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Associates’ Success Is Not About Work Ethic: Common Concerns About New Lawyers

By Wendy Merrill

Let’s address those complaints about young lawyers’ work ethic.

young lawyers' work ethic

‘Our Younger Lawyers Don’t Have a Strong Work Ethic’

This has been a common refrain of many of the senior attorneys I have spoken with over the past several months. They are the words of partners who are understandably frustrated with the disconnect between their perception of the practice of law and how their younger counterparts envision their careers. Their consternation, however, has nothing to do with work ethic.

Instead, it has everything to do with expectations, communication, direction, guidance, professional development, coaching, mentoring, a crack onboarding process — and trust. Newly minted lawyers may choose to go into private practice after law school, but their choice is no indication of their understanding — or lack thereof — of what it entails.

Law school does not prepare students for private practice. A law degree does not represent one’s intimate understanding of the business of law. This is left to the hiring firm to impart to its incoming class of green recruits, though many firms are woefully unprepared.

Common Concerns About New Associates

Here are a few suggestions on how to address the most common concerns and complaints about new associates.

Why don’t the associates come into the office more?

First, I should say that if your firm is not offering any flexibility in terms of remote work, you are in the minority. I agree that face time is critical, especially for newer lawyers. However, if they are hesitant to come into the office, they probably do not see the value. It falls to the firm to explain the benefits of being in person, making sure to speak to each lawyer’s individual career goals, professional development and work product. Incentivize associates to want to come in by providing a regular cadence of meetings designed to boost their knowledge and skill set — with a few team-building events thrown in.

When I ask for my associate’s opinion on a matter, they go silent.

Being a new lawyer can be scary. The fear of making a mistake or looking stupid in front of a partner or client is enough to silence even the most outgoing associate. It falls to the firm leaders to create an environment in which the sharing of ideas and perspectives is expected and mistakes and missteps are viewed as learning opportunities.

We have a big problem with our newer attorneys not turning in their billing on time.

The most successful associates manage a balance of face time in the office with loads of time billed outside the confines of their firm’s walls. There are plenty of attorneys who leave the office at 5 p.m., have dinner with their family, tuck their kids into bed, and then flip open their laptops to bill for four or five hours in the evening. As long as the associate is meeting all requirements, they should not be judged by where they are after 5 p.m.

Young Lawyers’ Success Is Not About Work Ethic

Bridging the yawning generational gap in law firms requires a dismissal of hackneyed beliefs. It’s 2023, and the practice of law is transforming daily. Much of what worked for baby boomers and so many Gen X attorneys is no longer relevant. There are copious amounts of data proving that flexibility, transparency, recognition and empowerment are what make for the development of great lawyers.

It’s time for law firms to adjust the lens with which they perceive — and judge — the next generation of partners.

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Wendy Merrill Wendy Merrill

Wendy Merrill is a fierce advocate for improving the practice of law. She has worked with thousands of lawyers around the world, providing practical guidance and proven techniques designed to help lawyers and their firms thrive. Wendy is both the proud CEO of StrategyHorse, a consulting firm committed to boosting law firm profitability with proven strategies, and co-founder of The Savvy Advocate, a unique associate training program designed to prepare younger lawyers and their firms for success. She is also an author and prominent speaker on law firm growth strategy, winning the war for legal talent, bridging the generational gap in law firms, and more.

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