Professional Development For Lawyers

September 19, 2016

It’s no news that lawyers must commit to continuous learning and skill development to stay at the top of their game. With so many approaches to professional development—and often limited time to do it in—what’s the best tack to take? How do they balance providing the best possible representation for their clients while advancing their careers? How does one benefit the other? In this month’s roundtable, our panel delves into the topic of professional development and provides insight from which others can learn.

Our Moderator

Gaffney

Nicholas Gaffney (NG): Nick is a veteran public relations practitioner in San Francisco and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.

 

 

 

Our Panelists

Anthony Shallat (AN): Anthony’s practice focuses primarily on real estate, business and commercial litigation. Anthony also has extensive experience in all types of complex federal litigation. During law school, Anthony earned dean’s list honors all three years of attendance and served as a senior editor on the prestigious Idaho Law Review. Anthony graduated magna cum laude from the University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Before joining Angstman Johnson, Anthony gained legal experience as an intern with the United States Attorney’s Office. Anthony has also worked as a staffer for a U.S. congressman and as a policy associate for a Washington D.C. political consulting firm. Anthony is a commissioner on the City of Boise’s Historic Preservation Commission. A native Idahoan, Anthony enjoys traveling, skiing, and hunting waterfowl.
Noel Bagwell (NB): Noel is president and chief legal counsel of Executive Legal Professionals, an innovative business law firm that provides business legal services and strategic legal counsel to business leadership. A graduate of Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, AL, Noel also serves as the leader of the Start-ups & Small Business Aspect of Practice for the National Center for Preventive Law. He enjoys giving back to the community by speaking to veteran’s groups, such as the SBA’s Boots to Business workshop at Ft. Campbell, KY, about business formation legal issues.
David M. White (DMW): David serves as director of the Seton Hall University School of Law Conflict Management Program and is a member of the Georgetown University Law Center, Fordham School of Law, and Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law adjunct faculties. A nationally renowned practitioner-scholar, he promotes attorney professional preparedness in the disciplines of federal employment discrimination law and securities investment disputes under the jurisdiction of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).
Chad Ruback (CR): Chad co-chaired the professional development committee of a large law firm before opening his solo appellate law practice. As a solo, Chad has remained firmly committed to professional development, regularly speaking at bar association CLEs (and learning from others who speak at those CLEs). Chad has also mentored countless lawyers who have wanted to hone their appellate practice skills.
Peri Berger (PB): Peri is a senior associate in the New York City office of Harris Beach. He practices with the Medical and Life Sciences Industry Team, the Business and Commercial Litigation Practice Group, and the Cybersecurity Team. Peri’s background includes extensive experience in complex commercial litigation in New York, New Jersey and the federal courts.
Irnande Altema (IA): Irnande is chief of staff to Maryland State Sen. Kathy Klausmeier and an attorney at the Law Offices of Derek Challenger. She is the founder of the FirstGenRise blog, which officially launched in May 2016.
Marian Lee (ML): Marian Lee is the senior director of legal talent at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP, a 250-attorney firm based in Denver. In that role, she oversees attorney development, advancement, and evaluations for all of the firm’s offices, working with both associates and partners. Before joining Brownstein, Marian practiced commercial litigation for 16 years and spent three years as a professional development consultant to law firms.

 

NG: In today’s competitive landscape, continuous learning, improving your skills, and building credentials are more important than ever. How does your firm encourage professional development?

AN: My firm, Angstman Johnson, allows me to bill certain time as “advertising” or “marketing.” If I teach a CLE, lead a seminar, or go to a fundraising event, I can bill that time as “advertising/marketing,” which will count towards our total billable hours each month. Also, my firm gives each attorney a marketing stipend each month to entertain clients or prospective clients. This allows me to spend time on professional development without having to worry if my networking cuts into my billable hours each month.

NB: The primary ways Executive Legal Professionals, PLLC (ExecutiveLP) encourages professional development are through our BAIL Team, through pro bono entrepreneurship training, and through the content we produce for and publish on our firm’s blog and in our firm’s quarterly digital magazine.

