Many Business Lawyers Have Excellent Schooling — But Early Hands-On Training is Often Hit-and-Miss (Part II of III)

One practical consequence of the big gap between attorneys’ excellent formal schooling and the skills they need to do excellent work for clients:

Attorneys who graduated from law school 4 years ago or less typically lack the skills they need to serve the client independently — i.e., without “supervision”.

Leading law practice consultant Jordan Furlong initiated a discussion in which he asked lawyers who’d begun their careers as law firm associates and who were now partners at law firms or held other responsible law practice roles in companies: “How many months and / or years did it take before you felt like a reasonably competent and confident lawyer?”

Two dozen lawyers went on record and named their firms / organizations:

“The lowest number of years offered was two, the most was ten, but the frequently cited median was five.”

“Only one person said they never felt unready for law practice; everyone else said, essentially, ‘It took me years to feel like I knew what I was doing.'”

This certainly corresponds to my own experience in a large Wall Street firm — and with what I witnessed in a smaller firm on the West Coast after I was fully developed as a lawyer myself and saw others struggling.

Why should a business owner or executive care how long it takes for a lawyer to learn the job?

That it takes 5 years — give or take — is not scandalous in itself.

What’s scandalous is that law firms assign inexperienced lawyers and bill for their time as though the actual number is 1 or 2 years. Law firms base their business model — in significant part — on charging client companies for the work of these formally-licensed-but-incompletely-qualified attorneys.

(See my post “How the Legal Industry’s Pursuit of Leverage Pits the Client’s Interests Against Those of the Law Firm”— where I recount my chief financial officer friend’s receipt of a bill from an AmLaw 100 highest revenue firm for tax law advice from two of its junior lawyers whose the AmLaw 100 employer considered them sufficiently incomplete in their qualifications that it charged my CFO friend for their “supervision” by — of all specialties — a partner in the real estate group!)

Jordan Furlong again:

“There’s a widely held assumption in law firms that new associates should be billing hundreds of hours within their first three months on the job, and many thousands of hours within their first two or three years ….

“Associates learn this quickly, and drive themselves to generate work that can be added to a client bill regardless of its utility.”

What should business owners and executives do about this?

Consider two questions.

First question: Ask what parts of your company’s legal work consist of sophisticated legal analysis and / or related skills that take substantial time and experience to develop (Malcom Gladwell’s proverbial “10,000 hours”)?

For this kind of legal work you don’t need the help of inexperienced lawyers at all. But you might consider them for work in response to the second question below.

Hire the legal help you need — ruthlessly avoid being saddled with unqualified legal “help” that what you don’t need.

In my CFO friend’s situation this meant firing the AmLaw 100 firm and its bloated combination of junior tax law associates under “supervision” of a real estate partner. He then hired just one, go-to, tax partner at a boutique firm for $400 per hour for the specialized work of the type he used to send to the AmLaw 100 firm.

There’s no harm in your law firm letting incompletely-qualified attorneys tag along with fully qualified ones on the firm’s own dime. But training their budding young practitioners should not come out your P&L.

Second question: Does the legal work consist of tasks that don’t require a fully qualified lawyer?  

For the last 4o or 50 years, law firms have deployed their inexperienced lawyers on aspects of litigation and transactions that billed client companies for aspects of litigation and transactions that don’t call for the “10,000 hours” — and that only marginally require any law school background at all.

I address these categories of tasks — and the best approach to performing them — in Post III.