At Last: A Move To Flexible Career Tracks
For years, the arguments for greater flexibility in law firm career tracks have met with little success. Hardly any law firms have given any thought to what a different kind of career path might look like. The “ideal worker” model is so universal that it is not questioned. It is a model that assumes a lawyer starts as an associate and becomes a partner without interruption, working full-time all the time until retirement. As the number of women in the legal profession continues to grow, and as younger men and women lawyers insist on having time for pursuits other than work, firms must re-think that model. (See Management Solutions Issue 16 and Issue 18.) Most women (and increasingly, many men) do not have such linear, uninterrupted career paths. Instead, they take periods of time away from work and have intervals when personal or family constraints or desires require them to work less and progress differently.
Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe is the first major law firm to change the model in a comprehensive way. Like many other firms, it will soon be changing from lockstep to a competency-based advancement and compensation structure. But it is doing so with an interesting twist: a career path called the Custom track that is designed to retain talented lawyers who desire a less traditional path to partnership or choose not to become partners at all. On the Custom track they will be able to set a different pace for advancement, create a plan that gives them the particular flexibility they need , or customize a long term role that enables them to contribute in a meaningful way but does not necessarily lead toward partnership in the firm. Associates will be able to move to the Custom track temporarily and return to the Partner track, or stay on the Custom track and become Of Counsel instead.
This track complements and will be integrated with Orrick’s existing flexibility enhancing programs, including reduced hour schedules and on-ramping. Orrick’s “On-Ramping” programs allow lawyers who have or adopt children to return to work on a progressive schedule after taking parenting leave, or take an extended leave, stay connected to the firm, and return to practice. Associates on Partnership and Custom tracks will be able to take advantage of those programs as well. (For discussion of other On-Ramping programs, see Issue 16).By institutionalizing the concept of career flexibility, Orrick will be making a bold and creative change that accepts the realities of life for today’s lawyers. The Orrick plan has many hallmarks of “mass career customization,” the approach toward career flexibility developed by consulting firm Deloitte and discussed in an earlier issue of Management Solutions. If Orrick’s new career model achieves its purpose, it will allow lawyers to have successful long term careers without forcing them to choose between conformity to a single model or marginalization. At the same time, it should benefit the firm and its clients through labor cost savings, greater efficiency, more sensible staffing, and the long term retention of talented lawyers.
Message to First Year Associates: Come to Work and Learn
How are new law graduates going to learn to practice law? Law firms want them to bill hours but clients won’t pay for their work. Even if clients would pay for first-years’ work, the lawyers who would train them in the most meaningful way - through supervision, mentoring, and inclusion in meetings, hearings, negotiations and client-focused activities - are pressured to bill hours, not to teach. Everyone wants new associates who already know how to practice and have enough experience and know-how to add value to the client’s case. Who will train these associates? How can firms have high value second-year associates if they do not provide on the job learning for first-years?
Law firms are being forced to re-examine how they train and develop new lawyers because of clients’ growing insistence that their matters be staffed by lawyers who know enough to make contributions that are worth paying for. The easy way out for firms is simply to bill first-year associates at very low rates during an initial learning period. But firms that recognize the importance of a long-term investment in talent are looking at how they can most effectively nurture the professional development and cultivate the loyalty of junior lawyers.
Law firms teach new associates through training programs that introduce them to the practice of law and educate them in the practical aspects of their substantive areas. Many firms rely on these training classes to provide the learning experiences that supervisors and mentors should be providing. But training classes are not where associates acquire understanding, expertise and professional judgment, which are the hallmarks of a highly valued lawyer. They learn those things through actual practice. They observe other lawyers do their jobs; undertake challenging assignments that force them to apply and expand their knowledge; enjoy victories, make mistakes and learn from both; get feedback and advice about their work; and get steadily better at what they do by applying their skills and talents to real client work. The pressure to bill hours has delayed the professional development of many associates by depriving them of this kind of experience, close supervision, and informal mentoring.
Lawyers are among the very few professionals in the US who do not need some sort of supervised internship before obtaining a full license to practice. Entry to law practice in many countries is conditioned on additional supervised training following law school. The UK, Canada and Australia have an articling system in which new law graduates must study and practice in a law firm for a year before being called to the bar. In the US, law firms have unofficially undertaken the post-graduate training role for their associates, but without any standards, requirement, or consistency. US firms conduct training programs, and some partners are diligent supervisors and mentors who give associates guidance and help them learn, but there is no systematic process for preparing associates for law practice.
Law schools are looking into what they can do. Several are starting experiential programs designed to simulate practice. (see Issue 25) But there are some abilities that must be developed by representing real clients under the pressure and within the time, financial and other constraints of real practice. Many ideas have been presented and considered to provide supervised experiential training that will prepare law students for transition into law practice, including having law students work during law school as a clerk or paralegal; shortening law school to 18 months or 2 years and have one year of required apprenticeship; or instituting an internship akin to a year of articling or medical training. It is unlikely that any of these will materialize in the near future.
In the last issue of Management Solutions, we featured the changes instituted by Ford & Harrison that had first year associates dedicate themselves to learning to practice. Another firm is now adapting and expanding that model.
