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

There’s not much in the way of practical how-to instruction for new attorneys. So there’s a big gap between their excellent formal schooling and the skills needed to do excellent work for clients.  

This gap poses two practical consequences:

  1. Attorneys who graduated from law school less than 4 years ago typically lack the skills they need to serve the client independently — i.e., without “supervision”, and  
  2. The presence of junior lawyers on legal teams usually means that the client company pays for what law firms themselves sometimes refer to as their “training”. 

About this “gap”.

A few months ago I congratulated a recent graduate of the law school where I’ve served as an adjunct professor who posed the question of what it takes to become really proficient in her new profession.

Her current day job? Airline captain.

My reply:

“If you had learned how to be an airline pilot the way that my profession prepares law school graduates to become attorneys, they would have given you a textbook on aeronautical engineering, told you to fly with an experienced pilot for a few years, and left the rest for you to pick up by osmosis ….”

Example: Airline industry & practical skills development

Another airline captain friend was on final approach to London’s Heathrow Airport in zero visibility conditions. Minutes before landing she learned that the computerized system that lands the plane in zero visibility was not engaged. In plain English: She couldn’t see where she was going and the technology meant to land the plane for her was not working.

It turned out that the first officer had failed to set his radio altimeter to the same frequency as the captain’s radio altimeter. The discrepancy had caused the automated landing system to fail.

She and the other pilots quickly identified the problem, engaged the automated landing system, and safely landed the plane. Under a protocol known as Crew Resource Management she conducted a cockpit de-brief:

As captain she took responsibility. She had (correctly) called out her radio altimeter frequency so that the first officer knew to set his own radio altimeter at that frequency. Good.

But she faulted herself for not looking over the first officer’s shoulder to read for herself the frequency at which he’d set his radio altimeter after her call out. Had she done so she’d have seen the discrepancy and corrected it immediately.

Then she turned to the first officer. He explained that he hadn’t known that it made any difference what he set his own radio altimeter to — since the captain was conducting the landing herself — and the first officer had no functional involvement with the automated landing system at that point.

The captain’s response: “That’s a training error. That’s on us as an organization. I’m sure you’ll never make that mistake again.”

Example: Legal industry & practical skills development

Jack, Susan, and I were each in our first year out of law school at a prestigious Wall Street law firm.

We were working on a big-dollar breach of contract case pending in New York County Supreme Court.

We were conducting legal research in support of a motion before the judge.

The judge ruled for the other side — citing a case that the opposing law firm had obtained from an arcane but regular feature in a local law gazette. Neither Jack, Susan, nor I had heard of it.

We’d all graduated from what were called “national” law schools (Jack from Harvard, Susan from the University of Chicago, I from the University of Pennsylvania).

Great academic institutions. But none directed their curricula to any particular state or judicial district. Learning “local” legal sources was left to on-the-job training.

But there was no organized on-the-job training. And the firm maintained no checklist to which this special source could be added. Nor did it have any standard operating procedure for legal research.

We were given no de-brief about how to prevent a repeat of this mistake on behalf of this client or any other.

We did attend an unrelated lunch at which partners had a good laugh at what the rookies hadn’t known about.

No word as to whether or not our client thought that a courtroom setback in their big-money case was funny.

In Posts II of III and III of III address — respectively — drawbacks #1 and #2 set forth above.