Reply to Law Schools from Law Firms

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What Professional Development Skills Do We Expect Law School Graduates to Have at Entry Level? Michele L. Bendekovic, Director Attorney Recruiting & Professional Development, Steptoe & Johnson PLLC

This response and the previous open letter to law firms that appeared in the December NALP Bulletin are a collaboration of the Law School and Lawyer Professional Development Sections.

Dear Law School Colleagues, I am writing on behalf of my law firm colleagues who are busy conducting annual evaluations, working on next year's budget, building next year's training curriculum, integrating first year associates or getting ready to welcome their entry level classes. We are aware of the counseling that our law school colleagues are involved in to better prepare their students (our future associates) to enter the practice of law. We are also keenly aware of the difficult discussions that our law school colleagues are having with 3Ls who have not secured an entry level job. If we can open this dialogue and keep it going, we should be able to better serve all of our populations.

  • The first question posed by our law school colleagues deals with project management. Law firms are expending significant resources to teach attorneys and staff process improvement and project management skills. Law students should have a basic understanding of both concepts and can easily do that by reading up on the topic. Understanding that a general counsel is being asked by her boss to justify each expense and is being held to a budget and also understanding that a general counsel's bonus is most likely tied to staying on that budget is a great start.
  • What many law students might not realize is that they are building their networks and forming relationships during law school that will aid in client development later as they progress in their careers. Nurturing and building these relationships now and keeping in touch with classmates will result in business referrals in the future. This takes time and will not happen quickly. Have patience. Entry level associates should be willing to develop an annual plan to map out their client development efforts. The plan can be simple and may include professional and industry organizations of interest to explore membership, a tickler to call that classmate to keep in touch, an idea for an article, blog or client alert or even a presentation. Entry level associates should also do everything they can to learn about the clients of the firm. Start with reading the content on client web sites, learn the terminology of their industry and find out what types of publications are relevant to a client's business and subscribe to those publications. All of the above will help an entry level associate develop a strong foundation that will lead to success in client development.
  • We expect law schools to produce well educated associates in the theory of the law. Most law firms have a training curriculum that will continue that education and focus in on the practical and soft skills and the particular ways of the firm. Law students can get a head start on practical skills development by taking advantage of clinics, externships, pro bono work and other opportunities offered by their law schools. Any chance to get hands-on and real experience during law school should be considered. Practical skills also include responsiveness, timeliness, responding to constructive criticism and understanding that the partner assigning work is an entry level associate's client. Entry level associates will do much more than just writing research memos.
  • As mentioned above membership in professional and industry organizations is an important part of an associate's career. This involvement can start in law school especially if a law student has already developed an interest in a specific niche. A well rounded law student will have extra-curricular interests and those will be noticed by a law firm. The level of involvement in organizations for an entry level associate will vary by law firm. It is safe to say that the first priority is for an entry level associate to develop her foundational skills before focusing on extra-curricular involvement.
  • Soft skills are extremely important in an attorney's career. Staring that development in law school is music to the ears of PD professionals in law firms. Law firms are placing more emphasis on the development of soft skills now than ever before. Communication skills, presentation skills, delegation, the art of giving and receiving feedback are just a few of those soft skills that are important to a well rounded attorney. One of the most important concepts that have emerged in this new legal economy is the emphasis on the law firm as a business. The importance of understanding how a law firm turns a billable hour into revenue is a must have for all entry level associates and can be taught in law school. Understanding the financial terms law firms use such as utilization, realization, profits per lawyer, profits per partner, write downs and write offs can also be taught in law school. Starting this type of finance education in law school will go a long way to having practice ready entry level associates.

Hopefully law schools and law firms can continue to work together to tackle some of these topics and provide an even higher level of legal education that will lead to better equipped entry level associates.

Office of Professional Development
(918) 631-2430