On the Job Training and Mentorship: Economics v. Social Responsibility
When we talk about the economy and jobs on this site, one of the things that often comes up is the reality or the perception that employers are not interested in doing on the job training anymore.
Jaybird frequently mentioned that when he started out in his career, he did not know anything but his employer was willing to given him on the job training for a period of being paid a somewhat lower salary. Jaybird is not the only person to morn the death of on the job training and mentorship. Older lawyers will often wax nostalgic about all the mentorship and training they were given as freshly-minted attorneys. My legal ethics professor said that when she started out, associates at her firm were assigned a partner as a mentor. The mentor would review everything the associate wrote line by line and give suggestions, improvements, etc. There was a book that came out a few years ago that mentioned the same thing. The author (I can’t remember his name or the name of the book sadly), said that when he was starting out, a senior partner threw him a small little project for a client. The client was pleased by the author’s work and this helped start the author’s career. The rest of the book was largely waxing nostalgic that stuff like this does not happen anymore.
I don’t remember the author writing about how he returned the favor when he became the senior partner.
In contrast, today’s law firms are moving legal operations and many low-level attorney tasks to West Virginia to reduce costs.
In the article, a senior partner makes this observation about hiring lawyers in West Virginia to do the everyday tasks: “Instead of hiring a $130,000-a-year new lawyer, we get these people for less than half that number.”
What the partner is not saying that these attorneys might have been spent their first few years doing routine and everyday matters but they would eventually and certainly move-up the chain and been allowed to handle more complex matters like depositions, motions and briefs before courts, second chairing at trial, first chairing at trial, maybe bringing business of their own, negotiations, arbitration, settlement conferences, etc.
Instead the firms made an entirely rational economic decision that the best policy to send basic routine services to West Virginia and have staff attorneys handle these positions without advancing in the firm. These non-partner track positions are the legal equivalent of being an adjunct or non-tenure track lecturer. 65,000 dollars a year plus benefits might or might not be a good salary for West Virginia. I have never been. I also don’t know how many looking for look lawyers are moving to West Virginia for these positions.
There is a tension though and a bit of a collective action problem though. Lots of lawyers miss the days of on-the-job training and mentorship but they can’t be the ones who risk losing clients to train lawyers. So where are lawyers and others going to be trained? Law School is notorious for being a vocational school masquerading as a graduate school. First year law students learn how to write a brief for a court of appeals even though this is something that most lawyers will not do until many years into their career if ever. A more practical legal education would probably consist of a lot of hypotheticals along with the substantive law. You would have mock depositions, mock case management conferences, mock settlement conferences, mock law in motion and brief writing, mock discovery requests, etc. You would not have a mock argument in front of an imaginary Court of Appeals or Supreme Court. You would also have mock sessions on how to decide between a good case and a bad case. When to take a client and when to refuse a client. All of this would drive law professors nuts because they want to be academics, not teachers of craft.
I am not sure what the solution to this problem is but I do see a tension between the desire for on the job training and the economic realization that on the job training can cut seriously into the bottom line. I am pretty sure that someone would take an 65,000-80,000 dollar salary to work as an associate at a law firm of any size and get the training to do stuff beyond the routine but the law firms seem to consider this not worth the effort to even make it an offer.