Law schools join the talent war

Northwestern University School of Law garnered a lot of attention last week by announcing a series of curriculum changes, most prominently the creation of an accelerated JD program that would allow students to graduate with a law degree in 24 months, rather than the traditional 36. While Dayton and Southwestern law schools have gone this route before, NU is the first “elite” faculty (ninth in the irrationally important US News & World Report rankings) to go this route.

Most of the reaction to Northwestern’s announcement centered on the new two-year law degree, which some observers (including many commenters at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog) misread as a decision to “drop the third year” of law school. NU Law isn’t reducing its courseload by a third; it’s squeezing the traditional three-year degree into two calendar years, by means of a summer semester, extra courses each semester, and mini-courses between semesters. It’s a far more intense and challenging experience, not the easier one that eliminating the final year of school would suggest.

Predictably, the traditional three-year degree has staunch defenders, including those at NU’s crosstown rivals, who call the new plan an irresponsible compression that will produce inferior lawyers. Others worry that the law school experience is already sufficiently intense, and that cramming it into two years will damage students. But Dayton Law’s Dean of Students Lori Shaw sees no evidence that her program’s two-year enrolees missed out on the full law school experience: “It’s fascinating to see how much they can do.”

Now, in reality, accelerating a law degree by administering it in two years isn’t that big a deal — it’s certainly nothing like the major innovations undertaken at Washington & Lee Law School, which made its third year entirely experiential as part of a massive program overhaul. What really caught my attention — and that of Douglas Berman at Law School Innovation — were other aspects of Northwestern’s announcement that generated much less fanfare. From the Inside HigherEd article:

Northwestern is adding three new required courses (to the nine currently required, largely following a traditional law curriculum), starting with the two-year program and eventually being required of everyone. The new requirements are:

  • Quantitative analysis (accounting, finance and statistics).
  • Dynamics of legal behavior (teamwork, leadership and project management).
  • Strategic decision making.

These topic areas were grouped by faculty members based on the focus groups of what legal employers need….

These are all key elements of any law practice that intends to succeed in the 21st century. Particularly interesting are the mentions of project management, a skill I’m seeing repeatedly referenced by in-house counsel as a must-have ability that most lawyers simply don’t, and teamwork, an essential ability in the new collaborative lawyer-client relationship. Then there’s Northwestern Law’s renewed emphasis on teaching communications skills: Continue Reading

Don’t blame the recession

Bear with me for a moment while I start with a media story. The Washington Post has announced another round of buyouts of writers and editors, including several very senior and respected professionals. Commenting on the impact of the mass exodus is Post writer Howard Kurtz (HT to Rob Hyndman), who notes:

“The talented reporters, editors and photographers walking out the door are part of the heart and soul of a living, breathing organism. How do you replace a Tom Ricks, one of the best Pentagon reporters ever? Or a Sue Schmidt, the investigative reporter who revealed Jack Abramoff‘s dirty dealings? Or Robin Wright, who’s covered the Middle East for a quarter-century? What about battle-scarred editors with deep knowledge and a light touch?

I know, I know. The future is digital. … That’s why The Post (and every other paper on the planet) is beefing up its online presence and why I write a daily blog for the Web site. But — and stop me if you’ve heard this one — newspapers matter. … The economics of the Web, for now, won’t support a staff that can hold public officials accountable across the region and still cover every Nationals game.

Now, if these talented, even legendary professionals are the heart and soul of a great newspaper that does important work, why exactly is the Post is clearing them out? Does a struggling manufacturer discontinue its best products?

Yes, I know newspaper circulation is down, at the Post and elsewhere, and that the web is the future. But good reporting on the web requires the same courage and tenacity demanded by print reporting — and with those qualities not yet in abundance in web journalism, that’s all the more reason the Post should retain its best assets and further strengthen a powerful brand-name advantage that’s the envy of most other newspapers.

“No one yet knows how to monetize web news,” the Post could have said, “but we figure outstanding journalism matters no matter where it appears. We’re going to lean into the wind and reinforce our prize-winning team in the face of change and contraction.” Instead, the message the Post has sent comes down to: “Times are tough, so we’re jettisoning our best and brightest in the hopes that lower costs will restore our profit margins.” That kind of thinking isn’t the Internet’s fault.

This brings me back to the law, because the Post‘s plight reminds me of a number of stories in the legal press about law firms “de-equitizing” partners, cutting associates, and even firing secretaries with the recession setting in. Continue Reading

The evolving costs of young lawyers

In conversation the other day with a longtime friend of mine, a mother of three on hiatus from the practice of law, the subject of articling students came up (for those outside Canada, articling year is a required apprenticeship period after graduation but before the call to the bar, and no, it doesn’t work as well as it sounds). She opined that the annual salary for such students in Toronto (circa $70,000 — almost twice what my friend and I made in that city when we articled 14 years ago) was outrageous, especially considering how little new graduates actually know and can actually do.

My response was that (a) people pay what the market requires for a product or service, and that (b) if law firms needed to pay three times that much for articling students, they could (the amount of money swimming around in most law firms is astonishing) and they would (especially if they could price such students out of the range of rival firms). That’s why I think a lot of talk about starting associate salaries, including the latest volley from London, is so much hot air.

