Training New Associates in an Era of Legal Outsourcing

In evaluating legal process outsourcing, law firms sometimes wonder (out loud) how they will train their newer associates if some of the repetitive tasks traditionally performed by new associates are outsourced to LPO firms.  Legal commentator Richard Susskind has provided an evolving model is his book, “The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the nature of legal services,” Oxford University Press, 2008.  In addition, a number of firms including Howrey and Nixon Peabody, while not specifically addressing LPO, have adopted training programs that attempt to address the training of lawyers in an environment where clients are unwilling to pay high hourly fees for novice attorneys.

Susskind describes the use of modern, existing technologies that have largely not been embraced for legal education.  In his discussion of disruptive legal technologies, he suggests that legal education should become more practical by reserving lectures for great speakers and supplementing them with tutoring and counseling. He suggests that workplace-based training take the form of webcasts on specific topics that are available to lawyers as needed.  He envisions webcasts as a part of E-Learning that supports “the transfer of know-how, insight and expertise.”  Novice lawyers could also use systems that provide what Susskind describes as “online legal guidance” which might provide expert legal diagnoses, generate legal documents, assist in legal audits, or provide legal updates.

While the systems Susskind envisions will take time to evolve, law firms have begun to address training in today’s environment.  In a Boston Business Journal article last week, Nixon Peabody LLP hiring partner John V. Snellings, said, “We are starting to look at alternatives, including what an apprenticeship would look like. If a young lawyer can’t work on a matter because their rates are too high — how do we get them the training they need?”  According to the article, ’the firm’s training team is putting together scenarios to evolve the associate program, including the apprenticeship idea and potentially creating a “center of excellence” that would put all of the firm’s first-years together, to train them until they’re ready to “graduate” to a larger market.’

In June, Howrey outlined a more definitive program.  To train future litigators, it introduced the “Tier 1 Associate Program” for its U.S. associates. During the first year of the two-year program, participants will spend one-third of their time on client billable work, one-third on pro bono representations and the remainder on training programs, including work with a full-time in-house writing instructor. The second year will include client secondments, judicial externships, and other advanced development opportunities.

It seems that the changing economics at law practices is changing how lawyers acquire the knowledge to ply their trade.  Legal process outsourcing is a contributor, but the bigger economic factor of client spending limitations is driving the change.  This trend may bode well for law schools that focus more on training practicing lawyers rather than the traditional model, which is better suited to training appellate judges. (My alma mater Northeastern University School of Law could be one such beneficiary.)

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