PUBLISHED:June 15, 2010

Crafting a new approach to training early-stage associates

“What clients really want is value,” says Gregg Melinson ’89, the chief marketing partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia. But they often don’t see value in the work of junior associates, he adds. “They would rather pay $800 per hour for a senior partner and get the answer they want in 10 minutes than have somebody relatively new to the profession spin their wheels.”

As the economic downturn led many firms to defer start dates for their incoming associates — or even revoke offers — Melinson says his firm looked for opportunities to provide “better value” for clients. “We want to have valuable lawyers that our clients are willing to pay for — and we didn’t see how our clients or our associates would be better served by bringing ill-trained lawyers to the fore a year later. So we decided to invest in our first years instead.”

That investment started by crafting a new deal with the firm’s fall 2009 class of associates. They started, as planned, in September, at a reduced salary. In return, they had no billable-hour requirement for six months as they went through an intensive, three-phase training program. Once their training was complete, the first years’ salaries were adjusted to a market rate based on their location.

Teaching “core competencies” was at the heart of the program’s first phase, says Melinson. “These are the general principles applicable to all of our lawyers. Many have to do with client service, how to comport yourself as an attorney, and how to interact with clients and learn about your client’s business.”

Phase two focused on practice-specific skills, such as learning all the details of mergers and acquisitions or defending a deposition. The third component was client focused.

“It was a process of ‘shadowing’ senior lawyers around to depositions, closings, court hearings, and so on, and just learning by doing — without billing clients,” he says. In several instances, he adds, associates spent time in the clients’ workplaces, “because we’ve learned that the number one thing you can do to bring clients value is understand their business, their competitors, and their industry. That’s at the top of every client’s list.”

Melinson reports that the firm’s training experience has been a resounding success — and will be continued with Drinker Biddle’s fall 2010 class of associates. “We’ve found that both our clients loved it and our first years loved it. We’ve gotten a number of calls and emails from clients saying, ‘We think this is a fantastic idea.’” It has served as a bonding experience for the associates, he notes. “New lawyers have traditionally just jumped into their practice area and started practicing. That can make it hard for them to feel like they’re part of a larger community. This training program helped greatly because for the first six months, these associates are like classmates at Duke.”

Melinson admits that he loves the business side of law-firm practice, which is why he says he’s having “a blast” helping his firm address changes in the legal profession on a number of levels: The firm is teaching all of its attorneys about “matter management;” setting flexible guidelines for alternative-fee arrangements; and actively participating in the “Value Challenge” initiative of the Association of Corporate Counsel, which seeks to realign the cost of legal services with the value clients want.

“Any time there is major change going on, there’s major opportunity, and it’s fun,” he says. “For anybody who puts clients first, this is the perfect storm. It gives them the opportunity to really learn much more about their clients and strengthen and deepen those relationships.”