The same goes for the dreaded associate attrition trend, about which people continue to fixate. Most associates leave their law firms by the end of five years! Why, yes, they do. If they didn’t, you’d have quite a problem come partnership time, wouldn’t you? A group of lawyers from Stikeman Elliott made this and other good points at a presentation during the NALP meeting last week — firms need associate attrition. Not all your early hires are going to work out — people change, especially during their 20s and early 30s when you first hired them.

The amount of money firms spend on young talent, and their evident disinterest in taking serious action to staunch associate outflow, just confirms to me that talent has been almost a discretionary spend for law firms up until now. Young lawyers would need to cost a lot more than they currently do before partners really started feeling the pinch, and in no way would that cost threaten the overall financial viability of the enterprise. And considering how little rigour is brought to the new lawyer recruiting process generally, it’s no wonder there are so many more misses than hits over the first several years.

Two things are going to happen to change this. The first is that talent will become scarce, and good talent even more so, driving its real costs through the roof and making its departure much harder to bear. This, in turn, is going to force firms to pay much more attention to the new lawyer intake process and give much closer scrutiny to exactly who leaves. As the traditional pyramid structure of heavily leveraged associate starts crumbling, firms will hire fewer new lawyers, but they’ll need to keep them longer.

And firms will realize that the most important thing about associate attrition is not how many young lawyers leave, but whether the wrong ones are going.

NALP: the future of law firms

Back from a lengthy trip, I have a lot of catch-up blogging to do. Just to get the ball rolling, here are my speaking notes from last Friday’s plenary session at the NALP Annual Education Conference in Toronto, in case they’re of interest.

I was honoured to be part of a distinguished panel of speakers, moderated by Ida Abbott and including Ron Friedmann, Rick Matasar, Tim McManus and Vernā Myers, on the future of law firms. I’ll pick up on a few of the points raised during the wide-ranging 90-minute plenary later on, but for now, here’s what I prepared in advance: Continue Reading

The culture-driven law firm

The era of the free-agent lawyer, and the law firm lateral hiring frenzy that it spawned, is drawing to a close. The rise of the culture-driven law firm is at hand.

It’s going to take me a while to explain how I got here. I’ll try to do this in two parts.

1. Followership in law firms

This all started when I came across a provocative article called “Leaders need followers: tips for team performance“ by Australasian legal consultancy FMRC Legal. The thrust of the article is that successful law firm management hinges on followership — lawyers’ ability and willingness to align their personal values and goals with those of the firm. I first came across “followership” in the law firm context in a 2005 blog post by Gerry Riskin, which was in turn expanded upon by Patrick J. Lamb shortly thereafter.

Here are some excerpts from these three insightful articles that I think sum up what they’re saying. Continue Reading

Authenticity and lawyer recruitment

The editors at LegalWeek blogged recently about the results of the Sunday Times“Best Company to Work For” survey, which, remarkably enough, saw eleven law firms crack the Top 100. I think this probably signals not so much a renaissance in law firm working conditions, so much as that many UK law firms are getting pretty good at using workplace reputation rankings for their own ends. It’s a phenomenon not limited to the eastern side of the Atlantic.

The thing about “Best Employer” lists, as LegalWeek‘s editors point out, is that law firms consider them enormously important recruiting tools for new lawyers and lateral hires. A solid ranking adds lustre to a firm’s marketplace brand and reinforces the strength of its hiring pitch, especially to new lawyers who consider (accurately) that law firms are all pretty much the same. Anything that can help a firm stand out from the faceless crowd, especially on “soft” criteria like flexibility, mentorship and socializing, has a lot of value.

The trouble with third-party marketing and recruiting tools like this, of course, is that they’re destined to be gamed. Savvy firms figure out how the system works and take steps to ensure they do well. Some law firm associates know this first-hand, because they receive a memo “encouraging” them to fill out the “Best Employers” survey and help improve the firm’s standings. It strikes me as odd that firms expect these rankings to impress potential lawyer hires when their own lawyers have been directly involved in what amounts to a manipulation of the results.

In fact, it’s this “gaming” element of such rankings that raise what I think is going to become a problematic element of law firms’ recruiting efforts down the road. Young lawyer recruits, when deciding which firm to work for, are going to start zeroing in very clearly on the authenticity of firms’ marketing and recruitment efforts. This is a generation weaned on word-of-mouth recommendations, and they give a lot of weight to a friend’s or reliable acquaintance’s testimony that something is worthwhile or not. Failing those kinds of first-hand recommendations, they will tend to go, not to press releases, newspapers or magazines, but to collaborative knowledge portals to test the judgment of the crowd. This is where new lawyers are heading now, and law firms need to go with them. Continue Reading

The talent search, redefined and prioritized

Invariably, the best place to look for innovative perspectives and good ideas on legal management is outside the legal sphere altogether. Here are a couple of thought-provoking blog entries that apply to the recruitment of lawyers. Penelope Trunk says the era of the job listing is ending and identifies five new ways to find great candidates, while Seth Godin thinks “Human Resources” is an archaic term for a compromised department and recommends rebranding HR as your Talent Division.

