Law Firm Associate Professional Development Programs: 10 Features That The Best Programs Have


When new lawyers begin the first day of work at their law firms, they will ideally have a solid understanding of the law from law school and the bar, but, they do not always have a clear understanding what practicing law entails at a big law firm.  As a result, recently, large law firms have begun to develop associate practice skills to ensure their long-term success.  Moreover, even the most promising junior lawyers are in need of practicing new skills and honing old skills if they are to prosper long-term in the profession.  In support of this skill refinement and to provide their newest talents with the necessary information and skills, many law firms offer professional development programs (Gibson: “The Secrets of Effective Associate Development Programs”). Naturally, these programs will vary in their objectives and effectiveness, but below are the ten elements that an effective development program should have.

  1. The best programs involve everybody in the firm as a whole — the partners and associates.

According to K. William Gibson of the American Bar Association’s Law Practice: The Business of Practicing Law, a successful development program is not created by accident. To complete its job and be of value to the associates and the firm, all participants must work proactively to make it happen. This requires participation from just about everybody. First, before a firm can implement an effective program, the firm should understand what its objectives are and how it wants its associates to develop skills and work with clients. Next, the associates should do more than passively complete the program step by step without challenging themselves. Instead, they should strive to get all of their questions answered, have precise and realistic goals in mind for themselves, and be willing to work toward those goals for the duration of the program and their associateship. Finally, the partners, working in conjunction with the administrators of the program, will have a structure in mind for the program tailored specifically to the needs of the firm.

  1. The best programs will offer some form of one-on-one mentorship.

Ideally, all participants will set personal goals for themselves and meet with the program’s coaches/mentors to discuss their progress, concerns, and career goals moving forward.

  1. The best programs will actively try to build relationships.

One-on-one mentorship will not be fully effectively unless both associates and the partners work to make their relationships meaningful. But, relationship development goes beyond even this. A successful program will promote the relationship building and strengthening beyond its own scope. After completing the program, the associates should have the tools to build and maintain a productive relationship within the firm and with clients (Gibson: “The Secrets of Effective Associate Development Programs”).

  1. The best programs are run by administers who understand the legal market and are willing to go beyond the demands of the program to ensure lasting benefits.

A successful program will ideally have all its pieces in place before launch. Typically, professional development administrators will facilitate this process.  These administrators are not only capable leaders but also knowledgeable about legal work as a whole. In other words, administers, usually attorneys, should be versatile, able to complete every task from training new lawyers how to succeed long-term to conducting research on the firm as a whole to ensure its administrative health and its awareness of its role in the legal market (Gibson).

  1. The best programs will aim to help the associates develop and refine practical skills that will serve them well throughout their career.

While programs may vary in their ultimate objectives, a successful program should set out to increase participants’ mastery in at least two or three concrete areas. Such skills may include anything from effective writing and communication, to management and operation of the firm, to dealing with clients in a professional and approachable manner (Gibson). In any case, the program should have clear objectives and should train participants in ways that will apply to the everyday demands of their work.

  1. The best programs will use a range of activities and exercises to test associates’ skills and help them acclimate to the demands of the legal profession.

A successful program will not only be rigorous and practical, it will also be diverse. There may be writing assignments, group projects and exercises, one-on-one conferences with coaches, and more. Regardless, the program should do more than just require the associates to sit and listen to somebody talk at them.

  1. The best programs will allow participants to make their own goals, reach them, and adjust them accordingly throughout the program.

Most effective programs will be interactive and goal-centered, meaning that the associates will be able to measure his or her personal progress according to their own expectations, as well as the firm’s associate goals and objectives.

  1. The best programs will offer some objective means for associates to track their progress over time.

Most new lawyers who are driven and ready to start their careers have goals, but few may have a substantial way to measure their progress toward said goals. A successful development program will ideally offer tools for the associates to not only devise their own goals, but also to track their progress with the skills that the firm expects them to have.

  1. The best programs are designed to show how they can relate to a new lawyer’s career.

All good programs will offer practical exercises to help the associates understand how to practice law effectively, but the great programs show how each exercise and the program as a whole will benefit the individual and the firm.

  1. The best programs teach associates and partners how to balance life with work.

Perhaps the most important practical skill of all is learning how to cope with job-related stress while still leading a healthy and fulfilling life. A successful program will put emphasize the importance of balance.


Works Cited

Gibson, K. William. “First Years: The Secrets of Effective Associate Development Programs.” Law Practice Management. The American Bar Association, n.d. Web. 18 Aug. 2015.


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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