New Lawyers and the New Normal
by Paul Paton

What a time to be starting off as a new associate! The journey is always a combination of excitement and trepidation, but now more than ever it's going to take new skills, a new mindset, and some real gumption to thrive. The Class of 2013 is facing a revolution — not only in technology, but in the way that legal services are being delivered. And that means being attuned to the economic imperative driving firms (and how you fit into this new order).

While the situation for law firms in Canada hasn't been nearly as dire as in the US, globalization has made us all more sensitive to economic shocks felt abroad. Consider what happened to Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Three months ago, the venerable New York-based firm announced that it was laying off 60 associates (7 per cent of its total), reducing partner compensation for about 30 of its 300 partners, and laying off 110 of its staff (about half of them legal secretaries).

The firm's executive chairman, Barry Wolf, wrote that the “market for premium legal services is continuing to shrink,” and that “actions to enhance revenue alone will not be sufficient to position the firm as necessary for these new market conditions.”

So what does this mean for a first-year associate? First off, appreciate the business imperative behind the professional work you're about to engage in. Racking up billable hours isn't just a contest — it's a way to demonstrate value and commitment to the firm. That word – value – is especially important. How are you adding value to the work the firm is doing for a client?

As Grover Cleveland (author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer, not the dead president) has noted, it used to be an “unspoken pact” that clients would pick up the tab for new associate hours, effectively paying for their on-the-job training. No more. If the work you're docketing is being billed to a client, the client is perfectly entitled to ask what value you've added to the transaction or work being done.

Second, look at every assignment as an opportunity to build your “skills inventory,” and seek out ones that will give you a long list. Canadian law schools train you well to analyze, to research, and to sort out the legal issues. Internships, summer positions and clinical experiences can help ground you in client interviewing and basic transaction essentials, but these are usually a fairly gentle introduction. As a new associate, the tempo changes — think of trying to take a sip of water from a fire hose. Up your game, and find out what you can learn from every new file.

Understand that, while you might be undertaking work that your med-school friends describe as “scut,” there's a purpose to it. Learn what that purpose is — ask where it fits within the overall scope of the transaction or litigation. Keep learning, stay nimble and you'll be ready for whatever the “new normal” becomes.

Third, remember that reputation (and being ethical) matters. This isn't just me preaching as an ethics prof — there's a practical dimension to it as well. While the firms may seem large and easy to get lost in, the Canadian legal profession is still a relatively small community. The lawyers you work with (or against) on a file in your first years of practice will be the ones you encounter years later and from whom you may need a favour or some compassionate understanding — and memories are long. Temper confidence with humility.

It'd be so easy to dismiss a lot of this as yet more sermonizing, but those associates scrambling the morning after the Weil, Gotshal memo may be facing the first instance in their careers where they haven't succeeded. It'll be what they bring to the table in the dark hours that will determine how they'll move forward, no matter how well they did in law school. Here's hoping someone offered them the lessons – and that they listened – before the morning after.

Paul Paton is a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California. He can be reached at ppaton@pacific.edu.