BAIL is an acronym for Banking Accounting Insurance Legal. Our BAIL Team includes professionals who share our customer-centric approach to practicing their profession, and who have committed to meet regularly to discuss inter-professional issues and innovative ways we can all serve our clients and customers better.

While I teach other lawyers in CLE programs for companies like Lorman and the Center For Competitive Management, our firm focuses even more of our professional development efforts on educating entrepreneurs about business organizations, the value of general counsel, the importance of using good contracts in business, and other key legal issues. Every month for the past three years, I have taught the legal component of the Boots 2 Business workshop, part of the Department of Defense’s Transition Assistance Program. In the Boots 2 Business classes, I teach retiring soldiers (and sometimes their spouses) about the fundamental legal aspects of entrepreneurship. This is the most rewarding thing I do in my practice.

Finally, our blog and our quarterly digital magazine give us opportunities to reach new audiences, and new potential clients, with our message—that preventive law is better for business than waiting until you have a crisis to solve. So, we publish articles regularly on our blog, and we publish a quarterly digital magazine packed with content intended to help professionals, and even other lawyers, obtain a clearer understanding of important business-legal topics.

DMW: Systemic change within the legal profession begins on campus. My role is to anticipate practice-based needs, innovate curricula, and hire faculty whose talents are simpatico with those goals.

There is a sea change in legal education, a movement away from the Socratic Method of doctrinal instruction toward an experiential model of pedagogy. Today’s private bar employers demand that new associates arrive with more than theoretical understanding of the law. Long gone are the days when a firm could pass along learning curve expense to the client.

At Seton Hall, we encourage our students to explore professional opportunities through participation in practica clinics, and internships. We accomplish this through pioneering partnerships with entities including the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and the FINRA. From the boardroom to the courtroom, our graduates are practice-ready.

Any currently matriculating law student that does not seek professional development beyond the campus border does themselves a grave vocational disservice. And any ABA institution that does not recognize that reality is dangerously out of step and out of touch.

CR: My former firm required associates to draft an annual professional development plan. Each associate was required to meet with his or her supervising attorney to discuss the suitability of the upcoming year’s plan and also to confirm that the associate satisfied the objectives in the prior year’s plan. In a fast-paced law firm environment, a year can go by in the blink of an eye. A written professional development plan—and accountability for putting that plan into action—ensures that an associate’s professional development is not neglected. Additionally, when the professional development committee created particularly important in-house CLEs, the committee presented the CLE on several different dates and required all associates to attend one of the presentations. By doing so, the firm could ensure that no associate missed out on critical professional development opportunities.

PB: Like most firms, our firm has any number of professional development programs, on-site CLEs, etc. The firm also hosts a senior associate retreat that is designed for and targets the skills needed by and concerns of senior associates. Harris Beach is also very good at putting associates in merit-based positions in terms of experience; if you are ready to do it, class year will not stand in your way. The firm also has formal mentorships in place, where the mentors are provided funds and expected to meet with their mentees at least once a quarter, although of course, additional meetings and discussions are encouraged. The firm also actively encourages and cultivates informal mentorships, and any number of partners and senior associates are happy to take the time to mentor junior colleagues, or even to sit down with colleagues of equal years of experience to workshop a problem or idea. There is an open door policy at every level, and people are encouraged to take advantage of it. Several senior and junior partners have been instrumental to my development at Harris Beach, even though I do not have a formal mentorship relationship with them (though I also have a formal mentor, who has been very approachable and helpful as well!).

IA: Despite my firm being small, it still offers to pay for various seminars, presentations, and courses led by prestigious and well-regarded attorneys within the profession. New associates are encouraged to attend programs (or CLEs) where they can hear and learn from attorneys who have extensive experience and execute effective strategies of client representation. After checking for any potential conflicts of interest, I am also encouraged to participate in local and specialty bar associations that offer volunteer opportunities in practice areas not handled by the firm or state-sponsored legal programs representing indigent clients. It is refreshing to be a member of this firm, given that I am the first lawyer in my family and am uncertain of which professional development programs would improve my skills and build credentials. As such, I rely on my firm to help identify the programs that would develop the skills considered essential for an associate.

