New associates or graduate lawyers follow a long and mostly arduous path through the university and local law society systems before they can join a law firm. They arrive at their first law firm with mixed feelings of excitement, trepidation and uncertainty, but mostly they are yearning to learn the ropes and do well.
As a law firm leader, you can play a significant role in helping them to find their feet. What I am suggesting is, instead of leaving their initial settling in solely to your human resources staff, make time to meet with them as early as their first day or two.
If you decide to follow this path, it does need quite a lot of thought and preparation. Can I suggest the following items be borne in mind? As space does not allow for lengthy descriptions, I have set this out as something of a checklist:
- Learn their names in advance of the meeting – you will pleasantly surprise them;
- Briefly tell them about the firm, its culture and guiding principles, its direction and your vision and strategic key objectives for the firm, with a smattering of war stories and anecdotes to give them a feel for the heart and soul of the firm.
- Next-up, do some listening:
- What outside, creative interests do each of them have – music, painting, photography, design, dance, etc.? Encourage them to nurture these, and no matter how busy they get not to drop them;
- What interests do they have in particular industry or business sectors? They should be encouraged to nurture these and to try to link them into the work they do. Wherever they end up working in the firm, they should nevertheless maintain these interests and expand them.
- Ask them – don’t tell them – what they think makes an effective lawyer in practice, then suggest some things for them to think about:
- They will probably surprise you with their responses to the initial enquiry;
- They should think about accessibility, responsiveness and reliability, and be meticulous about achieving these bedrock behaviours. They are at the core of every successful lawyer;
- They should understand ethics and principles of fair play, and not venture outside firm guidelines on these;
- They should show respect for and an interest in others (especially secretarial staff who, certainly at the outset, will know more than they do about many practical aspects of law) and helping others succeed;
- They need to understand from day one that they will be developing their personal or individual brands:
- At the outset, they must understand that their brand is not what they think, but what other individuals think and feel about them individually. Every interaction they have with individuals, inside and outside the firm, will influence this brand. It will ultimately determine their success or failure in practice;
- They should be encouraged to develop an understanding of their own strengths, weaknesses and values. What will they tolerate and what will they not tolerate? Outside this, they will need to learn to stand up to people. Ideally, they want to end up at a firm which has similar values and guiding principles to their own;
- They should be encouraged to view the Simon Sinek presentation on YouTube to develop an understanding of their own “why” – i.e. why are they wanting to be in legal practice?
- They must understand that the most important foundational element for a strong personal brand is trust in them by other individuals within and outside their firm.
- They should take an interest in firm initiatives like strategy. They might even get a chance to play a role on a strategy task force;
- There are many skills and styles of thinking, behaving and interaction outside of law which could well assist them in practice:
- EQ or emotional intelligence is far more important for their success than raw, innate intelligence. They could be referred to Travis Bradberry’s website and book on the subject;
- They should become completely technology-literate, including in such areas as project management, word processing, dictation, search, spread-sheeting, etc.;
- They should be social-media literate;
- They need writing, speaking and communication skills;
- They should nurture a growth mindset. In this area, they could be referred to the work by Carol Dweck;
- They should have a framework of what good leadership skills look like;
- From the outset, they should develop good rituals. They could be referred to the writings of Tony Schwartz on this subject;
- There are many more. You and your group may have some more ideas not covered here.
As will be appreciated, the success or otherwise of new lawyers is not so much about brainpower, although of course this helps. Many of the things mentioned above overlap with and support one another. By engaging with them upfront you and the firm are showing them you value them and respect them – and this is a very good start and confidence-builder for them.
I suggest that initiating a conversation with new associates or graduate lawyers will be one of your most important and rewarding discussions of the year. For their part, it has every chance of influencing their time in the legal profession for many years to come.