Monday, October 07, 2013

Law Firm Associates and Business Skills Education

Law firms are complex organizations. However, no matter what happens, one thing is certain, the senior partners will move on, retire or die.  If a firm is to survive then the current associates will eventually step up into leadership and business development roles.  But are law firms taking the necessary steps to grow the talent of their associates beyond just billing hours?

The October 2013 issue of Mergers & Acquisitions Magazine has an interesting article on the attention that private equity firms are putting into educating the next generation of employees.  Investing in the future has become a priority for these and other professional services firms, but law firms still tend to want young associates fully focused on billing hours and doing good work until they close in on partner status.

Waiting until people are seven or eight years into their practice to hone their business skills does a dis-service to the associate and to the firm. The most successful lawyers operate as entrepreneurs, understanding all aspects of their growing business.  Having all attention on the legal and billing aspects of the business for so many years makes them vulnerable.  A well rounded lawyer who has control of their future thinks about business development, client management, presentation skills, networking and branding, finances, firm administration, project management, staffing, etc...  

Some firms invest in offering associate training, but the associates skip the classes as they think they are only responsible for their legal work.  The partners they work for directly do not get behind the firm's educational programs and let them assume it is optional.  For some lawyers business skills seem "uncool", as they do not realize that without this knowledge they are limiting their own future.  Yes, they are told that good work and meeting their hourly billing requirement is what matters, when partnership decisions are being made these other business skills are always discussed behind closed doors.  Existing partners do not want to add anyone to their ranks who will not contribute (but they failed to teach associates what this means).

Look around your law firm, someone who is a new associate at the starting line of his or her career will emerge in 20 years as one of the most valuable partners whose practice is the cornerstone of your firm's success.  The problem is that you cannot tell who it will be by looking at their early legal skills.  Many whom you identify as the ones who might lead will move on from your firm.  Not all lawyers, even great ones, are cut out for the life inside a firm.  Lives changes, practice areas morph due to outside influences, competitors offer better deals, people go in house with clients, etc...  Others, who you assume are marginal could surprise you and become the great leaders of the next generation if their careers are encouraged and cultivated.

Educating associates on the business skills needed to run a law firm is paramount to successful growth.  Too often firms put up walls between partners and associates and push the most talented lawyers into careers that have limits.  One partner at a big law firm told me he discourages associates from developing their own business skills, or building a network in the community, as that gives the associate power.  If he can make them beholden to the firm, without their own book of business too early, then they need him to provide the work.  OUCH.

To create a successful training plan it must not just come from the firm administrator or the human resources department.  The partners in the firm must be committed to holding the associates that report to them accountable for growing their business skills.  If they let them out of the training they are limiting the future of the individual and the firm.  A culture of business must be embraced and discussed.  Looking the other way or ignoring anyone who would undermine the educational efforts will have a negative impact on everyone.

Time marches on.  If the legacy of a firm is important to the current partners they will admit their retirements will eventually arrive and be excited to train the next generation.  

Have A Great Day

thom singer

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