ML: We invest a lot of resources in our attorneys’ development, beginning with our apprentice program for new lawyers. This program, intended to focus the associate’s first year on learning and development, starts with a reduced billable time requirement of 1,400 hours. To accelerate their learning process, they also do 200 or more hours of supervised pro bono work, attend 25 to 30 hours of in-house training programs, and spend up to 300 hours “shadowing” senior attorneys. These shadowing hours are particularly helpful, because they allow the new associate to be included in meetings, calls, and strategy sessions that they could not otherwise attend because clients can’t be billed for the time. This opportunity to be “in the huddle” is one of the fastest ways for our associates to learn how experienced lawyers meet clients’ needs and solve challenging problems for them.

We also have a robust in-house training program that serves multiple purposes. In addition to providing CLE credit, it helps teach our attorneys about the various practice groups in the firm, new developments in particular areas of law, ethics and professionalism, and fundamental lawyering skills.

Senior associates and newer partners are offered additional training in making the transition from associate to partner, including programs on supervisory and feedback skills, business development, mentoring, and leadership.

While informal mentoring is always encouraged and promoted, we have a mentoring program that offers every associate an assigned mentor, with the opportunity to add new mentors to their “advisory board” every two years. We’ve also enhanced our associate evaluation process, which occurs twice a year, to provide more specific feedback and encourage professional development planning in collaboration with practice group leaders.

NG: During the course of your career, what professional development courses have proven to be the most beneficial?

AN: I have not taken a formal professional development course, but instead attend seminars with older attorneys who do similar work. For example, earlier this year I attended the Idaho Trial Lawyers (ITLA) yearly seminar in Sun Valley, Idaho. I learned a lot about litigation through presentations and conversations with other attorneys that I would not have learned otherwise

NB: As stated above, the work I do through the SBA/TSBDC/Dept. of Defense Boots 2 Business workshops have been the most beneficial. Not only do I get to meet and help some awesome veteran entrepreneurs, but many of them have become clients. Having the privilege of serving those who have served our country—many of whom have sacrificed years away from their families, limbs and their health, or who have lost their brothers-in-arms—means so much to me. I am honored to have had the opportunity to give back to the Fort Campbell, Kentucky community.

DMW: I am a litigator by training. Before joining the full-time legal academy, I earned a living by attracting clients and then serving them with excellence. To do that required me to be articulate in delivery, poised in presentation and results-based in orientation.

Stylistically, I am continuously amazed at the insufficient investment of time and resources to refine presentation skills. Prospective clients are unwilling to pay for an advocate whose speech is riddled with throat-clearing language and gap fillers, e.g., “ah, um, so, you know, like, I mean, whatever,” etc. An Ivy League undergraduate degree, an impressive LSAT score, a high GPA, and Law Review membership mean little in the post-graduation world unless you can consistently communicate with professionalism.

Substantively, the quintessence of modern legal practice is the ability to negotiate effectively and to compassionately counsel a client. To lack either skill is to significantly hamstring both career mobility and lateral prospects.

While excellent private trainings and public CLEs abound, I firmly believe experience is the best teacher. Our profession is a contact sport; get in the game. Myriad opportunities are available to advance the cause of access-to-justice through pro bono representations. The most efficacious way to learn negotiation and client counseling is to put down a book and answer the call to serve those who lack a legal voice.

CR: Although I’m not a trial lawyer, the most beneficial professional development course I’ve taken was the firm’s annual trial skills course. Firm partners demonstrated various aspects of trial practice and then associates participated in a full-blown mock trial. As an appellate lawyer, I gained new-found appreciation for all of the different tasks that a trial lawyer needs to perform nearly-simultaneously, and I became much more understanding of situations in which a trial lawyer did not succeed in making a perfect record for appeal. There’s certainly something to be said for learning about a practice area different from, but related to, one’s own practice area.

