Practice Innovations: Getting SMART with associate development by setting goals for law firm associates

As hybrid working continues to raise challenges for law firms, the idea of ensuring that associates are being brought along in a timely manner is crucial to firms’ success

As is the case with most years, this fall brings with it a new crop of law firm associates. While bringing in new classes of associates is nothing new for law firms, many if not most firms still struggle, at least to some degree, with how to engage and train these up-and-coming lawyers in a hybrid or remote environment.

While many senior associates value the flexibility that comes with remote work, junior associates want to know what their future career path will look like and are more likely to value being in the office, gaining face time with the partners who will help craft that future.

Associate development was well established prior to 2020 — associates largely knew what was expected of them, partners had been through the process many times before, and the pattern was pretty set. The global pandemic, however, upended that process. First, the shift to fully remote work, then the struggles with the start-stop progress on return-to-office practices and the increasing prevalence of often work-in-progress hybrid working structures dramatically shifted the process. Indeed, in many respects this fall might be the first year in many years where the associate on-boarding process resembles the past.

Still, hybrid working continues to raise challenges, especially around the idea of ensuring that associates are being brought along in a timely manner. Beyond that, firms may also have several classes of associates for whom development has been such an issue that those associates might be behind where their predecessors would have been at the same stage in their careers. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just reality.

Setbacks in associate development not only impair the career potential for associates, but they can also have an appreciable, if sometimes hard to quantify, effect on law firm finances. Research from the Thomson Reuters Institute has found that “getting up to speed” and “correcting an associate’s work” are two of the largest sources of “unbilled time” for lawyers — time that could be billable because it’s done on client matters, but for whatever reason, is never actually billed out to a client. The costs associated with associates getting up to speed can easily exceed $10,000 in unbilled fees per associate, every year; while the time partners spend correcting their associates’ work can well exceed $40,000 per partner annually. Spread across an entire firm, this is a massive potential financial hit.

So how can law firms get their new associates on board while, hopefully, getting existing associates to move further along their own career development paths?

Using the SMART approach

It’s vital to be organized and methodical in approaching the answer to that question. Litigation associates must learn litigation-specific tasks such as legal research and writing, deposition and questioning skills, discovery management, and general oral advocacy skills, along with more general skills required of any lawyer such as how to manage matters, time, and most importantly, clients.

Different levels of experience will require different benchmarks, of course. For newer associates, the focus will be on more foundational tasks and basic litigation skills. Midlevel associates should be equipped to handle increasingly complex tasks with a much lower level of supervision. They should be able to independently handle basic litigation tasks and keep a matter moving in line with specific case strategy objectives. Senior associates should have command of litigation tasks and may even be ready to directly manage other associates’ work on matters, or even handle simple matters on their own.

To arrive at these benchmarks, however, law firms must develop and implement attainable and trackable goals for associate progress. The corporate world loves to talk about SMART goalsSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound; and it’s not a bad habit for law firms to embrace, either.

Of course, attention will have to be paid to the variety of skills needed among the different practice groups and legal matters. For example, litigation associates will obviously require development of different skill sets than will the transactional associates; but all associates should know what skills they should gain and the metrics they are expected to achieve, beyond just billable hours.

This means that frequent check-ins regarding associates’ progress are essential. Annual performance reviews, while necessary, are not sufficient to ensure that career development goals are being met. Formal reviews should be planned regularly, preferably quarterly. And while it is often discussed, the need to offer frequent feedback to younger lawyers is essential. If an associate learns about a performance problem for the first time during an annual performance review, it’s less of an issue that the associate underperformed and more of an issue that the firm failed to provide the needed training, guidance, and feedback to rectify the associate’s skills gap.

At this specific point in time in today’s legal ecosystem — an era where many of us are in different places than our work life would have normally placed us — it’s vital that professional career development be flexible enough to “meet people where they’re at.” And to do that requires planning, flexibility, and feedback.

https://www.thomsonreuters.com/en-us/posts/legal/practice-innovations-smart-associate-development/