Lady shaking a man's hand

How Law Firms Can Support the Development of a New Lawyer

  • February 27, 2020
  • Paulette Pommells

Who doesn’t remember their first day of practice as a lawyer? It’s something every student of law works long and hard for. Morale is high and so is the eagerness to please and do well.

That’s why so many new lawyers hire me to help them get a jumpstart on building soft skills and becoming more business-minded. They recognize that they have many years ahead before becoming fully competent at their new job. Yet, some law firms don’t acknowledge this fact.

Some law firms ignore the reality that a new lawyer still needs to be trained. They seem to believe that, once called to the Bar, a new lawyer is instantly possessed with all the knowledge and information they need to be a successful practitioner. What’s important for law firms to know is that this attitude will weaken a new lawyer’s morale and, eventually, cause them to start looking for a new job. This is a sunk cost for law firms.

The good news is that I’ve worked through enough of these scenarios to be able to detect when a law firm is in danger of repelling a new lawyer.  Here are five telltale signs, as well as tips on how a law firm can support the development of a new lawyer.

1. A Lack of Mentor Training or Criteria When Selecting Mentors

It has been a long-standing tradition for law firms to have a mentorship program for new lawyers. This is commendable – when done properly. 

If you’re simply selecting warm bodies to act as a mentor, then it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that many aren't doing the job well or at all. It doesn’t make sense, in my opinion, to suggest that there isn’t much work involved simply to attract mentors, but then turn around and expect mentors to perform the role at a higher level.

Just as new lawyers need additional training to become competent, mentors need to be trained about the role of a mentor, the dynamics of building a positive mentoring relationship and how to give effective feedback. Training mentors can introduce consistency and benchmarks in the development of new lawyers at your firm, as well as promote human rights compliance.

2. A Lack of Accountability When Workloads Are Unsustainable

New lawyers are keen and can work too hard. Some may say that’s their choice, but I believe firms have a responsibility to be aware of this as a mental health strategy. Law firms need to reinforce this value through actions (not just words).  At a minimum, this should include monitoring a new lawyer’s workload and having real solutions when that workload is too much.

When a new lawyer says “no” to additional work or expresses concern about their workload, there should be a firm-wide plan in place to re-direct workflow. This shouldn’t be an after-thought. It’s inevitably going to happen and law firms need to think about these things in advance, along with ensuring that all lawyers who assign work (and staff) are aware of, and on board with, workflow policies. 

3. The Rogue Partner

You know who I’m talking about:  the partner who drives people away through a host of inappropriate, unchecked behaviours, or excessive demands. This is one of the most cited reasons for associates to want to leave a firm.

Most firms have at least one.  Most firms know about them. That’s wilful blindness and that’s no defence in law.

4. A Lack of Feedback or Transparency Around the Performance Review Process

When feedback isn’t given in real-time, a new lawyer doesn’t have a chance to learn from their mistakes and improve. The other issue is that many lawyers forget what it’s like to be junior, and expect new lawyers to know everything without further teaching or instruction. I work with law firms and organizations to train their senior lawyers to be able to provide timely and effective feedback, and to appreciate the impact of their role.

Firms also need to clearly outline their expectations around the performance review process and progress at the firm. How can lawyers hit a target they can’t see?

5. Expecting Business Development Without Additional Training or Coaching

Nowadays, lawyers are expected to start thinking about business development as soon as they start practicing. I think this is a good idea! But, it needs to be supported with additional training or coaching. This is a business skill. It’s not taught in law school.

If law firms were to allocate a CPD budget for coaching or training in foundational techniques like personal branding or excelling at client consultations, then new lawyers would build their confidence around becoming more business-minded and be poised to bring in clients over time.

These were five common experiences of a new lawyer that, when taken too far, can actually become deal breakers and prompt them to look for a new job.

So, how did you do?  Did you identify one or two things that your firm or organization can improve on? If you haven’t already, also identify one thing that your workplace is already doing well and see how you can build on that. You can support the development of a new lawyer!

About the author

Paulette PommellsPaulette Pommells is CEO + principal coach at Creative Choices for the 21st Century Lawyer Inc. Her thought leadership in working with junior lawyers has been sought by law firms across Canada, law schools, legal associations and individuals since 2010. She is frequently invited to train senior lawyers in firms and organizations to be effective mentors.  For information about how Paulette can help the lawyers in your workplace, please set up a 30-minute complimentary call by clicking here.