Picture it: More than 900 lawyers spread out over 61 U.S. offices, and your PD team’s job is to provide a consistent and effective junior associate training program. For labor & employment firm Jackson Lewis P.C., the solution involved leaning in to distant and asynchronous learning technology to create a rich remote experience and focusing the partners on connection and feedback. And that was before a global pandemic put most law firm employees in a remote working environment.
“Some of our offices have a few attorneys and some have a hundred,” said Professional Development Manager Adrienne Reiff. “We want to reinforce the fact that we’re all part of one firm, no matter the size of your office, the number of new associates in your local class, if you’re physically in an office or working from home.”
Reiff is part of a Professional Development staff led by Tammie Garner. The team is responsible for training in areas such as legal and professional work, teamwork, client service and development, and firm contribution for all lawyers and staff. “We’re a small team with a wide remit, so we have to avoid ‘random acts of training,’” says Reiff, who focuses on legal knowledge and practice. That includes general employment litigation-specific training as well as practice fundamentals like legal writing. Ultimately, she is helping prepare new associates to practice at the firm.
The litigation bootcamp
“We’re trying to deliver training to a very geographically diverse group of first- and second-year associates, who won’t choose a labor and employment specialty until year four or five,” Reiff says. “We aim to create consistent best practices so they can work quickly and effectively no matter the assignment or topic.” In the fall of 2019, the team developed a litigation-focused bootcamp for all new associates. “To do that, we had to be intentional about what we created ourselves, what we asked the partners to do, and where we looked to third parties for content.”
The bootcamp spanned three months, with training programs every two weeks and a consistent approach to each lesson. That included watching a Hotshot course and preparing for a role-play exercise before the group training, and then attending a 30-minute online session to discuss and apply what was learned beforehand.
“We wanted to give them a homework assignment they’d actually do,” Reiff says. “Hotshot videos are brief – perfect for people with a lot going on. The seven-minute program on motions to dismiss is interesting and makes all the right points. We do not have to create that foundational material from scratch.”
What they do customize is the exercise. “Tammie embraced the exercise approach to reinforce learning, so that’s where we had a little bit of fun,” Reiff says. She worked with the litigation managers to turn Hotshot’s sample exercise into a role play that fits the Jackson Lewis practice. “Some litigation managers played the role of the client, while associates counseled them on what to expect. Switching roles was interesting and created an opportunity for mentorship. The exercise includes tasks that first-years don’t often do – like advising a client – so they really got to stretch themselves,” she says.
The expectation was that everyone watched the video and practiced the role play before the online session. They could speak with colleagues to get ready, but they knew that when they attended the session any one of them could be called on to participate in the exercise.
Fully prepared, the new associates attend a 30-minute online session with their peers and a practice leader. The ligation manager kicks things off, thanking them for being there and notes that everyone completed the prep work (in this case, watching the video and reading the exercise).
The leader chooses an associate to participate in the role play, and they walk through the exercise together. It takes about ten minutes, and sometimes it can feel a little awkward at first, but people usually warm up to it and learn a lot. The leader gives real-time feedback on the associate’s performance, which is valuable for everyone to hear. “Our associates crave feedback from partners,” Reiff says. “This format lets us put feedback and interaction front and center, rather than having our partner give pure instruction.”
From there, the litigation manager delivers a best practice version of the exercise, highlighting the specifics of what Jackson Lewis lawyers need to know and how the firm wants them to approach a specific scenario.
A universal approach, showcasing individuals
Reiff finds that the geographic diversity has some advantages. “By using this format for everyone, we focus on the Jackson Lewis way of practicing law, rather than trying to customize programing by state. We use a partner in a different state each time and make sure the curriculum and exercises apply no matter where you practice.”
This approach also lets leaders show off their own personalities and connect with associates across offices. It gives them a chance to talk about their experiences in a fun and effective way – one manager incorporated an air horn! – and the associates get to hear from people who are going to be managing them.
“The whole point of this is to give people the tools they need to succeed,” Reiff says. “Who better to do that than the leaders of the firm?” She’s aware that she was asking the lawyers to do something new, though, and that change takes time. She tried to make things as easy as possible for the managers, providing a short summary of the program and their expectations, and setting up the exercise so they could give their input on specifics and let Reiff take it from there.
Feedback on the first bootcamp was so positive - from associates and partners – that Reiff and team are designing another version of the bootcamp to be rolled out later in 2020. “We started by asking what our associates need to know – and we found that if we used the Hotshot materials we could customize it for our firm in no time at all,” she says.
Image credit: Chris Montgomery