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Solving the professional development puzzle

Thursday, March 29, 2012

  • By: Esther Lardent
  • Organization: The National Law Journal
  • Source: California

 In the post-recession law practice era, large law firms are facing dramatically different client expectations that create a "Catch-22" for these firms — and for their junior associates. More and more corporate clients are refusing to compensate their outside law firms for the time of young associates assigned to their matters. The Catch-22 aspect of the situation is clear: Firms can't bill out their junior lawyers until they achieve a certain level of seniority, by which time, presumably, they will have acquired the knowledge and skills to offer value to corporate clients. At the same time, in the absence of client matter assignments, associates must somehow acquire the experience and expertise they need. In other words: They can't do the work without experience, and they can't gain experience without the work. All this is occurring as associate salaries at large law firms are once again approaching prerecession levels. The era of simply learning on the job is over.

In the highly competitive buyers' market that is upscale corporate legal practice today, clients have become far more insistent and specific about what they will and will not pay for. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the decision about which law firm lawyers will service their work. The most recent "Managing Outside Counsel Survey," conducted by Serengeti and the Association of Corporate Counsel, offers striking evidence of this trend. The survey report indicated that a far higher percentage of legal departments are more actively engaged in making specific suggestions to outside counsel on how to increase the value of their services, including requiring a minimum level of experience and not charging to train associates. With respect to minimum levels of associate experience, 62.9 percent of those legal departments surveyed — compared to 20 percent in 2003 — required a minimum level of experience for associates. The median number of years of experience required for associates was an astonishing five years!

In the new normal era, the disconnect between the state of legal education and the requirements of law practice has never been greater. While there are some encouraging signs that the legal academy is beginning to acknowledge that a law school education can and must bridge both pedagogy and experiential learning (a lesson that our colleagues in medicine and business learned long ago), the reality is that the vast majority of recent graduates may have learned to think like a lawyer, but very few actually know how to practice like a lawyer.

 

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