Edge International

Associate Advancement and Client Dissatisfaction

David Cruickshank

Is your firm aware of client dissatisfaction with the way your associates are developed and advanced? The signals of dissatisfaction are all around us, yet most firms just manage the symptoms, without restructuring their associate talent development model. Your firm can get ahead of this problem with a solution that leading firms have adopted – a “levels and promotion” system.

What are the signs of client dissatisfaction? One clear complaint from clients is that “We’re paying for first-year associates to be trained.” In frustration, many corporate counsel have simply banned first-year associates from appearing on any bill.

Another complaint is that associate billing rates go up each year according to the seniority of the associate. The client sees no connection between another year on the job and advanced competency. In other professional services organizations and the client’s company, advancement results from increased competency and promotion over one’s peers. Clients rightly complain, “Why are we paying a higher hourly rate for a fourth-year associate just because they are a year older?” This leads clients to demand a contradictory regulation of their bills: “Push work down to more junior associates.”

Selling the First-Year Associate

Instead of capitulating to client “bans” on first-year associates, firms can respond in two ways. One is to provide intensive training, at firm expense, in the summer program and the first three months of the associate’s full time job. Summer programs can improve what associates already do reasonably well – research and writing. What they lack are hands-on client assignments and intensive supervision. Leading firms also develop competency standards for legal analysis and writing. They provide one-on-one outside coaching for some. Firms like Skadden and Milbank demonstrate what can be done in the first year. They have external training programs, matched with firm assignments that bring first years “up to speed” more quickly in performing valuable tasks.

A second response is to develop data on the relative cost of a trained first year doing a legal task like “writing a diligence report,” compared to a second or third year. However, we need to know the average time and cost for that task at each level. Is it really true that a third year can perform a task in half the time of a trained first year? If firms can demonstrate that a competent result can be achieved on a task at a lower total rate, why should it matter that the first year spent 80% of the time on the task and a supervising third year spent 20% of the time?

Many clients are still not convinced – based mostly on anecdotal evidence. So they stick with the first-year ban. That’s why firms that have upfront training and the data to support the cost of legal tasks have an advantage. They can sell the client on using a first year because of both competence and costs.

Levels and Promotion, not Just Seniority

Levels and promotions systems for associates have been around for about ten years, but they have not penetrated firms outside the AmLaw Top 50 to a great degree. Orrick was one of the first firms to adopt such a system, and despite “being different” when they go into the recruiting market, they have not retreated.

In brief, how do these talent-advancement systems work? First, they are based on competency more than seniority. Firms develop explicit competency statements and standards, both in broad legal skills (e.g., writing, communications, analysis) and in practices (e.g., facility with practice-specific documents). Associates are then evaluated according to competencies, not just years on the job. There are specific levels of advancement and one gets promoted at several levels of increased skill and knowledge. The promotion levels will sound familiar: Junior Associate to Midlevel Associate; Midlevel to Senior Associate; and sometimes Senior Associate to Counsel or Income Partner.

Why is this different from a seniority system? The difference is that the highly competent junior lawyers can advance faster, despite a lack of seniority. An associate with 2.5 years of experience can become a Midlevel. An associate with 5-6 years may become a Senior. And it cuts both ways. An associate who is not progressing through the competencies will be held back. So a third or fourth year might still be titled a Junior Associate and paid accordingly.

These systems take time and expertise to establish in the first place, and ongoing investment by the lawyers to evaluate and promote their lawyers. But when it comes time to raise the billing rates of their associates, leading firms have an answer that their corporate clients understand. “On July 1, Jill’s billing rate will increase because she got a promotion to Midlevel Associate.” The firm will educate their clients on the competencies that Jill has attained and will celebrate her formal promotion. Clients see this type of advancement in other professional services and in their own backyards. They will be sold and the dissatisfaction irritant will go away. Beyond that, Jill’s firm should have a competitive advantage.

Tailored Talent Supervision

David Cruickshank

While working with counsel at a top global firm recently, I asked them: “What is your best tip for supervising associates?” I received some terrific ideas, but one that stood out was this from a transactional lawyer: “I ask them what they need from me.” This counsel had turned the normal supervision wisdom upside down. Instead of assuming that the senior lawyer knows best, he wanted to know what actually worked best.

If you are a partner or senior enough to be supervising associates, it is not that easy to adopt the wisdom of “tailored talent supervision.” You may have several associates and little time. Associates come and go – from your matters and your firm – so it may be frustrating to invest in more individualized attention. And even if you go down this path, the associates may not be frank with you in asking questions or giving you feedback. Here are some thoughts on how you might move from “standard supervision” to tailored supervision.

First, the senior lawyer needs fundamental skills in delegation, ongoing supervision and feedback. Furthermore, skilled supervisors pay attention to ongoing career development of their team members. Many law firms now teach these skills, but if necessary, seek an outside program. For example, if you do not have a core delegation system or a well-conceived approach to feedback, you will not have a base from which to customize your talent management. You want to acquire the full Swiss Army knife first, then use the right tools.

As each associate gets better with your assigned legal tasks, you will use a lighter touch. You’ll have fewer check-ins. Perhaps you’ll delegate with more shorthand. In my own training program on delegation skills, we discuss “situational delegation”. But how do you know when you are supervising at too high or too low a level for the tasks and the individual?

I recommend a conversation with each of your associates, using some recent delegated tasks as examples. Some of these tasks should be recently completed, but one or two can be in progress. Your goal in this conversation should be to find out what each associate needs. However, if you ask a broad question, like “How is my delegation and supervision going?” most associates will play safe and say “fine.” Instead, try narrower questions that are harder to duck. Here is an effective series of questions.

“I am trying to tailor the way I delegate work, supervise and give you feedback. I want to have some of our recent assignments in mind, including at least one that is ongoing. Thinking of those assignments:

  1. Has there been enough clarity in my delegations so that you do not have to ask many later questions – to me or others?
  2. Thinking of my supervision or your matters, am I sufficiently (a) available to you, and (b) responsive in a reasonable time?
  3. On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is very “hands off” and 10 is very “close” supervision, where would you rank my ongoing supervision?  Follow up: Are there situations where you need me to lean to less or more supervision?
  4. While I cannot give you feedback on all your tasks, is my feedback to you (a) timely (within two weeks of completed work) (b) specific enough to help you develop you future skills?”

The answers to these questions should lead to a summary of your listening back to the associate: “From what you are saying, you need me to….”

Then make your own bullet point notes and strive to follow those needs in your future delegation, supervision and feedback. But after a year, the tailoring will have to be updated and you should revisit this conversation with each associate.