Associate Professional Development Programs In Large Law Firms: 5 Features The Best Programs Have

5 Features The Best Programs Have

Most law firms are now taking more the initiative to bolster and add more features to their professional development programs.  These programs are in place to develop young associates into attorneys who can be law firm partners.  In the past, the term “law firm professional development” meant briefly providing orientation training to new lawyers so they can possess the necessary legal skills to survive in a firm. Now, however, no longer are these programs about lawyers getting by in the firm.  Rather, the goal is to have young lawyers excel and provide outstanding service to the firm and the client.  Moreover, from a management perspective, improved associate development programs are important as they serve as a way for a firm to stand out from its peer firms – firms with well-rounded associate development programs often win the competition for outstanding law school talent.

Indeed, from the associate perspective, a law firm’s professional development program should be an important factor to consider before he or she accepts a permanent offer. If robust and substantial, the type of training an associate receives will either bring opportunities for advancement or will reflect areas for improvement.

Regardless, whether you are an associate or a member of law firm management, the following are five characteristics that an effective associate development program should have:

1. Legal education is life-long.

Education is a life-long pursuit and learning never ends for any attorney.  A successful professional development program manages learning and legal skills development across all levels – from associates to partners.  However, the skills for a new associate are different than that of a partner.  Associates are learning attorney skills to be a great lawyer and are learning specifics in their practice area.  Associate professional development programs cover those skills and provide benchmarks for practice development and evaluation.

Moreover, there is a common misconception that once a lawyer becomes a partner, he or she can be left alone and does not need to learn anymore. This is not the case. A partner does not know everything, though, sometimes, he or she may think so.  As a result, often, more senior programing includes leadership training and emotional intelligence training.  Accordingly, the best law firms are continually shaping their development programs so the programs cater to lawyers at any point in their careers.

2. Legal training is individualized.

The best training is a personalized experience and is based upon title and skill level. At a top firm, the appropriate kind of training is given to each level of the lawyer hierarchy.  A new associate may need help with his or her writing and time management skills. On the other end of the spectrum, a well-established partner might need to get a firm grip on advanced leadership techniques and strategic thinking.

3. Legal professional development is full-time and must rely on proven teaching methods.

A successful program has the firm’s full commitment.  That means the firm has dedicated personnel and monetary resources to the program’s success.  In the firms with the best programs, usually, there is a full-time staff (attorney experts and/or adult education specialists) devoted to improving and managing the professional development program.

Additionally, along with partner input, the practice development administrator will craft a program that has substantial practice learning skills experiences.  According to adult learning theory, adults learn best by performing a task, not listening to it. Therefore, interactive learning components will create opportunities for development for a younger lawyer. Typically, the lawyers are made into teams and handed over litigation or transactional assignments.  Often partners teach these assignments through the Socratic-style approach; and occasionally, these sessions are recorded on video so that the associates can review them further and practice specific skills.

4. Live practice experience is key!

Another tell-all sign that the firm is committed to the professional development program is when there is a great effort to establish a connection between formal knowledge and workplace learning.  This endeavor can be seen through mentoring, the coordination of assignments, and increased hands-on learning opportunities.  Furthermore, a firm can provide additional opportunities for these practice experiences as they encourage their associates to become leaders in community projects. The associates’ experiences outside the office (through bar associations, community groups, non-profit organizations, etc.) can substantially impact their progress at work (Wasserman).

5. Law firm associate development programs provide transparency into the associate evaluation process.

The program’s design should be formed in such a way that it easily achieves the firm’s essential business objectives. For instance, client development skills can prove to be useful for firms over the long term.  Each law firm deals with different sorts of clients and specializes in different legal practice areas. Therefore, the training program should reflect the firm’s practices and help to increase exposure to the firm’s associate skill level expectations.


Works Cited

Wasserman, Marcia Watson. “How Large Law Firms Are Leading the Way.” ABA-Associate Development. American Bar Association, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.



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Does your firm have a great associate development program?  Would you like some help in working through these tips with your own associate development strategies?  If so, contact a Career Counselor with Lexacount Search’s Career Consulting Services.  Or, if you are interested in learn more about open finance and accounting industry opportunities, contact a Search Consultant from Lexacount Search’s Finance Group.  Or, if you are a lawyer or legal assistant, learn more about open legal industry opportunities with a Search Consultant from Lexacount Search’s Legal Group.


Jacqueline Hill, Esq.

This post was written by .

Jacqueline Hill is a partner at Lexacount Search, where she places top senior-level and other legal talent with law firms and corporate legal departments across the United States. She has been writing about careers, lawyers, attorney professional development, and the legal industry for more than a decade. She can be reached at or 215-740-0104, extension 101.

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