Lawyers should be retrained, not cut loose

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Published on 8/17/09

A major law firm with a large New England presence has been in the news, like so many others, for its announcement that a number of senior lawyers have been asked to seek employment with another firm. But this is not the typical layoff. It is actually a part of a career advancement program that the firm has had for several years.

Intended to give more meaningful career guidance to associates, senior associates and counsel, the program involves mentoring meetings with these lawyers over time to tell them whether they are meeting firm performance standards, and to give them opportunities to upgrade their skills in order to meet those standards.

This seems not only humane but practical. It is little different from the situation that firms have faced with staff members for years.

Consider the long-time secretary proficient in taking dictation. When the firm concluded that this was no longer the most efficient method to convert a lawyer's thoughts to paper and converted to new computer technology, the secretary's skills became obsolete.

Rather than fire the secretary, though, the firm offered the secretary education programs for learning the new technology. If the secretary had failed or refused to learn and utilize the new technology, parting ways would have been the clear choice.

This is directly relevant to the news stories about law firms laying off or terminating associates and de-equitizing partners. Why can't these lawyers be advised that they are falling short of the firm's competitive needs and be given a chance to improve their skills? After all, such individuals are trained in the culture of the firm, presumably are good lawyers and should be capable of learning new technical skills.

The real problem is the misconceived way in which lawyer professional education is handled. There are many different forms of training beyond the formal CLE courses that most state bar associations accept as applicable to a lawyer's education requirement. One example is coaching, in which trained professionals work one-on-one with attorneys to show them how to make their practices better and more effective, providing advice based on years of experience and years "in the field," as a practicing lawyer.

Yet coaching typically does not apply to CLE credit. Neither, often, does training in practical skills concerning the business of law that most lawyers need to keep their practices profitable and problem free — effective client service and law practice management techniques.

Lawyers too often grumble about or even try to evade such training, but keeping practical business skills current is standard for most economic endeavors.

Massachusetts plumbers are required to undergo 12 hours of training per year; electrical contractors need 21 hours every three years. The National Association of Manufacturers recommends that its member companies set aside 3 percent of their revenue for education.

Apply that to an average 1,800-billable hour requirement for large law firm associates and the percentage figure would equal 54 hours devoted each year to education, well above the current requirement of any bar association.

Think how the profession would be transformed if this became its educational standard. "Culling" of underperforming lawyers could become a thing of the past.

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