How To Raise a Baby Lawyer

Those who know me would not be surprised to learn that I think that I was a brilliant supervising lawyer and mentor. Not necessarily because I was, but because I had a fairly high opinion of my own skill set. Many of us lawyers do. Not all of us are right, although I am.

If in fact I am correct about this, my insights on the topic may be of interest to you. If my evaluation of my own talents is not correct, you will be wasting about 5 minutes of your life if you choose to keep reading.

As I have written before, there are two types of supervising lawyers in our profession.

The first type are successful lawyers who bring in more work than they can do themselves, and their only motivations when they delegate work to others are to get the work done, hold onto their clients and get paid a percentage of the billings.

The second type have all of the same motivations as the first type, but in addition they love helping others grow in the profession and take great pride in the success of those whom they supervise. They may be a bit pedantic and perhaps if they had not become practicing lawyers, they may have become law professors.

My readers tend to be pretty sharp, so I rather expect that by now you have figured out that I believe that the second type of supervising lawyer is way better than the first type. I like to think that I was the second type.

I thought that I would share my thoughts about what you have to do if you want to be a great mentor and not just a supervising lawyer.

Before I do so, allow me to put forward what may be two controversial thoughts for law firm management: 

  1. How about refusing to allow lawyers to supervise associates altogether if they are not willing and able to do all of this stuff the right way?
  2. There is no point allowing mediocre lawyers to supervise and train junior lawyers. Lawyers who are not particularly good at what they do should not be allowed anywhere near the job of molding young minds. (Although to be fair to law firm management, not every mediocre lawyer is allowed to supervise junior lawyers. Typically, only mediocre lawyers who bill a lot and bring in a great amount of business are permitted to do so.)

And now for the main event. Here are my thoughts on how the job is supposed to be done. Before I share these thoughts with you, however, I do have to warn you – taking this approach does not maximize short-term profit.

As a result of that last statement, I have probably just lost many of the supervising lawyers who started reading this article. For the rest of you, here are my thoughts on this subject:

  • Real mentors see themselves as teachers whose job is to teach their associates how to practice law properly.
  • Those ‘mentors’ who loudly proclaim that they believe in the ‘sink or swim’ method and are vehemently opposed to ‘holding the hand’ of their juniors are full of crap. Typically, that method is exalted by those who do not want to sacrifice their personal billable hours to teach the next generation.
  • People do not learn to practice law in law school. Most of them learn best by observing experienced counsel in action and by doing things themselves, and not the type of things which are way beyond their experience and which are thrown at them with little explanation but with a quickly looming deadline.
  • There are a few people who do learn by the ‘sink or swim’ method and by having things dumped on them and having to figure them out. I was one of those. It was an ugly and unhealthy way to learn to practice law and I do not recommend it. More importantly, not everyone can do it and it has nothing to do with how smart they are. Many talented people with great potential simply give up and move on if that is all that is offered to them.
  • Lawyers cannot learn by observing experienced counsel if they are not in the room. Once I became an experienced lawyer, I rarely went into the boardroom for a client meeting without an articling student or first year lawyer in tow.

The primary job of the student or junior lawyer at the meeting was to take notes which freed me up to establish eye contact with the client. Clients like when you look at them when you talk to them instead of scribbling on your note pad or typing notes into your tablet.

Wherever possible, the subordinate was also given the file to read before the meeting and told that they could speak up if they thought that they had something to contribute. I would sometimes turn to them and ask them if they thought that I had missed something when I explained things to the client. (Usually they had the good sense to say that they thought that I had covered everything, but occasionally they picked up on something that was worth discussing further.)

If the student or junior had done the research, I would ask them to present the conclusions to the client.

By the end of the meeting, the student or junior lawyer usually had an assignment. It may have been as simple as getting the file open (which means that they had to think about who the client was, which is not always as simple as you would think), ordering and analyzing the conflict searches, drafting the retainer letter (which often meant describing the assignment in detail and addressing conflict or joint retainer issues), or preparing a first draft of a memo summarizing the recommendations coming out of the meeting.

After the meeting, I always took five or ten minutes to debrief. How did the junior think that the meeting went? Do they think that the client was happy with the advice? Did anything come up that was particularly interesting for them? Did I say or do anything that surprised them? (The most notable answer being as follows:

Junior: “Murray, did you actually advise the client to break the law? I don’t think that we are supposed to do that.”

Me: “Oops. I guess that my advice could be interpreted that way. Maybe I better call him and ‘clarify.’)”

