Hey, Young Folks – Are You Buying What the Law Firms Are Selling?

It is an incontrovertible fact that young lawyers destined for private practice arrive at law firms without much clue as to how to practice law.

A lucky few are welcomed into a structured environment where good quality training, mentoring, and resources are provided to teach them their craft and to maintain quality control and client service while they learn.

Then there are those who have the guts to strike out on their own immediately after receiving their license to practice law. They tend to come in one of the two following flavours:

  1. First, there are the intelligent folks who understand that they know nothing about practicing law and set about learning what they need to know. They study. They take courses. They get mentors. They learn a whole bunch of stuff. These brave people have chosen a tough road, but they give it their best and they have a good shot at being successful. I have great respect for them.
  2. Then there are those who for reasons which are not apparent to the rest of us, have supreme confidence in their competence to practice law, despite not actually having any. With great enthusiasm, they unleash themselves on the unsuspecting public. Most often their marketing skills exceed their intellectual attributes. They slowly settle at the bottom of the profession. I don’t think much of them.

The people who I really feel badly for are those who opt for the seemingly safe approach of joining an established law firm, thinking that they have signed up for proper training, mentoring, and resources, little of which ever materialize.

The reason that my heart goes out to these people is because it is rarely their fault that their needs are not met. There are many explanations for their struggle, including: (i) they do not understand how law firms work; (ii) they fall for the marketing; (iii) they do not know how to do their due diligence before accepting a job; and (iv)they are often not in a position to be choosy when applying for their first job.

Here are some of the things that these young graduates usually do not understand:

  1. Lawyers are not trained educators. Although some firms have a few lawyers who are naturals at teaching their craft and have the inclination to put in the extra effort to help the next generation succeed, there are not many of these people around.
  2. In law firms, the concepts of ‘supervisors’ and ‘mentors’ tend to get confused. Here is the distinction: supervisors delegate work and sometimes teach young lawyers what they need to know to get that work done, but they are not focused on ensuring that young lawyers learn what they need to know to be successful in the profession.  On the other hand, mentors actually care about the career path of their mentees.

Let’s take an example. A young lawyer is hired to work in the Mergers and Acquisitions department of a law firm. Their supervisor is a senior lawyer who is logging 1,800 billable hours a year. They really need the new lawyer to understand how to help them close deals. They are quick to get their junior involved in helping them by doing things like: (i) due diligence; (ii) drafting Closing Agendas and closing documents; (iii) arranging for searches to be done, analyzed and dealt with; and (iv) tracking down third party consents. Since these supervisors are already working most evenings and weekends, it is understandable that many of them are not going to take the time to be sure that their subordinate’s legal education is well-rounded, or that they are given rigorous training in drafting skills, dealing with clients, developing deal strategy, or learning how to negotiate. The young Associate may be lucky to get even a rudimentary explanation as to why they are doing what they are doing. 

3. Law firm cultures usually do not reward the great mentors for the time that they spend working with younger lawyers.  In fact, since compensation typically relates primarily to personal billings and originating credits, lawyers are financially penalized for time spent on mentoring. So many of them do as little of it as they can get away with.

4. Law firms have marketing departments. They market for clients and they market for lawyers. They sell a story to young lawyers and the story is designed to get young lawyers to sign up and start generating billable work. They are all ‘dynamic’ and ‘leading’ and ‘respected.’ The candidates buy into the story that they are lucky to land a job with them. As is the case with every other type of business, some of the marketing is more honest than others.

5. Although law firm marketing tends to paint a picture of uniform values, culture, and approach to the practice of law, the truth is that in most law firms, the various practice groups or even lawyers within a practice group can operate quite differently. You can have one junior lawyer reporting to a partner who has a commitment to quality work, the highest ethical standards in the profession, and all the patience in the world to mentor them, and another young lawyer reporting to Attila the Hun.

So, what is a newcomer to the profession supposed to do?  

In a perfect world each candidate would do comprehensive due diligence before they join a firm, not only on the firm itself but on the senior lawyers who they are going to be working with. They would know  themself and their learning style and find out if the lawyer who will be their supervisor is a good match for them. But of course, depending on the job market at the time that a candidate is looking for a position, that may be easier said than done. Many young lawyers will just roll the dice and take their chances. They will get some experience, learn what they can, and move on if it does not work out. Unfortunately, that is just where the legal profession is at.

Now some of you who have read this far are going to be thinking, “surely this must be wrong. Law firms are sophisticated businesses. They must understand the value of investing in their people. Surely, they are not so focused on short-term profits that they would fail to invest in the long-term success of their firms.”  Oh, if only that were the case. As I said at the outset, newcomers to the profession tend not to understand how law firms work (or how they don’t).  That is why new lawyers must be diligent about the course of their career.  They should not be leaving it to the marketing department of some firm to make their important career decisions for them.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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