Associate Development

Junior Lawyers: Like Training Pigeons

By | Jun.17.14 | Daily Dispatch, New Lawyers, Professional Development

Junior Lawyers

One of the striking things about law practice is our “sink-or-swim” mentality when it comes to junior associates. They do their law studies, we recruit them through various mechanisms, and then we basically just leave them to it.

Then comes the “performance review” process, and at this point the problems with the system become evident.

It’s Not Working

Most law firms do not have an effective performance counseling system. High performers are rewarded with financial compensation. Poor performers are noted during performance reviews and given feedback about what they need to do better. Then we congratulate ourselves on having dealt with the issue.

Except that we haven’t.

Really this two-stage process (financial reward and annual counseling) is a way of avoiding actually doing anything at all to assist poor performers. We think we’re helping people with the financial incentive, but that’s just rewarding those who are already high performers. It’s not creating a system to make everybody a high performer.

Train Better Pigeons

David Maister in “True Professionalism” gives the example of training a pigeon. There is one surefire way to train a pigeon to walk through a maze. First you draw a line quite close to the pigeon, and when it crosses that line you reward it. Then you draw another line further away, and when it crosses that you reward it again. So it goes, until after a number of lines and repetitions the pigeon can navigate the maze.

Here’s how most lawyers would train pigeons: “Here, pigeon, is a maze — you need to get to the end. Have at it!”

The first solution, in Maister’s example, sees junior lawyers who can navigate the maze with confidence and success. The managers can then move on to teaching their pigeons (oops — junior lawyers) more complex tasks.

The second one, used by a lot of partners, sees a bunch of lost junior lawyers in the middle of a maze. This teacher ends up frustrated, and the pigeons develop no skills.

So What’s the Solution — Draw More Lines?

Here are three steps to get more success out of your evaluation process:

  1. Engage in constant evaluation and coaching, not just in annual or semiannual reviews. Feedback on issues should be given immediately, not months later. Those smaller issues are far more likely to be acted on by your junior lawyers when drawn to their attention promptly — while they are still small.
  2. If something’s a problem, explain why it is a problem. Someone who understands the issue and the problems it is causing is far more likely to act on it.
  3. Rather than saying “fix this,” provide a strategy to help them to fix it. Then follow up to see how it is going and tweak if needed.

The best coaching strategies involve a greater time investment. But they are worth it when your staff flourish, rather than flounder.

Chris Hargreaves is a senior lawyer in Queensland, Australia. He writes regularly about careers, communication, productivity and practice issues for younger and developing lawyers at his website, Tips for Lawyers.


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3 Responses to “Junior Lawyers: Like Training Pigeons”

  1. Andrew Cooke
    17 June 2014 at 7:49 am #

    Good post, Chris.

    In my experience partners are all too aware that there will be a new flock of squabs delivered to the door once or twice a year, each of whom has invested significant amounts of corn to even get to the start of the maze. The business model requires that some of these squabs get stuck in dead ends and decide the whole maze is a waste of time anyway.

    If manage lawyers, get yourself to a business school and see how seriously even relatively small business take the development of management abilities. Then go back to your firm and see how much training you give to associates on the same subject.

  2. Chris Hargreaves
    4 September 2014 at 3:21 am #

    Thanks Andrew, glad you enjoyed the article (and extra points for use of the phrase “flock of squabs”).