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Small Firm's Associates "Struggle;" Two-Thirds Get Fired?

By Brian Kumnick on April 07, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
A column in last week's Washington Post jobs section (the longer, online-only version is here) continues to generate reactions from legal bloggers and commenters, who weigh in on the difficulties of hiring and retaining associates at smaller firms.

In the column, employment law and human-resources counselor Lily Garcia offered guidance to a "middle manager" at a small firm concerned about their high turnover rate for new associates.  The writer claimed that two out of every three new hires failed to last one year:

The pattern is always the same: The associate is hired on, struggles with his hours for the first few months, then over a few more months develops problems maintaining a responsible level of contact with clients, next they struggle with deadlines, and finally when the partners and I are at wits end the associate pretty much stops working, stops billing and becomes a professional liability.

Garcia's advice -- communicate clearly about job requirements, evaluate candidates' skills impassively, and be prepared to train and mentor -- might prove useful to a firm which, in Above the Law's succinct view, "has a terrible eye for talent."  At the ABA Journal, the story generated a flurry of comments, with some commenters heartily endorsing the ATL view that poor management is to blame; others, though, seized upon the notion that newly-minted lawyers, with their distinct lack of practical skills, could be the problem.

Yesterday, Villanova law professor James Edward Maule took time to expand on Garcia's advice from the distinct perspective of a legal practitioner.  Maule's suggestions include heavy emphasis on training and mentoring, necessities, he says, in light of law schools' collective failure to instill actual lawyering skills in their students:

[E]ven though they have graduated from law school, they are novices at almost everything they try to do. . . . Until law schools revamp their curricula and teaching methods, prepare yourself to do a good bit of training and to make little money during the associate's first year with the firm.

Is this a straightforward problem of firm management, of simply identifying associates who would fit best and overseeing them properly?  Or are newly-graduated attorneys an impossible  liability for a small firm, bringing little more to the table than advanced study skills and law-review credentials?

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