  • Once I had someone junior to me working on the file, there was always something more that they could do and learn from. Maintaining the checklist on a transaction. Diarizing and following up for stuff. Drafting something. Giving instructions to the law clerk. Calling the client to follow up for things.
  • I also had a great deal of fun by always asking the student or junior, “What percentage of this meeting do you think you could have handled on your own?”  The first time that the student or junior attended a meeting on a particular subject, the correct answer was somewhere between five percent and ten percent. The most interesting answer that I received was from a law student early in his articles who attended a meeting with a client to develop a strategy to address a particularly difficult situation. I thought that I had been unusually brilliant, even for me, drawing upon my thirty years of experience at the time to develop a creative strategy. The student informed me that he could have handled about 95% of the meeting on his own. I informed myself that his ego was going to be a problem.
  • When I had someone draft a document for me, I would review it and then sit down with them and explain why I had made the changes that I did. I would also challenge them as to why they had done things the way that they had. I had a few rules, including the following:
  • When I asked the drafter why a particular clause was in the document, they were not allowed to say, “because it was in the precedent.”  This could be particularly amusing for me, especially when they started with a precedent that contained wording that I had myself inserted for a very specific reason that had nothing to do with the matter that we were now working on, and that inapplicable wording had made its way into the draft. They learned that they had to take ownership of every word in a document that they put forward.
  • The preceding rule even applied to the boilerplate. Not every boilerplate clause belongs in every document, and you cannot decide which boilerplate to leave in unless you understand the law which will apply if the clause is absent.
  • They had to think about the tone that they were trying to achieve in every document that they wrote, from the simplest email to the most complicated agreement.

I taught them that when I drafted an email or a letter my tone might range from ‘I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley and you better comply or all hell will break loose’ to ‘I could really use your help and here is why it is in everyone’s interest for you to help me.’ 

The tone of an agreement might range from ‘We have all of the marbles so this agreement will be as comprehensive as we want it to be’ to ‘You can just see how short, simple and straight-forward this document is. You may not even want to bother taking it to your lawyer.’

  • You have to have your junior’s back. When someone tries to overload them or saddle them with impossibly conflicting deadlines, they have to know that you will help them sort it out.
  • When the first mistake of any particular type happens, the senior lawyer has to reassure their associate that mistakes happen, help them figure out how to fix it and send them off to face the client or another lawyer in the firm and take responsibility. (When the second mistake of that same type happens, that is a whole other story.)
  • When it comes time to bill the file, if the junior lawyer has done a lot of work on the file, send them the print-out and ask them for a recommendation. Then tell them how you see it.
  • After the junior lawyer has seen something come up a number of times, let them start handling similar matters on their own, but let them know that you are there for questions.
  • Junior lawyers and students should always know that they can come in and ask you any question, but that your first question to them is going to be, “What have you done to find the answer yourself and what tentative conclusions have you come to?”  Except in a real emergency when you can just give them the answer.

Of course, different practice areas and types of practice provide different opportunities to supervise, train and mentor. For example, for litigators, it is often about creating opportunities for the junior lawyers to go to court.

What every area has in common is that there are opportunities for senior lawyers to use people to maximize their billings in the short-term, as well as opportunities for them to help people to develop confidence and skills and to achieve their own success. Doing the former maximizes income in the short-term. Doing the latter builds a great team and (hopefully) maximizes income in the long-term.

And now, to relate all of this to something that every partner in a law firm should care about, being the present fierce competition to hire and retain associates in law firms. The law business has become transactional. Things slow down, law firms fire lawyers. Things speed up, law firms compete for talent by throwing money around. Associates jump from firm to firm for more money.

It all kind of sucks.

Although I acknowledge that my view is based only on anecdotal evidence, it sure seems obvious to me that when a senior lawyer puts the type of effort that I have described in this article into helping a junior lawyer build their career, the junior lawyer rarely jumps to another firm for more money.

Everyone benefits.

Question For Readers: I notice that I have had a great many readers from Singapore who primarily read this article, and I am delighted to welcome you to my site. I assume that someone is including this in course material and I am curious about how it is being used. If someone would provide a comment and let me know, I would appreciate it!

Murray Gottheil

2 replies on “How To Raise a Baby Lawyer”

This really resonated with me – especially the need to be able to feel like one can always go to an associate or a partner if one makes a mistake.

In England, we have had a number of cases over the last few years where junior associates were struck off i.e. disbarred by the regulator for dishonesty. These cases arose from mistakes that were made by inexperienced lawyers who were overwhelmed with work and under a lot of pressure, and then panicked and covered things up. Perhaps the most famous high-profile examples that Claire Matthews case ( where the dishonesty in question was hiding the fact that she had left a briefcase with client papers on a train.

It seemed particularly tragic and unnecessary, and such a waste. Almost all mistakes in legal practice are fixable. And those that are not can often be compensated for in money.

(There is also been a separate but related discussion about how in comparison certain senior lawyers in UK get hauled up before the regulator for things like concealing fraud, using the client bank account as a piggybank and committing assault on colleagues seem to end up getting fines or suspensions but keeping their licence to practise law. It may have something to do with the fact that they can afford expensive legal representation before the regulatory tribunal. Either way, the moral of appears to be that if you do make a mistake, and you don’t fess up but are caught later on, you’d better be a senior lawyer and well-off rather than a junior associate with law school debt and limited means.)

Hi Chris. I agree that sounds like a tragedy to ruin a junior person’s career because of a mistake like this. I was happy to see in the article that you provided that the profession is coming together to support Claire Matthews. I also agree that as is the case in every other area of the law (and I have written about this) we have a legal system, not a justice system and in our legal systems, money matters.

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