PB: When I was a junior associate at the New York City office of an international law firm, we participated in an office-wide mock summary judgment briefing and oral argument. The office was large and pairings were random, meaning that you had the opportunity to match up with people who had more experience than you, and to see how different lawyers handled the same set of facts and law. I learned a lot about my own argument style and how to play to my strength as an advocate, something that has stayed with me. At Harris Beach specifically, the senior associate retreat I mentioned earlier had a strong focus on business development from a practical perspective, and also on time management at a high level (not “how to handle your time in the office” but more focused on “how to balance time commitments and make time for family, work, business development, etc.”). Listening to different partners share their views and having a broad discussion with them was a great way to get insight on other ways of doing things.

IA: To date, I especially value the professional responsibility course I completed after being admitted to the Maryland bar because it was co-taught by a member of the Attorney Grievance Commission and an attorney representing attorneys summoned to appear before the commission. One segment of the presentation cemented in my memory is the various myths and truths of attorney representation, which consisted of IOLTA accounts, dangers of zealous advocacy, conflicts of interest, and much more. Next, the Young Lawyer’s Section of the Maryland State Bar Association hosted an event on evidence rules, which I viewed as a course because it was presented by a circuit court judge holding a copy of the rules of evidence in his hand. He highlighted and provided case examples to several evidence rules that are improperly used or rarely raised, and spoke of the overall importance of preserving the record in all circumstances. (I must mention it was packed with eager, young attorneys and became a standing room only event within minutes of the doors opening.) Similarly, although not technically a course, there was a presentation at the state U.S. district court’s biennial conference on the “do’s and don’ts” of litigating a federal civil case before the current bench. It was informative and helpful to know how to avoid unnecessary costs and delays in federal court. Moving forward, I am excited to participate in a course offered by the Maryland judiciary on “limited scope representation” in certain civil cases. I enjoy courses developed after the enactment of new laws because it is important to know the best approaches and methods to consulting with and representing prospective clients.

ML: When I started practicing 28 years ago, formal professional development programs weren’t common in law firms. I learned most of my legal skills through my work assignments, client relations skills from my mentors, and trial skills at NITA.

As I observe our training today, NITA is still one of the most effective professional development programs available, at least for litigators. The interactive piece, involving practicing a new skill immediately after learning it, then receiving contemporaneous feedback, is crucial to creating sustainable performance improvement. Along similar lines, when taught by highly qualified experts, interactive programs on negotiation skills and oral communications can also yield measurable improvements fairly quickly.

NG: Who was your mentor as a new associate? And what’s the favorite piece of advice that you offer to new lawyers today?

AN: I was lucky enough to have two mentors, both members of our firm. Each older attorney had a different style and strategy and I was lucky enough that my “bosses” took the time to invest in me by giving me real experience in court and with clients. My advice is to be confident but not cocky. You develop confidence through competence and you develop competence through practice. Being cocky means you are self-assured without competence or practice. You can’t be confident if you are cocky.

NB: I never really was a new associate. I started my own practice right out of law school. So, I didn’t really have a mentor. There were some other lawyers who helped me out here and there and gave me some advice, including my father, who is a retired lawyer. I have always considered professor R.T. Stone at Cumberland School of Law to be my mentor. He has always encouraged me and shared with me wisdom that has improved the way I think as a person and the way I practice law as an attorney. My advice for new lawyers is: don’t be boring; anyone can be boring; choose greatness. Greatness is a choice you have to make, and it comes at a high price, but it is always worth it.

DMW: I am indebted to former Fordham Law Dean John D. Feerick for his considerable investment in my professional development. If Harper Lee had not invented fictional paragon of virtue Atticus Finch, the law would still have the real-life inspiration of “John the Good.”