Drinker Biddle & Reath is instituting a new training model for first-year associates. For their first 6 months at the firm, associates will concentrate on learning, not billing. Their salaries will be reduced during that time (as will their billing rates for any work they do that is billed to a client), but they will also have no billable hour expectation. Some associates might prefer the money, but for those who are willing to trade off a few thousand dollars for less stress, better learning, and the certainty of a job this fall, Drinker Biddle’s new model is an exciting development opportunity.
As the firm recognized when it announced its new program, high value mid-level associates “do not come ready made.” The firm has an obligation to teach them. The new program is still being formulated and its final contours and curriculum will not be known for a while. But the intent and commitment are clear. Starting in October, the firm will equip first-year associates with information, training and experience in the practice of law so that when their services are billed to clients, clients will feel confident that their contributions are adding value.
In a way, the program represents a return to the past in that it appears to treat associates’ first few months at the firm as an apprenticeship in which they will learn the practice of law. Associates will be able to observe partners in their daily interaction with clients, adversaries, and the Courts, and shadow partners' client meetings and court appearances. The firm will try to find “real world” experiences for associates to learn on, whether or not their time can be billed to clients or recorded for pro bono cases.
There will also be some formal training. Drinker Biddle already has an extensive training program for first-years, and the new training program will build on that foundation. Special emphasis will be placed on educating associates about the business of the firm’s clients and the particular “Drinker Biddle way” of doing things. The expanded curriculum will be taught by the firm’s lawyers and professional development staff and firm clients.Given the luxury of being able to conduct training over a period of time, the emphasis on apprenticeship, and the absence of billable hour pressure (at least for first-years’ first few months), the program should be successful in preparing new associates to serve firm clients skillfully and efficiently. As an added benefit, it should also facilitate the formation of mentoring relationships as associates work more closely with partners who are specifically tasked with teaching them.
On the International Scene: Changes to Watch
Readers may be aware that regulatory schemes in Australia and the UK have changed to allow outsiders, including public investors, to own interests in law firms. This is prohibited in the US, and since each state has its own regulatory framework, it is unlikely to change soon. But it is important to pay attention as these changes take place overseas because they will eventually have an impact on US firms.
In Australia, at least two firms have gone public, selling shares to outside investors. In the UK, Halliwells, a national law firm, converted to a Legal Disciplinary Partnership (LDP) and admitted its IT director and facilities director - neither of them lawyers - as full partners. http://www.legalweek.com/Articles/Article.aspx?liArticleID=1198109
Such changes in law firm ownership and structure will create new business opportunities, more efficient management practices, and new sources of financing for law firms. For individuals with specialized expertise in areas that law firms need (e.g., IT, marketing, professional development), these changes will present new opportunities for professional growth and advancement. This will be a major attraction for law practice management professionals who have specialized expertise and ambition but lack a JD. As large law firms become increasingly more corporate, being able to attract and retain the best management talent will be a significant competitive advantage.
Networking and Motherhood Go Together
Networking is important for many reasons. Lawyers discuss networking mostly in the context of business development as elemental to meeting people and forming relationships that may lead to business or referrals. But it is also important because a vibrant network gives you access to information, resources and people who can help you in other areas of your life. The problem is that it takes time to build and maintain the relationships that form a network. This hits mothers particularly hard because it means taking time away from their kids. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Women lawyers with children are finding ways to be with their children and their professional networks at the same time.
Lawyer moms in Seattle, San Diego and Honolulu have found a way to engage in networking by doing it with other moms - and everyone brings their kids. The Mother Attorneys Mentoring Association of Seattle ("MAMAS") was formed in 2006, and MAMA of San Diego and Honolulu followed soon after. The groups’ purpose is to “empower attorney mothers and encourage them to succeed while celebrating their roles as attorneys and mothers.” MAMAS offers a place where women can socialize, network, share experiences, and learn from and support each other.
MAMAS members meet monthly for brown bag lunches where topics of interest
to members are discussed. There are also regular networking events for
moms and kids that take place in children’s museums, in playgrounds and parks,
or children’s centers. Events are designed to permit children of various
ages to play while providing attorney mothers with a forum for networking, socializing,
and problem solving. At
this year’s Mother’s Day Tea in a San Diego hotel, the formal tea was held in
one banquet room while an adjacent room was used as a play room. The doors
between the two rooms remained open and volunteers - including dads, teenagers,
and paralegals from members’ firms - watched the children, who came and went.
A guest speaker, a federal judge who had been a single mother, spoke very briefly
to the dressed-up audience of 100 mothers and their children.
How valuable is a network like MAMAS? One young woman told me of two direct benefits she gained: she met an in-house lawyer who has since become a client, and by sending an email request for help to MAMAS members, she was quickly able to find a nanny for her 3 month old baby when her caregiver unexpectedly quit.
The Austin Manifesto
On April 29, 2009, a group of 150 women from all fields of the legal profession gathered in Austin, Texas, for the Women’s Power Summit on Law and Leadership. The Summit was sponsored by the University of Texas School of Law’s brand new Center for Women in Law. It concluded on May 1 with the adoption by acclamation of the Austin Manifesto, which is intended to eliminate the barriers that face women within the legal profession by pledging to take specific and concrete actions.The Austin Manifesto signals the beginning of a coordinated national movement promoting the advancement of women in the legal profession. For further information and to become a signatory, contact Executive Director Hannah Brenner at email@example.com
June 9, 2009, Palo Alto, Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF)
July 20-21, 2009, New York, Professional Development Roundtable for Global Law Firms