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Jay Edelson: Trust Young Lawyers & They Won’t Let You Down

Posted Oct 15, 2009 6:00 PM CDT
By Jay Edelson

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Jay Edelson

Law firms are notoriously bad at training newly-minted attorneys and developing them into meaningful contributors.The problem begins with structure: Some firms have individual partners informally “train” or “mentor” young lawyers, leaving it to chance whether a lawyer will end up with the requisite set of skills down the road, but most establish formal “training ladders,” complete with seminars on how to take and defend depositions, how to write briefs, etc., rigid timetables on tasks such as when associates should go to court for the first time, and prerequisites for “graduation” to new, more involved tasks.

This rigid structure tends to treat young lawyers as automatons and often has unintended negative consequences, such as creating anxiety in attorneys taking on “upper level” tasks, dread that they will never be entrusted with meaningful responsibility, ultimately breeding unhappy young attorneys and resulting in high rates of turnover – and bad outcomes. Frankly, this approach stems from most partners’ inability to trust young associates and their refusal to believe that any attorney with less than six years of “training” has anything meaningful to contribute.

Our firm has tried, and quickly abandoned, these and other common training models. Through an open, and sometimes painful, process of trial and error, we have found and honed an approach that works (at least for us).

It is premised on a few basic principles:

• Most new attorneys have a strong desire to jump into the fray, take part in deciding the course of their cases, and develop into fully functioning attorneys as quickly as possible.

• Attorneys develop at their own rates and with their own styles. Some are able to handle client meetings and interactions with opposing counsel immediately, others need more time to get comfortable.

• Most attorneys are ready to take on responsibilities long before the partners at most firms would give them those responsibilities.

• 90% of decisions lawyers make are not determinative of the outcome of a case.

This last, and most important point, runs counter to how we lawyers have been trained to think—especially those of us who were “trained” at big firms, where each issue (no matter how small) is pored over by multiple attorneys. Most lawyers—often incorrectly—believe that even the smallest task is of immense importance. The truth is that most decisions—do we move to dismiss the entire case or just two counts; do we refer the case to the magistrate; do we start a brief with broad rhetoric or a dispassionate recitation of the facts—can affect the pace of a case, maybe increase or decrease momentum, but alone are unlikely to make or break a case.

Based on these principles, we employ a somewhat unconventional training system that is best described as “guided independence.” All of our lawyers, regardless of their level of experience, and even if they are only assigned to part of a matter, are responsible for the entire case. They should know each and every fact and legal issue better than anyone else in the firm, and certainly better than opposing counsel. Knowing that is the expectation, we allow our attorneys to use their knowledge by giving them the freedom to make their own decisions and take on whatever responsibilities they feel they are ready to take.

Practically speaking, we ask our young attorneys to think about every decision before getting “sign off” from a senior attorney. Much like a resident physician does her rounds, our attorneys are expected to present an issue, provide a quick factual summary and then offer a “course of treatment.” Our senior attorneys are encouraged to ask provocative questions that will challenge the younger attorney’s thinking: What do you think the other attorney will do? What would you do if you were the judge? Are you concerned that this planned action might result in x?

If the senior attorney believes their counterpart is making an incorrect decision, his or her goal is again to ask questions, this time in an attempt to lead the associate to rethink their original impulses. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, if the decision is not outcome-determinative, it is the associate’s call to make. If things do not end favorably, we will dissect the consequences, but never blame a negative result on the associate. If a senior attorney signed off on the ultimate decision, he or she will bear responsibility for any negative result.

We have found that this system has had a number of effects, some intended, some not. First, our younger attorneys are especially engaged in their cases. Unlike attorneys at most other firms who feel like mere “cogs in the machine,” our young attorneys understand that their decision and their work actually matters. With that, they understand they have complete ownership over the work they do. Their ownership over their cases makes it easier for the senior attorneys to trust and rely on them. The young attorneys are also more willing to step up and take on higher profile aspects of a case. We had a fourth year associate take the lead in a complicated and especially contentious class action, that resulted in a $7 million dollar settlement and a seven figure fee award to our firm. A second year associate has filed and settled groundbreaking suits, including a recent case involving the deletions of George Orwelll books from Kindle e-readers.

These, and other, successes have led to an unusual pride amongst our associates and have made everyone see that, given a chance, attorneys can significantly add to a practice even in their early years.

Jay Edelson is a partner of the Chicago-based firm KamberEdelson. He's been appointed lead counsel in more than 40 class actions and the Chicago Sun-Times once nicknamed him the “Spam Slammer” after he reached the first class action settlement for text message spam.

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