Residency Program for New Lawyers: One and Done?

November 01, 2013

Buzzing around the blogosphere recently was this news that Greenberg Traurig had introduced a new “residency” program. The basic details of the program seem to be:

GT hires a group of recent law graduates as “residents;”
GT requires them to spend 1/3 of their time training;
GT pays them “considerably less” than other new associates;
GT bills them out at a “much lower hourly rate” than other new associates;
Positions last only one-year, with the possibility of (a) becoming a standard associate, (b) becoming a non-partnership track “practice group attorney” or (c) saying goodbye at the end of the one-year trial.

Above the Law thinks the experiment has potential. Jordan Furlong is neutral/skeptical about the emergence of these types of “lawyer employees.” And Toby Brown digs the program.

I assume this program is good for GT, at least in the short term, or else they wouldn’t be doing it. But frankly, I’m not that interested in whether this bodes well or ill for large law firms.

The really important question to my mind:

Is this a good thing for the new lawyers who participate?

Getting Paid is Cool

Getting paid is good, obviously. Getting paid by a reputable firm is even better. So from that perspective, what’s not to like?

I guess it depends on what, if any, other opportunities are available to the folks who take these positions. Needless to say, if you have no other options, this is a great option. If you have other options that pay, then perhaps it’s not such an easy a decision, as discussed below. Getting Hired Permanently Is Cool

Getting a permanent job at the end of the year-long trial obviously is good too, even if it’s in a practice group attorney role. I don’t have a problem at all with attorneys not being on the partnership track. The vast majority of associates aren’t on the partnership track anyway, even if they think they are. And if you’re a practice group attorney, what’s to stop you from developing strong client relationships, using your substantive expertise to attract new business, and then converting those relationships and business development successes into partnership, if not at GT then somewhere else?

So for some of the residents it could work out very nicely indeed. But not everyone will be so fortunate. Getting Bounced is Not Cool

Say you take the one-year spot. We don’t know how the numbers will play out, but let’s indulge the assumption that a small portion of residents will be elevated to actual associateship at the end of the year-long trial. Let’s also assume that a chunk of the resident class transitions into the “practice group attorney” role. That leaves some number of residents who get shown the door after one year.

Those folks will have to answer some difficult questions when they interview for their next position, if they can get an interview. (Perhaps GT helps exiting residents find a new job. That would be cool, and surprising.)

Q: So you were a GT resident last year. That’s terrific. Why didn’t they make you an associate or practice group attorney?

A: Well, they just didn’t have enough work to support an additional permanent hire in my practice area, and I really wanted an opportunity to pursue my passion for doing the kind of work you do here at this firm.

Q:  I see. And what percentage of your residency class did GT keep around?

A: [any percentage greater than 25%]

Q: Ok, then. Very nice to meet you. I wish you the best in your search, and we’ll be in touch.

For those who don’t land a semi-permanent position with GT after the residency, it’s going to look bad to future potential employers. The effect could be far worse than simply being laid off, because layoffs are blamed on employers, not employees. Also, a fresh-off-the-bar first-year lawyer with no stigma is going to be more attractive to many potential employers that a fresh-off-a-GT-residency second year with the stigma of not making the GT cut.

Unless… Getting Trained is Priceless

The GT program rises or falls, in my opinion, on what training the firm actually delivers. If the training is unique and valuable, then the participants who don’t land a permanent job with GT could have a fantastic professional asset that can make them very attractive to all sorts of future employers.

This American Lawyer article describes the training as a hodgepodge of:

Sitting in on meetings and calls;
Online course with PLI;
Participating in the firm’s standard professional development courses; and
Extra “hands-on learning” with partners.

Is this the type of training that can create demand for “graduates” of GT’s residency program? I’m not so sure. Sitting In and Hands-On Learning with Partners

I’m extremely skeptical of two items on this list: (1) “sitting in” on meetings and calls and (2) extra “hands-on learning” from partners.

“Sitting-in” on meetings and calls simply isn’t training. Observation is always helpful, but you’re not going to get tangible skills from just watching others do it, especially if you’re not really part of the team doing all of the work. As a young associate, I learned a great deal watching exceptional lawyers transform my research or analysis into client counseling or courtroom advocacy or a strong negotiating position, but that was because I knew the substance intimately, so I could appreciate what they were doing. I was participating actively, not just sitting in. From a hiring attorney perspective, I would give candidates zero credit for “sitting in” on meetings and calls.

The notion of extra “hands-on learning” with partners sounds phony to me. Partners may not care about the non-billable time of these residents, but they do care about their own time. I can’t imagine most partners taking “extra” time to provide hands-on learning experiences to temporary first-year associates, when they don’t even invest “extra” time to train ordinary associates. Most partners don’t even give useful, prompt feedback on real work product for real clients – where improvement theoretically has immense value to them. Online Courses

PLI has a lot of content, and a lot of good faculty. There is much knowledge stored within its servers. But the problem I have with CLE generally, in any media, is that it’s mostly a passive learning experience. Similar to much of law school. You sit there and listen to distinguished people lecture blandly about topics that probably interest them more than you. It’s not interactive. You’re not doing, trying, screwing it up, learning what you did wrong, then trying again. You’re not putting knowledge into action. That’s where the training really happens.

And again, from a hiring attorney perspective, I could care less what PLI courses you sat through. What I want to know is how many depositions (even simulated ones) you’ve taken, how many briefs you’ve written, how many times you’ve been mowed down by experienced opposing counsel. Do online PLI courses offer that training? Standard Firm Professional Development

I don’t know anything about GT’s professional development program. It could be stupendous, and if so, the opportunity to participate in it could be extraordinarily valuable to new lawyers. But I worked as an associate at big firms and as a partner at a small boutique firm that hired almost exclusively 2nd, 3rd and 4th year associates from top big firms. The conclusion I draw from that limited experience is that big firm professional development programs are not exceptional. There are some very good modules at some firms, but in general, participating in those programs doesn’t really set you apart from the rest of the field.

If I were interviewing one of the GT residents, I’d want to know what opportunity there was to really practice the skills taught during the program. What chance did you have to actually do the work and have somebody experienced react to your work, critique it, and show you how to make it better? And then what opportunity did you get to do it again? And again? And again? What metrics were used to measure your progress through the training? How much did you improve? In what areas are you really strong? In what areas do you need to focus?

If GT’s program isn’t providing the residents with the answers to these questions, then in my book it’s hardly training, and it’s not that valuable. It certainly wouldn’t cause me, as a potential employer, to look past the stigma of failing to get a permanent spot at the firm.

When GT and other firms promote these programs to new lawyers on the basis of “training,” I hope they really, truly deliver.