Despite being the recognized principal drafter of the 25th Amendment to the United States Constitution, an internationally acclaimed labor arbitrator, and a ubiquitous presence on meaningful good-government task forces, he remains self-effacing. In word and deed, Dean Feerick impressed upon me the importance of giving back and paying forward to successive generations of our colleagues.

I urge all of the students with whom I have the pleasure to work never to forget that our reputation precedes us. Resist the temptation to engage in sharp lawyering. I firmly believe that those who are ethically rudderless and morally bankrupt represent the decided minority of the bar. Take the long view and be proud to be an officer of the court. It is truly a remarkable privilege.

CR: I was fortunate enough to have several mentors. When possible, this is definitely the way to go! I had a mentor within my firm who helped me negotiate intra-firm politics, a mentor at another firm who helped me decide when would be the right time to leave the firm and “spread my wings,” several appellate lawyers at other firms who provided me invaluable appellate practice tips, and a court of appeals judge (for whom I had clerked for a year after law school) who provided me insights as to what would be most effective in persuading the appellate courts.

I always advise new lawyers to be mindful of their reputations. A single lapse in judgment will follow a lawyer for years, if not an entire career. On the other hand, a reputation for a good moral compass, strong work ethic, and painstaking attention to detail will be an outstanding foundation on which a lawyer can build a successful practice.

PB: As a brand new associate out of law school, I worked closely with a newly minted partner (he made partner at the end of my “stub year”) who presented me with a lot of opportunities even at a junior level. By the end of my second year, I had taken substantive depositions, drafted dispositive motions, interacted with high-level corporate client representatives, and managed document review attorneys, even though I was working in the NYC office of an international, Vault-ranked firm. Atypical experience for someone at that level, and I credit a lot of that to this particular partner. He also taught me a lot about doing things the right way, and a few of his favorite quotes have stuck with me. Specifically: “Don’t do something to be on the safe side, figure out the right answer and do it the right way,” and also “Do not come to me with problems, come to me with solutions (even though I may not agree with them).” In terms of advice I provide to new lawyers, the second one is something I say all the time. Junior attorneys have a tendency to find a problem and present it; the sooner they realize they need to present a solution—even if it is not the right one or even if the partner or attorney they are presenting it to ultimately disagrees with the proposal—the sooner they make themselves an invaluable asset to decision-makers who are faced with dozens of problems a day.

IA: As a new associate, my mentor was the owner of the firm I work for, and he continues to be an outstanding mentor. (I am grateful for his mentorship, which has been a plus of working in a small law firm.) My favorite piece of advice is to do your best work at the start of the case and you will always have a happy client who is willing to come back again and recommend my services. Similarly, I learned that the individual client on a payment plan is equally as important as a business on retainer. I put a substantial amount of work and energy with all my clients regardless of how they pay for the service.

ML: My mentor was a seasoned securities litigator who had high expectations and was fairly demanding. He knew his area of law so well that he could cite cases on particular securities principles off the top of his head.

My advice to new lawyers is: Change your mindset from that of a student to that of an entrepreneur. You’ll learn the most from doing meaty, challenging assignments. Unlike law school, where everyone gets the same assignments, your development opportunities going forward will depend to a great extent on your own initiative and ability to build relationships. If partners love working with you, you’ll build a strong internal client base and will get the best assignments available. As a new lawyer, you’re limited in the experience you bring to the table. To distinguish yourself, do the best work you can, be responsive, be curious, and show enthusiasm for helping clients solve their problems.

NG: How have these programs changed over the years? And what programs would you recommend all lawyers take today?

AN: Again, the best way to learn about the law is through talking with older attorneys and creating new experiences for yourself. This can’t be taught in a classroom.

NB: Ignoring the first part of this question, which doesn’t seem particularly relevant to my responses, I’ll say the programs I think all lawyers should take depend very greatly upon their approach to practice. Obviously, as lawyers, we need to ensure we have a good understanding of the rules of professional responsibility—the ethics rules—and that we have personally adopted and internalized them both in substance and in form. So, any good ethics training program is one I would encourage other lawyers to take. Also, stick with your specialty, do what you’re best at, and stay at the cutting edge of that field; and, to that end, get involved with training programs that will keep you one step ahead. It is impossible to understate the value of being a thought leader.

