“Must Haves” in Associate Training

Interview with Dick Lee

Thursday, April 7, 2005

1. Dick, many new attorneys worry that they lack practical lawyering skills. Do the law schools deserve some of the blame here?

Ross, that’s a hard question. Law schools believe their primary mission is to develop analytical thinking, teach the rudiments of the American legal system, and expose law students to various practice areas. In their view, they are teaching some fundamental lawyering skills: problem solving, legal analysis and reasoning, and legal research.

But the law schools argue that with so many career choices—from solo to large law firm, from private to government to corporate practice—the details of practice have to come “on the job.” Today’s curriculum leaves little time for teaching or training in legal writing and virtually no opportunity to learn about day-to-day practice. That leaves it to the law firms and other employers to develop or sponsor orientation programs, training in specialty practice areas, and legal writing workshops.

2. As long as law schools keep downplaying practical skills, what should employers do to “bridge the gap”?

Well, it’s a tall order. It takes time to develop practice skills—such as factual investigation, communication, counseling, negotiation, litigation, organization and management, and ethical issues. These just can’t be learned in one or two sessions. But new lawyers can be exposed early in their first year to many of them. And additional skills training can form the basis for in-house programs during new lawyers’ first several years.

3. That brings me to my last question. As you know, professional development folks get pulled in many directions—often, for example, associates and their supervisors don’t even agree on what sort of training these young attorneys need. Plus billable hour requirements often interfere with even the best-conceived training programs. Despite these pressures, can firms presume some “must haves”?

For most firms, “must-have” associate training would include the following:

  • Orientation to the firm, its culture, and its practice
  • Introduction to the practice area to which the associate will be assigned
  • Regular practice area updates both in practice skills and firm procedures
  • Systematic training in a variety of lawyer practice skills (including writing, presentation skills, marketing) over several years
  • Periodic ethics, professionalism, and risk management training


Dick Lee is the founder of the Professional Development Consortium. He has spent more than thirty years as a leader of in-house training programs for lawyers, including stints at Baker & McKenzie and Morrison & Foerster. Now a consultant, he can be reached at richarddlee@earthlink.com or (415) 673-9929.ink.com or (415) 673-9929.

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