We have the technology. We talked about building a better, stronger, and faster practice leader here. Now it’s time to build a better, stronger, and faster associate.
We have little choice. We are forced to equip first year associates with every available tool to make them more billable. The 1900 billable hour target is the breaking point. The law firms who want to retain associates and reach these lofty goals will start building a better associate in year 1.
Even those firms with a lowly 1800 hour target can gain a leg up by helping new associates by giving them some unexpected but necessary training.
4 essential skills will turn any ordinary associate into a bionic associate—giving each the ability to find more billable hours. We recommend you develop monthly training to cover each of the 4 topics. By the time you reach month 12, you will have a crop of higher performing 2nd year associates who will have already started establishing demand for their time.
The 4 essential skills to create bionic associates are:
Listening is an art and a skill. The more you practice the better you get. Associates who learn to truly listen will hear what is being asked and also be able to understand what is not. A good listener asks questions to confirm their understanding and gives feedback to the speaker to let them know they are being heard.
This skill will help your associates produce more concise and focused deliverables in less time than those with less honed skills.
Writing for partners and clients poses different demands than writing in law school. Clients want short and relevant documents which get to the point quickly. Clients also want a summary of the document so they can decide whether to read it or not.
Make associates practice writing in a controlled and peer-reviewed environment. Suggest new associates find someone in the firm who has a writing style they like and can be comfortable with. Your associates will develop their own style as they go – but need to start with a proven approach. Experienced attorneys will tell you it takes great skill to write short and direct documents – long verbose documents are easier to create but mostly go unread or rewritten.
Teach associates to look ahead to see what comes next and be ready and prepared. Train associates to stick their necks out and volunteer to take the next logical step in the process. Teach these associates how to make their boss’s life easier. Anticipating needs is one of the skills which makes everyone’s life easier. Associates can learn to anticipate by taking time to think about current tasks, listen to others to see where it fits in the big picture, research the legal process in which they are engaged to learn all the steps in the process, and ask about overall objectives when first receiving an assignment.
4. Researching (Clients)
You can never know too much about your client’s business—even as a first-year associate. The research will make the work more interesting and relevant. Training associates to share their research with the other attorneys on the team helps everyone understand the client, and proves associates can be a resource to the client team and the relationship partner. An associate’s research also makes the partner look better to the client.
Associates can get started by tracking clients in Google News. The best research will come by tracking client news at the product name level, by names of executives and by tracking competitors. Look for news, product announcements, earnings announcements for public companies and Wall Street analyst comments and coverage. Be sure to read the trade publications for the client’s industry. And most importantly, share the research in an easily digestible form so the team can benefit as well.
These 4 skills are an essential part of the associate success kit. The associates become more skilled and busier. The biggest benefit goes beyond the extra billable hours gained. The most enduring benefit comes from teaching your new associates how important these 4 skills are for success early in their careers and, ultimately, changing your law firm’s culture to be more competitive and productive.