An Associate’s Perspective on Legal Education & Training
By Law Student
This guest post looks at associates’ training needs and at how on-demand training helps in a remote-work environment.
Junior associates’ earliest years often seem like a self-taught class in reading between the lines and figuring “it” out. They’re expected to bill as many hours as possible while not billing any more hours than necessary. They’re expected to ask questions, but they should be “the right questions.” Questions asked must not waste anyone else’s time, because everyone else is also billing as much as possible.
Associates are expected to be robotically efficient, masters of time management, and totally incapable of wasting any time—theirs or their colleagues. They’re expected to “show face” at all firm networking and marketing events and firm-wide social events, including the mundane lunch hour CLEs. And really, nothing says “inefficient use of time” like a subpar lunch buffet followed by a sixty-minute CLE discussing a nuanced area of law you never heard of before.
Not once in my years as a young associate did I ever get presented with a legal issue in need of an answer to which I was able to immediately think back to a CLE and say, “Wait, I know the answer to this!” Not a single time. But guess what happened all the time…I was asked to look into a legal issue that I had never heard of, instructed not to spend too much time (ahem, money) researching, and given a seemingly impossible deadline. And not once did those types of legal issues land in my inbox the same day there was a related CLE calendared. Shocking, right? And when the research was urgent and the issue was pressing? Those were also the instances when my senior colleagues had the least amount of time to spend coaching me or providing any context.
How Remote Working Changes Things
Now throw into the mix that today most of us are working remotely. Our interactions with colleagues are almost exclusively virtual. I know from personal experience the hesitation associates feel when considering walking down the hall to knock on a partner’s door to ask a follow-up question. (Remember: ask questions, but only the right questions and the ones that don’t waste time.) That hesitation must be ten-fold when the associate can’t do a casual stop-by and has to pick up the phone or schedule a meeting.
And the efficiency and productivity of in-house CLEs, which were questionable pre-2020, may be at an all-time low. It used to be that associates would have to balance work-related conflicts that may get in the way of a CLE . But today, associates’ lunch hours are bombarded by commitments beyond work, as are all the other hours of the day. When lunch used to be a quick break to eat, for many it’s now time spent making PB&Js and checking in on family members who are working or learning from home.
The Disconnect and What Associates Need
Too often, no matter how well versed an associate is in researching case law or drafting legal documents, there is a gap between the skimpy information provided by an assigning attorney and the depth of information ultimately needed in return. Not always can a briefly stated legal question be enough for an associate to craft the perfect string-search or draft the perfect document. And here lies one of the largest disconnects between the needs of junior lawyers and the expectations of senior lawyers. Junior lawyers need access to resources that enable them to research and draft efficiently and knowledgeably. Senior lawyers need associates who can independently make the jump from question to answer.
Of course, the first reaction is to turn to Google, which inevitably leads to Wikipedia articles, which everyone knows not to rely on but still skims. Scholarly articles turn up, but when time is of the essence a 60-page journal article with hundreds of footnotes isn’t doing anyone any favors. Google can lead to white papers, blog posts, and alerts from other firms, but who knows if they are dependable. Chances are another firm’s blog post was written by a young associate who also started her drafting process with Google. For any of these resources, associates know in the back of their minds they should be questioning the reliability, especially for blog posts or alerts that by their nature don’t cite heavily, if at all.
But doesn’t everyone start this way when they don’t know where else to start? Most likely. So after inefficiently reviewing potentially-questionable sources, associates end up proceeding to research and draft with a twinge of doubt about their own newly-gained background “knowledge.” When junior associates are commonly living with chronic self-doubt, this isn’t exactly a methodology that comes highly recommended.
What associates need, and to be honest, what partners need their associates to have, is a reliable resource that helps them make the jump from obscure research questions to a manageable list of search results on Westlaw or Lexis or an initial outline for a document--preferably all in less than a half-hour because the clock is ticking. Hotshot serves this need by providing associates with a library of easy-to-access and easy-to-digest videos that can give associates just enough information to get them started. Because most days—maybe everyday—the information is needed when an on-point CLE isn’t being offered, there’s no spare time to fact-check the Google results, and senior partners aren’t teaching a masterclass between client calls.
About Leigh Ann Benson Leigh Ann Benson practices in Cozen O'Connor's commercial litigation group. Beyond her practice, she is an active member of the Philadelphia Bar Association as the co-founder and co-chair of the Large Firm Associates’ Committee. She is a 2020-2021 participant of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute. She also has experience on various editorial boards for legal publications including ALM’s The Legal Intelligencer and the American Bar Association’s TYL. She received her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law and her B.A., magna cum laude, from Virginia Tech.