Many general counsels find that associate salaries stand in the way of good client service. In fact, many GCs are doing their best to not pay for what they consider to be on the job training for first and second year associates on their files. The Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) framed the problem this way in its (R)evolution in the Law Firm Service Market (emphasis added):

Some blame the ubiquitous billable hour and its perverse drivers toward inefficient and terribly expensive results. Some blame the morph of law firms (professional enti­ties) to a business model (profit driven). Others point to the almighty “profit per partner” ratings, highly leveraged pools of stunningly inexperienced and overpriced associates, and an increasingly de-equal­ized middle class of partners. Indeed, one of the most disturbing trends in all of this mess and despite the tall stacks of money paid out by clients is the incredible num­ber of lawyers who are either pushed out of the profession, or run screaming from the building, often before they’ve enjoyed any semblance of the career and professional fulfillment we all envisioned we’d have when we were in law school.

Our friends at ACC don’t have the magic solution that will fix it all, but they are talking about a conversation (hooray!) and a movement (bigger hooray).

What ACC’s Value Challenge is and isn’t: The value challenge is not an answer, but a movement. It’s not about laying blame; it’s about creating responsibility for change.

“Solutions” that Perpetuate the Problem
I don’t care what caused the problem, I want to know what are we going to do about those darn associates that no one wants to hire, train, mentor or pay for?

Right now the “we won’t hire them” model is picking up favor. For these firms, they see it as a better economic and business model to recruit a mid-level associate who has already been trained on someone else’s dime and is now seen as “profitable.”

If you follow the legal blogs, you have seen the posts on first year classes being cut back in size and start dates being postponed. More and more firms are reducing the size or shortening their summer programs, or cutting them out all together. On campus interviews are also seeing a hit.

And while a law firm might offer, on paper, training programs, mentoring programs and the like, unfortunately, with a 2200 hour billable requirement, associates never find the time to take advantage of these.

My solution.
For many years I have been having conversations with my peers on the law firm administration side about why we do not require a two-year paid internship for lawyers coming out of law school, similar to doctors. I am not alone on this.

From Mike Dillion, Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary Sun Microsystems Inc. on his “The Legal Thing. Notes from the General Counsel”:

Our legal education system needs to provide better practical training. In this respect it should mirror the residency requirements of medical schools or legal programs in other countries. For example, in Germany, a practice residency is already incorporated in the law school curriculum. In addition, law schools need to recognize that the “legal profession” is also a business for providing legal services. To be successful, lawyers need to be trained in how to manage a competitive business enterprise. Interestingly, future members of our profession already understand this and are focusing on the issue.

And Atlanta law firm, Ford Harrison, has already begun their program:

This unique 15-month regimen, in which all first year associates will participate, emphasizes on-the-job training through mentoring, hands-on work assignments and direct observation of client matters. It is modeled after the medical school’s resident approach.

The central component of the program is the elimination of billable hours requirements for all participants. Instead, an attorney’s performance is tracked and measured through participation in clinical hours. The firm’s new lawyers will be immediately engaged in the labor and employment law practice by participating in collective bargaining sessions, depositions, trials and hearings, labor or other arbitration cases, EEOC on-site investigations and strategy meetings.

I would like to add that not only does the legal education system need to provide better training, but so do the law firms.

Here I go all Pollyanish again, but by properly training, mentoring and exposing novice attorneys to the overall practice of law, without concern or focus on recouping costs, we can help cut the overall attrition rates, which, according to the NALP Foundation, have reached 64% within 5 years for entry level (hired as a 1st year) associates. By transitioning our legal educational system to mirror other professional services, we can increase job satisfaction and retention, heighten our client service standards, and hopefully cut down on some of those lawyer jokes.

(okay, let’s keep the lawyer jokes. I especially liked the one about the attorney, the BMW and the Rolex.)