Can Law-Firm Associates Learn to Govern?

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By David Cruickshank

Many firms have gone beyond the usual training diet of substantive law and ethics to offer management and business-development skills for associates. One of the next challenges is to learn law-firm governance. But is this a topic for associate training, and does it matter?

From our consulting engagements we know that firms of all sizes have significant problems with governance. Some problems are structural – the over-sized executive committee, for example. Other problems stem from an absence of skilled leadership or a clear understanding of a partner’s role in governance. Firms that take a long view, as they do with business development, should consider the case for teaching associates to govern this firm, or another, when they become partners.

It’s Already Happening

Right now, the closest that most associates come to contributing to governance is during recruitment season. Many sit on a recruitment committee or are part of on-campus interviewing and selection decisions. Associates may also contribute to talent evaluations. They may be formal mentors. However, the gate closes when it comes to decisions on promotion or “managing out.”

Associates can make contributions to professional development. I have worked with associate committees in planning in-house training or retreats. This involves a committee that does more than choose the retreat entertainment and menus. They help the professional-development team design the entire retreat. Working with an outside consultant on management-skills training will mean direct contact with that consultant and conversations about content tailored to their needs. They may ask for certain partners to be speakers (not always those that management would choose). In my experience, engagement with an associate planning committee is win-win. The outside expert gets to know a few of them through advance meetings, and you lower the risk of missing the skills they feel are needed.

Another opportune time to learn governance is in training on the firm’s finances. The most transparent firms train associates on how the firm makes money, then follow it up with midlevel and senior associate training on the firm’s financial statements, profitability and revenue projections. On making partner, there is no “cliff” to leap over in understanding the levers of profitability and how you must contribute to the firm’s success.

The Case Against Governance Training

The common arguments against developing “governance competence” are:

  • “We only need a few leaders, and they will emerge as natural leaders.”
  • “Why train associates who will not make partner and will depart.”
  • “The more they get involved in our governance, the more they will want decision-making power (that should be left to partners and senior staff).”
  • “They are too inexperienced to know what to do with the training.”

The Long-Term Payoff

The case for greater associate competence in governance begins with decision-making. If associates sit on committees, they should not be window-dressing. Along with partners, they should help with decisions on recruitment, diversity, pro bono, training, advancement and early business development. Down the road, I even envision associates on a finance committee. Once they can contribute to decisions, their incentive for getting training and experience is elevated. As for the “naturally selected few” argument, the response is to increase the pool of future partners leaders by developing the breadth of their governance competence. And if they leave? They will be ambassadors and leaders in client companies, government, public-interest and other firms.

Latham Watkins knows the payoff. It is widely seen as a very well governed firm. They train associates in governance and give them a place to apply the lessons. For years, they have had a firm-wide Associates Committee (about 50 members, a mixture of associates, counsel and partners). That committee makes decisions on training, recruitment priorities, advancement of associates, and even on who should be put up for partner. Latham Watkins has never retreated from the view that trained and informed associates will do the right thing, will make the firm stronger and will create competent future partners.