DMW: Please see response to question one.

CR: Historically, a professional development program consisted of someone standing at the front of the room lecturing a large audience of lawyers. Thankfully, these programs have evolved. Now, the most effective professional development programs focus on demonstrations by seasoned lawyers followed by an opportunity for junior lawyers to practice what they’ve seen demonstrated. These new-style professional development programs began with trial skills boot camps (pioneered by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy), but have expanded to include many other area of law, including transactional practices. I highly recommend these hands-on professional development programs.

PB: There seems to be a much stronger focus on business development these days, which I think is a necessity at almost every firm.

IA: The program topics and presenters have shifted since my admission to the bar and are beginning to reflect the diverse composition as well as practice areas of the profession. I appreciate the programs that discuss multi-generational differences and the necessary inclusion of diverse and gender groups in an office. And, I must mention that more non-traditional practice areas are being added to programs and conferences, such as government relations/lobbying and technology. I am a strong advocate of lawyer involvement in the legislative process because in many instances, practicing attorneys are silent and a bill is passed without their real world perspective, which could result in a negative impact on them. Lawyers should register for a course on their state legislative process or find another way to stay connected to lobbyists who would work on their behalf.

ML: Over the past 10 years, professional development has moved toward a much greater focus on non-legal competencies, sometimes called “soft skills.” While the fundamentals of writing, speaking, and legal analysis are still extremely important, law firms (and law schools) are recognizing a greater need for lawyers to develop emotional intelligence, resilience, leadership qualities and relationship-building skills.

NG: Are off-site “boot camps” effective for encouraging strong coaching and mentoring?

AN: I have never taken one so I cannot evaluate them.

NB: They could be, I suppose, but I have never really found them to be right for me, as they don’t tend to fit my approach to learning and professional development.

DMW: Before law school, I was a human resources executive with a specialty in training/organizational development for a Fortune 50 comany. In that capacity I assessed some initiatives that worked well in practice, and others that were better left on the whiteboard.

I am familiar with “coaching” gimmicks ranging from conference room trust falls to the white-collar equivalent of Navy SEAL Hell Week. Some trainers elevate form over substance to justify handsome fees.

You don’t need wilderness survival skills to be a successful attorney. Savvy individuals recognize the value of effective mentorship at all stages of one’s career. The natural evolution from mentee to mentor reflects the ideal of giving back and paying forward.

Mentors need not be monogamous. Unlike swans, mentees don’t mate for life. There will come a time when a mentee’s development outpaces a mentor’s capacity to counsel. Be grateful for their contribution and seek out someone who will guide you further along the path.

At a nascent stage, having two mentors might prove useful. One should be a few years older than the mentee, or possess slightly more tenure with the organization. That individual will be able to relate to the mentee’s reality. The other guru is the classic “gray beard” who can exert institutional influence.

True career development means more than meeting for happy hour once each fiscal quarter. It is a fluid process that adapts to changing conditions.

Like lasting marriage, the reciprocal mentor/mentee relationship is not a matter of mere convenience. It requires genuine commitment, and occasionally, difficult conversations.

CR: Off-site boot camps are absolutely effective. But an in-house program can be equally effective, while also being considerably less expensive.

PB: Truthfully I have not participated in a lot of these programs. I think they do have a place, but I think at the end of the day the firm and the partners have to buy-in to the idea of developing associate talent. I have worked with plenty of partners who made it their business to make sure associates understand why certain things are being done, and to involve associates at all levels in the decision-making process so that they can understand the process. The first deposition I ever sat in was one that I was taking; you cannot get a better learning experience than that, and it was the result of a partner pushing to get me experience that he felt I was ready for. At Harris Beach, partners at every level have lined up to help me pursue litigation and professional goals, including assisting in developing business. I do not think off-site programs (or any training program) can make up the ground that is lost without that buy-in.

