Firming-Up First Year Associates
California Lawyer
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Firming-Up First Year Associates

by Leslie Gordon

October 2012

This month at Morrison & Foerster, dozens of first-year associates will forgo drafting briefs and closing documents to instead study financial analysis, valuation, and project management. And rather than logging billable hours, the freshman lawyers will earn a stipend by spending 40 hours a week on their course assignments.

As part of MoFo's push to produce "job-ready first-years," it became the first California-based firm to engage Fullbridge, a new company that aims to prepare law school grads for the workplace. Fullbridge clients on the East Coast already include firms such as Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Debevoise & Plimpton.

"Everyone familiar with legal education would like first-year associates to add greater value from day one," explains MoFo chair Keith C. Wetmore. "We want our new associates immediately speaking the language of their peers [with] our clients."

Most first-year associates can't tell a balance sheet from a P&L statement, and how best to use them is a recurrent problem for big firms. Clients often push back when newbies bill time on their matters, yet firms still need to cover the first-years' steep salaries and groom them to handle more complex assignments.

"It's a tricky situation," says Ida Abbott, a professional development consultant. "I admire any firm that is making an investment in first-years. I would love to see it as the beginning of a trend."

Instead of hiring outside vendors, some big firms - like Drinker Biddle in Philadelphia - have launched formal apprenticeship programs. And Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy has sent associates to Harvard for long-term executive training.

"All firms are looking to step up their client service," says Anthony H. Grumbach, who serves on the board of the Professional Development Consortium, a group that advocates for working lawyers. How to train and effectively use first-years is an "increasingly discussed issue" nationwide, he says.

Grumbach's own firm, Farella Braun + Martel, takes a decidedly traditional approach. "New associates are paired with a partner for old-fashioned mentoring," he says. Although the approach sometimes means writing off billable time, Grumbach insists that first-years are a "perennial opportunity" for adding efficiency and value.

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