For New Associates, Work Seems Like School

Sept. 21, 2015, 12:25 PM

It’s like going back to school.

Before they begin to work, new lawyers at many big firms complete lengthy orientation programs that provide instruction on topics like basic accounting and finance.

But that’s not the only way that firms resemble school. In addition to substantive topics, associates are now greeted with resident advisers, on-call, in-house training staff, and even summer reading lists. It’s a not-so-tacit recognition that newly minted attorneys have educational gaps that need to be filled and, almost as importantly, they need and want oversight, extra help, and lots of feedback and career guidance.

“It’s become remarkably like going to college or law school,” said Jeffrey Knight, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. “Law firms have been thinking more about the first year or two and providing more options for a structured learning environment.”

Pillsbury, like several other firms, runs boot camps for new lawyers. Other firms hold so-called mini MBA programs for those starting out. Lasting from one-to-three weeks, these programs incorporate business school classes with more general orientation, offering incoming associates the chance to learn finance and accounting skills they may not have learned in school.


Associates at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP can start on one of two dates — and their first two weeks are spent in an intensive mini-MBA program. The program, explained partner Michael Ryan, was developed by its lawyers with an outside training firm and extensive input from clients.

While most of the program is taught by those in-house at Cleary, a class on tax is taught by a Yale University professor. What’s left out are the “softer” topics like leadership and strategy, which the partners felt weren’t “valuable” at the outset, Ryan said.

Cleary does expect its lawyers to do a little advance work. The firm sends its new lawyers a summer reading list — supported by an Amazon.com gift card — to familiarize themselves with a bit of business history. The list includes Kurt Eichenwald’s Enron book, “Conspiracy of Fools,” as well as the now-classic “Liar’s Poker” by Bloomberg View columnist Michael Lewis, according to partner Michael Ryan.

The mini-MBA program at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, in contrast, runs three weeks. Its courses are taught by a combination of teachers from an outside consulting firm and professors from Columbia Business School.

The firm doesn’t have a prescribed reading list, but it does recommend that associates read some preparatory materials, partner Steven Slutzky said in an interview.

“It’s typically background material on the topics covered,” he said. “The idea is that if they read it, the classes won’t be so overwhelming” for those who haven’t previously learned any accounting or finance principles.

Closing Celebration

At both Debevoise and Cleary, the highly focused, intense programs end, of course, with a celebration. Slutzky said the Debevoise program concludes with champagne and a certificate.

Cleary associates get a subscription to the New Yorker magazine, a gift certificate to the Strand, a New York bookstore, and a hat acknowledging the completion of the program.

At Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, the orientation entails a shorter program. For four days starting when the associates begin work right after Labor Day, instruction runs the gamut from the fundamental resources available at the firm to more “serious training about ethics and confidentiality,” partner Sergio Galvis said.

While they get introduced to the substantive work they’ll be doing, there are continual programs on different practice areas offered throughout the year, he said.

But the firm, which is somewhat old-school among premier firms in not adopting a mini-MBA program, has added other college-type accoutrements. There are the equivalent of resident advisers on each floor of its offices to help young lawyers navigate the firm, discuss substantive issues and answer questions associates might be too embarrassed to ask a senior associate or partner. In what seems like a nod to the generation raised on Harry Potter, those advisers are called “floor wizards.”

Class ‘Deans’

The firm also enlists one or two partners in each of the four practice groups who act as the “deans” of the class, Galvis said.

“These associate-development partners are critical to the success of our associates in the first 18 months,” he said.

“They work with each of the young lawyers one-on-one to make sure that those lawyers are being given the right opportunities and guided toward a wide range of work.”

For firms with far-flung offices, orientation gets more complicated. Sidley Austin LLP has both orientation at the office where the associates will practice, and a subsequent 2 1/2-day gathering for all new U.S. and European associates at their offices in Chicago, Eilish Cahalan, Sidley’s East Coast director of training and development, said in an interview.

Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP takes a markedly different approach. Many new hires take advantage of the opportunity to work at a nonprofit — while earning a Milbank salary — for the first three months after they start.

All new associates go through basic orientation, but the firm waits until the beginning of the fourth year for the more intensive training, according to partner David Wolfson. At that point, the fourth-year associates travel to Boston for a one- week program at Harvard Business School.

“The first few years are overwhelming,” Wolfson said. “We don’t feel like it’s worth teaching young associates very complicated finance concepts, in part because they won’t utilize them for awhile and also because they don’t yet have a context for them. If we wait, the associates understand what they’re learning and will retain it more.”

Business Development

A few firms see a purpose in these programs beyond mere training: business development. Several firms, including Blank Rome LLP and Sidley Austin said they invite clients — including young in-house attorneys — to attend their training sessions.

“Clients speak at some of our programs,” Dan Rhynhart, a partner at Blank Rome, explained. “It’s a win-win for the firm.We can involve our clients while also educating our associates about what clients want and expect.”

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