The revenue-neutral associate

Last month, while writing an article about professional development in the law, I impulsively posted the following question on LinkedIn:

Quick survey for those of you who began your careers as law firm associates: How many months and/or years did it take before you felt like a reasonably competent and confident lawyer?

Use anytime during your first five years in practice.

The answers came rolling in — more than two dozen in a couple of days. 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.”

Yes, small sample size and all that, but I think there’s a lot you can take from this. One takeaway is solace: If you felt overmatched and out of place during the opening months and years of your legal career, you were far from alone. Another is insight into the lawyer mindset: For all we try to project confidence in ourselves and our abilities, most of us suffered from impostor syndrome for years after our call to the Bar, and I’m sure many of us still do. A third is confirmation that, yup, law school really does do a terrible job of preparing us to be lawyers.

But what those results also affirmed for me was a strong suspicion I’ve harboured for years now — that expecting new law firm associates to perform billable work is kind of ludicrous.

There’s a widely held assumption in law firms that new associates should be billing hundreds of hours within their first months on the job, and many thousands of hours within their first two or three years. At more than a few firms, an associate’s failure to meet his or her first-year billing targets can permanently dim that lawyer’s prospects in the eyes of management or can even result in early termination. Associates learn this quickly, and drive themselves to generate work that can be added to a client bill regardless of its utility. Because most new associates possess low skill levels, their work product tends to be either (a) utterly rote and low-value, (b) riddled with errors, (c) subject to massive editing and/or discounting by partners, or (d) all of the above.

Clients, of course, figured this out years ago. Some of them indirectly advised firms of the problem when they began refusing to pay the billed hours of first- and second-year associates. Those clients without the confidence or leverage to withhold payment on first-year bills pushed for discounts or just gritted their teeth and signed off. But the message they were sending was the same: “Your least experienced people add very little to your value proposition. We don’t want to pay for their efforts. You should do something about that.”

Firms say they are doing something: investing in professional development, sending their new associates off for business training, and so forth. I’m sure many of these activities pay at least some dividends immediately, and others further down the line. But almost all these efforts share a fundamental drawback: they treat associate professional development as a part-time endeavour. Taking courses and acquiring skills is something associates do in between their “real work” of serving partners and billing hours. They’re expected to generate billable work with 90% of their time while slowly learning how to produce that work in the other 10%. It’s like having to earn a living as a cab driver while still enrolled in driver training school.

This drawback, in turn, is founded on a more serious issue: the common belief throughout law firms of all sizes that inexperienced, low-skilled lawyers should be generating revenue within weeks of their arrival in practice. Law firms that push law schools for better “practice preparation” and train their new associates intensively upon arrival are certainly trying to do right by their associates and their clients — but their good efforts nonetheless stem from an assumption that new lawyers should be “ready to bill” at the earliest opportunity.

I wonder if that’s realistic, and I wonder even more if that’s healthy. I don’t think a person can switch from being a full-time student (even an articling student) to a full-time fee-earner that quickly without experiencing some mental and emotional whiplash. By forcing new lawyers into high-target fee-earning roles this early in their careers, we’re trying to radically accelerate a development process that’s meant to take much longer — maybe as long as five or ten years.

My modest suggestion, therefore — especially modest because I suspect few firms will adopt it — is that law firms consider re-envisioning the role of the new associate, de-emphasizing the importance of billing and emphasizing instead the primacy of training and experience. What I’m suggesting is the revenue-neutral associate.

Maybe not this kind of training day, though.

For at least their first two years in the firm, possibly longer, make the development of skills, knowledge and experience the primary activity and responsibility of new lawyers. Enroll them for months-long training in process improvement, customer service, business management, and new technologies, testing them at regular intervals throughout this period to assess their progress. Send them to client meetings to watch and listen and report back on what they learned, at no cost to the client. Take all the piecemeal, intermittent professional development that law firms provide to associates in between their “real work,” and make that their real work. Take seriously the process of turning raw prospects into polished professionals, because it’s really not a part-time exercise.  (I argued almost ten years ago that we should consider the lawyer development process to be seven years of education and practice, not just three years of education).

Can firms bill their associates’ efforts during this period? Yes, but only work that has legitimate value, and only to the extent necessary to help the firm to recoup some or most of the lawyer’s costs — that is to say, his or her salary, benefits, and associated support costs. That might come to only a few hundred hours in the first year, several hundred in the second, a thousand or more in the third — although smart firms will be pricing their associate-level work on a non-hourly basis anyway, making it even easier to support this kind of role. 

The goal of a revenue-neutral associate program should be that at the end of the designated period — two to four years — the new lawyer has been rigorously and professionally educated, mentored, trained, and skilled to such an extent that he or she can deliver real (if not extraordinary) value to the firm and its clients — and that in doing so, the lawyer has undertaken enough billable work to help cover his or her training costs for that period. A lawyer developed in this fashion will be equipped to provide much more valuable and expensive services than a typical third- or fourth-year associate who has had to figure things out on the job under tremendous billing pressures — if the associate has even stuck around that long.

Would this approach be workable for a $180,000 first-year associate? No — but then again, the $180,000 associate is a market abnormality based solely on big law firms’ desire to draw the attention of the most attractive law school graduates. The reality is that no $180,000 associate, no matter how smart or hard-working, is worth his or her salary — and the billing pressure firms place on these young people to justify their inflated salary damages these assets in their formative years. A revenue-neutral associate would be paid in line with greatly reduced billing expectations — and the promise of much higher-earning potential after a few years of high-calibre development. 

There is precedent for this idea. Back in the late 2000s, firms such as Frost Brown Todd, Ford & Harrison, Drinker Biddle & Reath, Strasberger & Price and the late Howrey LLP all experimented with “apprenticeship models” by which new associates were paid less but received extensive training and mentoring. It was a good idea that unhappily arrived ahead of its time — these programs were launched during the post-crisis recession, when it was hard to persuade new graduates to turn down high starting salaries in favour of lower-paying “training opportunities.” It’s a different world now: Graduating lawyers understand that they need marketable skills and know-how in order to have sustainable legal careers. Law firms that can offer a path to that future will have a competitive recruitment advantage.

This would, obviously, be a major change in how law firms view and use their associate lawyers. But I also think it’s a necessary, and in fact an inevitable one. For decades, law firms have been getting their clients to pay the training costs of their newest and lowest-skilled workers. No other business has the gall to do this — to send customers bills for all the low-value puttering around by the firm’s least useful employees and justify it as “training.” It’s not training — it’s years of immersion in the law firm’s least valuable and interesting activities, subsidized by the client.  

But now that train is coming to a halt. You know all about the myriad game-changing substitutes that have entered the legal market over the past decade — technology that can carry out basic legal tasks, outsourced platforms of flex-time lawyers and managed legal services providers, insourcing of work by corporate law departments themselves. These alternatives have arisen precisely because the market is tired of paying law firms inflated rates for low-value work by low-skilled associates.

Clients want a less costly and more effective replacement for the labour of unskilled yet expensive junior associates, and the market has been more than happy to oblige — it is offering equal or better options for “associate work” at a superior price. These options are not going away; if anything, they’re gathering momentum and increasing sophistication. The hard truth is that the day of the billable young associate is drawing to a close anyway. 

So think about the possibilities of a “revenue-neutral” approach to associate hiring and training, and how it could change the nature of professional development in law firms for the better. Law firms will have to find a solution to their associate-lawyer challenges before too much longer. The sooner this option is considered, the sooner solutions can be tried and a new approach to law firm associate development can be found. 

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