As the country's economic fortunes slowly improve, law firms on the road to recovery are showing an increased willingness to put resources into training programs for associates, according to a recent survey by ALM Legal Intelligence and Practical Law Company Inc.
Just over half of survey respondents -- a group that included law firm partners, professional development specialists, law librarians and administrative staff -- said that their firms had increased the amount of time devoted to training over the past 12 months.
The survey also found that most firms commit time to training, with 58 percent putting formal programs in place and 34 percent using ad hoc methods. Only 4 percent of survey respondents said their firms had no associate training program and no intention of creating one. (The 2010 Law Firm Associate Support and Professional Development Survey was conducted between August and September of 2010, and went to 7,546 recipients, with 140 of them responding.)
Thomas Clay, a consultant with Altman Weil Inc., says that he sees the industry moving toward a more training-friendly attitude. "The very blunt rationale is they've got to get these people to be more valuable quickly, because the marketplace just isn't seeing it these days," Clay says.
Part of what's driving that shift, Clay says, is the reluctance of budget-conscious clients to pay for work done by inexperienced lawyers. Firms are responding, Clay says, by trying to increase the "perceived value" of their younger lawyers as soon as possible, "because some clients are saying 'We don't want to use first- and second-years. They don't have much value to us.'"
Steve Armstrong, a legal consultant and former director of career development at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, says that a renewed emphasis on training is a logical consequence of the recession easing and firms loosening their belts. Clients, he adds, expect firms to focus more on "project management" and having associates spend their time more efficiently.
The push by firms to adopt competency models for consistent guidance has also served as an impetus for increased training, Armstrong says. The goal: Find fast and practical ways to give young attorneys the skills and experience clients look for. "Those competencies have led a lot of firms to figure out how they can more effectively train on a wider range of skills than they used to," he says.
O'Melveny & Myers is one firm giving more attention to training. Sharon Bunzel, an O'Melveny litigator, serves as firmwide talent development and hiring partner. She says the firm's comprehensive training program is expanding. The program, called "O'Melveny University," is offered to associates at various levels of seniority and covers practice basics on the litigation and transaction sides, as well as public speaking and writing skills.
"I definitely have seen, over the last several years, a pretty substantial increase in both our training and, I think, the focus on attorney training more generally in the profession," Bunzel says.
According to Bunzel, O'Melveny conducted more than 700 internal training courses in 2009, along with nearly 3,000 courses through the legal education nonprofit Practising Law Institute. "And," she says, "we are on track to meet or beat that in 2010, so it's pretty substantial."
Bunzel says first-year associates average a little over seven hours per month on training, which is in line with 20 percent of the survey's respondents whose firms' associates average between six and 10 hours per month. More than 75 percent of the respondents to ALM's survey said associates spend between one and five hours training each month.
In addition to serving clients, the training programs serve attorneys in their professional development. "O'Melveny has a duty to assist young attorneys with their professional development to ensure that they become highly skilled lawyers," she says.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.