I like all of Penelope’s suggestions, but especially this one: tell people where they’ll go next. Advertise all the successful high-profile gigs to which previous occupants of the available position have moved. I’m going to try exactly that as we look to fill a Managing Editor position with National here in Ottawa. I’ve had two very talented professionals work with me as Senior Editor of the magazine: Gaëtane is now a Committee Clerk with the Senate of Canada, while Mélanie is a judge with the Immigration & Refugee Board. You could be next!

What Penelope and Seth are really talking about is rethinking your entire strategy for securing talent, both because the old methods aren’t working very well and because the consequences of missing out on the best talent from now on could be fatal:

–> If you’re hiring new law graduates, I’d love to hear your advanced, rational talent assessment model, but I don’t think you have one. There are a very few notable exceptions, but many firms hire new lawyers on the basis of second-year grades and less than an hour of actual face time. No firm can reliably pick winners with this approach.

–> If you’re still placing job ads for associates in the local legal periodicals, either directly or through a recruiting firm, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get any satisfactory candidates — in fact, some firms that go this route wind up with no candidates to interview at all. Young lawyers today look to their networks first, the job pages much later.

–> And if you’re simply hiring a big-name partner with a book of business away from a competitor, well … they don’t talk about it much, but a lot of firms that go this route find that the revenues the partner brings in do not outweigh the partner’s purchase price, including importing the partner’s favourite associates and secretary (Bruce MacEwen has the authoritative word on superstar recruitment).

In addition to what’s in the linked articles, here are a few other thoughts to consider about successfully recruiting legal talent in 2008 and beyond. Continue Reading

Coping with fewer associates

The Ottawa Citizen ran an article over the weekend that caught my eye, thanks in part to this succinct summary of the gigantic demographic challenge facing the North American economy:

Baby boomers are retiring and the number of young adults behind them is on an irreversible slide. Starting in 2011, Canada’s workforce will lose two workers to retirement for every one that enters it. The ratcheting price on youth is a sign of things to come for the rest of the country as an aging population forces provinces to compete for dwindling numbers of young people.

Law firm associates’ salaries are already rising separate and apart from a talent shortage; in time, firms seeking to hire new lawyers are going to find out just what a full-blown seller’s market looks like, and they won’t enjoy it. I can see two long-term trends emerging from this.

First, those organizations and regions in danger of losing talent (i.e., most of them) will continue to look for ways to staunch the flow. Nova Scotia, according to the article, is introducing tax breaks to entice younger Nova Scotians to stay or return. The drawback to that approach is that if you’re trying to compete with Toronto or Calgary (or for that matter, London or Hong Kong) on money, you’re outgunned from the start. It will likely be a stretch just to be in the ballpark of the highest offer, and there’s only so much you can spend to keep up.

Consider instead the lawyer in the Citizen article, who’s returning home to Halifax because it’s a better community for her than Ottawa. Successful lawyer recruitment could in future be less about the firm and more about its environment. Forward-looking law firms could start getting actively involved in their own communities’ efforts to become more attractive to tomorrow’s scarce young worker. They’d join forces with other local organizations and identify potential opportunities and obstacles to young professional recruitment and retention. Continue Reading

Pro bono without borders

A press release came my way today from McCarthy Tétrault, announcing that the firm is the first Canadian “Partner Without Borders” of the Quebec division of Avocats Sans Frontieres. [Edit] ASF is an international NGO devoted to providing legal assistance and representation to vulnerable individuals and groups in developing countries or those in crisis. The organization is active in 30 countries, working with local groups on a completely pro bono basis. ASF Quebec has a number of law firm sponsors already, but McCarthys is the first to become un partenaire. Good for them.

Any law firm worth its charter has always been active in its community, of course, but in this age of megafirms with global reach, we’re starting to see super-national firms display a truly remarkable degree of involvement in issues and organizations that transcend the usual local undertakings. Check out DLA Piper, whose New Perimeter project is an incredible piece of work: a worldwide pro bono initiative that has seen 13,000 lawyer hours contributed to, inter alia, drafting new judicial laws in Kosovo, restructuring a micro-lending project, developing a worldwide food bank system and creating a human rights center in southern Africa. This is work on the scale of the CBA’s sterling International Development Committee, but supported by a for-profit firm rather than a non-profit association.

It would be naive to overlook the obvious marketing and recruitment benefits of McCarthy’s move here: the press release highlights the firm’s other pro bono efforts, including its support of Pro Bono Students Canada. This obviously invests the firm with some cachet among law students and new lawyers, many of whom take overseas development work very seriously. McCarthys, of course, will have to back up this commitment with active participation in Avocats Sans Frontieres (and now I have Peter Gabriel’s Games Without Frontiers stuck in my head), because students can also tell real commitments from mere gestures. But I prefer to think McCarthys means what it says here about its pro bono commitment, and that what we’re seeing really is the white-hot trend of globalization applied to the age-old tradition of lawyers’ community service.