train associates

 

An associate’s development is critical to any law firm’s growth. Just as good parenting requires a certain skill set and knowledge, training an associate to become a productive leader in a law firm requires the same.

Here are six effective ways to train associates to become productive leaders:

Teach them the value of a calm mind.
“Pressure—changes everything, pressure. Some people, you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold.” – Al Pacino’s character as “The Devil” in The Devil’s Advocate.

A calm mind is a strong mind. It perseveres under pressure. To teach an associate the value of a calm mind, they must first see you exhibit calmness under pressure. Be deliberate and calculated in your decision-making process even when faced with adversity. Speak with your associates about how your developed your thought process into executable action. Also, let them see the dangers of anger or other unhealthy emotions during the decision-making process. They will eventually see this, and perhaps often, in your opponents or opposing counsels, and they’ll learn how those people make mistakes in judgment because of it.

Lastly, have them walk you through their own decision-making process when faced with adversity.  Human beings are instinctively emotional, and logic does not come naturally to most. So when adversity strikes, your associate can walk you through the thought process before he or she comes to a conclusion. That way, you can help them remain calm.

Answer questions with a question.
It is easy to answer a question. The challenge is pausing, asking the questioner what he or she thinks, and then delving into follow-up questions until that person finds the answer themselves. Socrates may tell you the associate had the answer all along. It just needed to come out of them. This style, coined maieutics, trains your associate to truly analyze. So, when your associate asks a question, ask “What do you think we should do?”

Nurture and build their idealism.
Of all I write here, this will be the most difficult because it necessitates you to have that same idealism. If your view on the law practice has become cynical and purely business-like, you have lost something important. However, if you still believe the legal profession is a noble one where good people can make a significant positive difference in others’ lives, it is incumbent upon you to teach your younger colleagues how to nurture that idealism.

In my so far 21-year legal career, I have found what works best is leading by example. There are many examples I could give you but to name two:

  • When young associates see you treat your adversaries with respect while at all times remaining a zealous advocate, they learn that respect and advocacy are not mutually exclusive.
  • When our associates see me turn away a prospective client that comes to us with a case that may have proven very profitable for the firm, but the client’s objectives were inconsistent with doing right and being reasonable, they recognize this firm is not money first. Nothing comes before integrity in our profession.

Teach them to pay attention to detail.
They must learn that proofreading matters. It starts from the left corner of the page through the bottom right. Every word they speak to a client matters. We do not speak in jargon or talk for the sake of talking. Care with billing and time management matters. We treat their money with the care expected of a fiduciary.

I can give you many examples of where attention to detail is often lost with young attorneys. It is your job as a mentor to teach just how critical such attention is and help them understand its role in growth. Until they develop it, they cannot become truly great lawyers in any area of law.

Make your strengths their strengths.
You have some strengths. Perhaps it is your writing or oral advocacy. Perhaps it is your people management skills. Whatever your strength is, teach it to your associates. Take the time to sit down and discuss it with them, and help them develop your habits until eventually they are able to perfect them to suit their own style. If you do not pass this to your associates, you do them a disservice.

Give them the tools to turn their weaknesses into strengths.
It may not come across immediately, but eventually you will find each associate has a merit unique to him or her. I have one associate whose work ethic and intensity is her greatest strength. I have another whose outward calmness under pressure puts everyone around her at ease. I have a third who possesses excellent people skills, and his ability to have others see the big picture and agree with the position he advocates is one of the best I have seen. But each of my associates also have traits in their practice of law that have not reached its potential.

How do I turn their weaknesses into strengths? I constantly make them work on it. The learning process never stops and therefore the teaching process must not relent. What they do not enjoy doing in the practice of law that is a necessity to growth, they must learn to enjoy. What they are good at is not good enough. Whether it is through one-on-one training, seminars or an intentional delegation of tasks to help them develop their weaknesses into strengths will vary from one person to another. In my experience, it is often a combination.

Train and teach them to become mentors.
Train and teach young associates as you wish you were trained and taught. If you had a great mentor bring you along, use his or her example and be even better. Just as we raise our children to become great citizens and eventually parents, we should do the same with our associates if we expect them to be our firm’s ongoing legacy. Someday, they too will be mentors—and they’ll be great ones because they learned from you.

B. Robert Farzad is the president of Farzad Family Law, APC, that is based in Orange County, California. He has been a California licensed attorney since June of 1996 and helped grow his multi-attorney and multi-office firm from the ground up. Please note, this article is not intended to be legal advice or any other type of advice.