Associates want communication from law firms; who’s responsible for professional development?

A recent survey by the American Lawyer (no longer available) indicates that law firm associates are frustrated by the perceived lack of communication from law firm partners and management.  Problem topics include everything from finances to an associate’s development and advancement to the context for assignments.

Clearly, some firms have more problems with communication than others, as indicated by one associate’s plea just to be notified when new lawyers join the firm, something that is routine at most firms.

Three paragraphs stuck out to me:

If partners are too busy to critique the day-to-day work of their younger colleagues, then they’re even less likely to offer advice on career development, associates say. Associates who aggressively seek out this advice can find an unreceptive audience. One Proskauer Rose midlevel brought to her last semiannual review a wish list that included requests for more writing and deposition experience and a mentor for business development skills.

“They kind of laughed and said, ‘You shouldn’t be worried about [these things]’ at my level. It was frustrating: It was like talking to dead air,” she says.

That kind of response seems to exacerbate the us-versus-them mentality at firms. “Partners don’t care about our development as long as we keep billing the hours expected; much like the printers and the computers, the associates just serve a function,” grumbles another Proskauer associate. Proskauer chairman Fagin says he’s aware of and concerned about these complaints: “The fact that any of our associates feel that way is something that is troublesome to us,” he says.

This thread is partially a return to some topics I’ve recently discussed, so I won’t harp on those.  But a new thread emerges: who’s responsible for an associate’s professional development?

I had a conversation with a 2nd year associate recently, in which he conveyed his concern that other associates at his level were advancing more quickly than he was.  We explored that worry, and I agreed that it seemed to be true based on the facts he told me.  So I asked how he would like to develop his practice.  “Practice?”   He laughed.  “I don’t need to develop a practice, I already work in a law firm!”  Although perhaps that way of thinking would have carried the day in years past (perhaps), it certainly won’t suffice now.  Whereas firms used to hire associates and provide mentoring, expecting to grow them into partners, today’s partners are (for the most part) simply too busy to take new lawyers under their wing.

The path of least resistance now is to accept the work that comes, maybe to ask for work in a particular area, but essentially to be a worker bee.  That doesn’t cut it.  Instead, young associates need to focus on collecting the skills they need to develop the practice they want.  I hope this will seem so obvious as to be silly to many readers, but a lawyer has his own practice whether he’s an associate with the largest firm or a sole pracitioner.  It’s the lawyer’s responsibility to ensure that his practice is developing as he wants it to (i.e., don’t sit quietly by and take real estate matter after real estate matter if you really want to do securities work) and to go after the experiences and skills that will permit that development to continue.

How does a young associate manage to accomplish this?  She needs a mentor, a collaborator, someone who can provide guidance and request accountability.  A professional mentor is ideal, as is a coach who is experienced in practice.  (While coaches who are not lawyers can serve well for certain needs, it’s my bias — perhaps as a former practitioner myself — that a non-lawyer coach is less useful for this kind of task.  Your mileage may vary.)

Who’s working to help you succeed in your professional development?

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