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The Tragedy of Associate Professional Development

Every law firm partner I've ever talked to wants to have ready, skilled associates to support them. They know that having a deep bench of talent means filling work assignment needs is easier, client service is delivered more efficiently, and they (the partners) can focus their time on growing and grooming their book of business. But many of the same partners who want talented associates are the ones who 'don't have time' to mentor their associates or provide opportunities for them to learn, develop, and practice new skills. Associate professional development is fine, they say, but 'not on my time.'

Associate professional development is a classic 'commons' problem. They are a shared resource that everyone benefits from, but no one* wants to care for. *And, yes, I know that there are some people looking out for associates. Your professional development team most of all, but other partners, DEI professionals, and the like. But too many of your partners don't care, and that's a problem.

Not only does it lead to the slow development of your team and greater challenges in efficiently meeting client needs, it also business and culture costs. Associates working in an environment where their development isn't a priority (or even on the radar) of the partners they're working with will feel less loyalty to the firm and less enthusiasm for their work. Well-being will suffer, and that will amplify negative culture and will have reputational effects for the firm. Without a culture that supports associate development, they are likely to leave when they finally do develop the skills that make them useful. This is why poaching laterals is successful and why firms lose so many associates at years four and five. Losing associates costs you money, and recruiting mid- to senior-year associates costs you money.

Wouldn't that money (and time) be better spent investing it in your current crop of soon-to-be mid- and senior-year associates. Give them a reason to be excited about the firm. Give them a reason to feel some commitment to the firm. Give them a reason to keep billing for you rather than taking their talent (once they've finally scraped together enough experience) to someone else.

You can change the experience for your associates by developing a culture of support. This is broader than just mentorship (as I wrote about here), though mentorship is an important component. This is about strengthening leadership in your trial teams, your practice groups, and across your firm. Start grooming and growing your associates, and everyone wins.



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