying on serendipity or informal “swing by my office” sessions to prepare and debrief associates before or after client meetings. Development conversations should be scheduled in advance so that remote and flex-schedule workers can plan for them and, whenever possible, communication should be asynchronous (i.e. an e-mail that could be read at night or in the morning) and include documentation that can be saved, searched and archived.

For some old-school partners, this approach will feel more difficult than simply sharing their wisdom during a personal conversation, but, in truth, it’s a far more efficient way for the firm to capture all the institutional knowledge and tricks of the trade and distribute those valuable insights more efficiently (and fairly!) across the organization. (Pro tip: If your rainmakers are deeply resistant to writing things down, consider allowing them to dictate thoughts to a clerk or summer associate who can transcribe and share them.)

Schedule regular 1:1s and keep that time sacred. Whether you’re in an ongoing supervisory role as part of a practice group structure, or periodically as trial teams form, it’s essential to set periodic 1:1 check-ins with your early-career colleagues. Agree on a recurring time (30 minutes every other week is often sufficient), and create an accessible shared document where the associate can “park” questions, ideas and topics they’d like to discuss with you.

These conversations can also be structured to include mini performance reviews to discuss recent work product in real time and in a constructive, low-stakes setting. Such “after-action reviews” are inspired by a military best practice: Taking regular time to explain what we did and why we did it is a key to helping associates deepen their understanding of their work and its value.

Broker key relationships for associates. For some of the same reasons that it’s vital to assume everyone is remote when communicating information, it’s important to handle making introductions and fostering connections in a similar fashion. Even where large social events and other gatherings are back in full swing, not everyone is equally safe or comfortable attending them.

If you want associates to start developing their own relationships with in-house lawyers, tell them so. Make introductions over email or LinkedIn, and make sure your colleagues understand the strategic value of putting time into getting to know those future clients.

Formalize and say out loud the things we didn’t say before. The mythical idea that mentoring and the succession planning that followed from it was once purely organic ignores the plain truth that women, people of color and other members of marginalized groups were often excluded from the very spaces where mentoring relationships grew. It wasn’t just coincidence that all the partners belonged to the same golf club.

Today, young attorneys, lateral recruits and clients expect firms to be explicit and intentional about their promotion and succession processes. What does it take to make partner? How diverse is the pipeline to partnership? How widely are historically underrepresented groups now represented in your partnership and leadership? Who is succeeding (or not) and how? Measuring and tracking professional development efforts is scary; we sometimes don’t want to see the lopsided numbers and the leaky pipeline to the top. But results are unlikely to improve if we don’t even try to measure progress. Trust and transparency are the hallmarks of great mentors.