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Give an Associate a Fish? Use Each Teachable Moment with Young Lawyers

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Sometimes it just seems like you can’t get a break, doesn’t it? The network’s down, you just received your third nuisance filing this week from opposing counsel … and you’d think an associate could draft a simple brief without supervision! Sheesh.

You can complain all you want about the caliber of the young lawyers law schools turn out these days. But if you’ve just fired and then hired your fourth new associate this year, it’s not the law school’s fault. It’s probably not even the poor young lawyers’ faults. This one lies squarely on you. What you get is raw material. It’s up to you to refine and polish her performance. And, yes, it’s a huge investment of your time. That’s why you don’t want to do it again and again and again, right?

Use Each Teachable Moment

Let’s look at one tiny slice of the training pie as an example. Say you’ve asked your young associate to draft up something for you — a contract, the intro to a patent application, a client letter. You handed him the file, explained briefly what you want and asked for his work by tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow afternoon comes. What do you do?

Option No. 1

  1. Tell him to print it out and bring it to your office.
  2. Review it while he waits.
  3. Mark up what’s wrong with a red pen and hand it back with instructions to fix it.
  4. Return to what you were doing.
  5. Repeat 1 through 4 until satisfied.

Option No. 2

  1. Ask him to print it out and bring it to your office.
  2. Ask for his thoughts about the assignment and discuss any questions or problems he encountered. (Make it clear you want him to have questions. “That’s how you learn.”)
  3. Read through the document with those in mind and praise what has been done well.
  4. Identify areas that need more work while he takes notes.
  5. Explain why you want changes and try out, together, possible replacement language. (This is when you get to share those great stories from your youth about the time the judge explained the proper use of semicolons.)
  6. Ask him to quickly list the areas he’ll modify, along with how and why, before he leaves your office. (Just checking!)
  7. Invite interruptions via email if he has small questions before returning the revision to you.
  8. Receive the revised version and either repeat 1 through 6 or just say “thank you, good job!” with a smile and return to your work.

Testing. Option one continues the law school academic routine of testing for knowledge and ability—you either know it or you don’t. You pass or you fail. It reinforces any negative feelings the young lawyer may have about working with you while discouraging independent thinking and the acquisition of new learning. It also, incidentally, guarantees you’ll continue to spend your own time on this sort of document.

Learning. Option two builds a learning relationship. Your associate understands that you value his help and want to invest in his capabilities. By both asking and telling, you open up a chance that he won’t be the only one doing the learning and you increase the likelihood he’ll look forward to working with (and pleasing) you again. All things being equal, this is how you gradually remove yourself from having to do this work yourself.

So what’ll it be? This and many other times when both of you are engaged “right now” in something important are what education theorists call “teachable moments.” You’ve got leverage and interest in your favor. If you invest more time now, you’ll begin to create an effective and reliable associate who will grow one day into a peer. Or you can choose option one and pencil in a few days of interviewing associate candidates down the road — because the young lawyers you have now will go where they want and value them.

And, oh yeah, you’ll be doing the work yourself.

Illustration ©istock.

Categories: Daily Dispatch, Law Firm People Management, Learning, Managing a Law Firm, New Lawyers
Originally published October 22, 2012
Last updated October 8, 2021
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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