IA: I have not participated in an off-site boot camp, but I would be interested. My perception of a boot camp’s objective is the intense, focused instruction of “lawyering” skills and the completion of exercises created by experts that would teach my how to recognize gaps in my own development and tell me how to fill it. I also see it as a way to inquire into where I could obtain more knowledge in a practice area where I lack a professional contact in my network.

ML: No opinion.

NG: What have you learned on the job during the course of your career that you wish was taught in law school?

AN: Practicing law is not about knowing the law as much as it is about knowing your clients’ objectives and the best route to accomplishing them.

NB: The practical aspects of the business of laware as important, I believe, for most attorneys as is understanding the law itself. As with any business, every businessperson must understand two things: (1) what you do and (2) the business of what you do. Lawyers generally come out of law school with a decent understanding of the law. Almost none of them have a good understanding of the business of law. I’ve learned a lot about that. In fact, I’m writing a book about it, because I want the lessons I have learned to be taught in law school. Maybe, someday soon, they will be.

DMW: The curt answer would be: nearly everything. But that would be a superficial analysis of the role of legal educators.

Distilled to its essence, law school fosters a single skill: the ability to analogize and to distinguish. Something is more like this and less like that. It is to “think like a lawyer.”

At the risk of drawing the dismissive ire of my doctrinal colleagues, I find as little day-to-day utility in my knowledge of the rule against perpetuities or riparian water rights as I do in understanding the infield-fly rule. But our profession is a repository of such arcane minutiae.

In much the way that the bar exam is nothing more than our profession’s sanctioned hazing ritual, the traditionalist approach to legal education serves a purpose with steadily declining return on investment.

My chief lament as a practitioner-scholar is the jarring disconnect between the aspirational dimension of the conventional curriculum and the reality of day-to-day practice.

If I wielded decision-making influence within the ABA, I would implement institutional-level mandates that each JD candidate must take one course in negotiation and participate in one live-client clinic of at least a semester’s duration. Such exposure within and without the classroom would promulgate timely awareness, promoting informed decision-making. This Swiftian modest proposal would winnow out those who are unwilling, or simply unable, to find success and satisfaction in the rigors of our profession.

CR: I wish that I had learned in law school how much I had left to learn after law school. My first year of practice was very humbling, in that I learned that law school was only the very beginning of my legal education. I’ve been practicing for nearly two decades, and rarely does a week go by that I don’t learn something new. The best attorneys are those who truly love learning about the law and are dedicated to a lifetime of professional development.

PB: 

  1. Your network is critical. A lot of people do not realize how critical their network is until it is too late.
  2. Whether you are right or not is sometimes secondary to whether the client agrees.
  3. Spotting the issue is the first step. The goal is not just to point to the problem, or even to analyze it; the goal is to provide a solution, to problem-solve around the issue. You have to own it, make your problem, and find the best path forward.
  4. For every motion you draft, there is a motion package with documents you may not have ever heard of that you need to assemble.

IA: Having difficult conversations with clients. Given that the U.S. operates under an adversarial legal system, there will be a side that loses the motion or case, and clients are not happy when they do not receive a favorable outcome. The first time I was tasked with communicating an unfavorable decision to a client, I was extremely nervous and quite concerned that they would question my qualifications, preparation and representation of their matter. Luckily, my mentor and I had a mock conversation of the client’s possible reactions and when I spoke with the client, I was more comfortable and prepared to respond. New associates should receive some form of training in law school about conflict mitigation. Over the years, my confidence has grown and I am more skilled at engaging in difficult conversations with clients—a conflict mitigation course in law school would most likely have shortened my learning curve.

ML: It would have accelerated my development if we’d had some practical training on client counseling, writing pleadings, motions and briefs, and drafting basic contracts. I recall the learning being almost all theoretical. After law school, it takes years to learn how to actually serve clients, effectuate transactions and represent a party in a lawsuit.

BY NICHOLAS GAFFNEY

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