The legal industry is facing a crisis of undertrained junior associates. It’s no secret that remote work and fewer in-person interactions over the last three years have skewed junior lawyers’ understanding of expectations, and more importantly, their practical knowledge of foundational legal work. As the world continues to become more digitized and more law firm clients voice their concerns about the training gap, the legal industry needs to adapt by upskilling and reskilling its junior workforce.
In this blog, we discuss the factors that have led to the current training challenge, the implications of undertrained junior associates, and the need for bridging the training gap to ensure the industry's future success.
Flashbacks from the Great Recession: A Blow to Training
The Great Recession saw law firms laying off many junior lawyers, particularly in practices like real estate. Four years later, firms found themselves lacking qualified mid-level lawyers as the market rebounded. The COVID-19 pandemic, while not causing as many layoffs, has similarly left law firms with three years’ worth of undertrained associates. The odd thing about the phenomena this time around is that pandemic-era junior lawyers were busier than many when it came to the amount of substantive work they handled amid a big spike in demand. So what happened?
It is easy to make a general statement that 2020-2023 junior associates simply missed out on three years of crucial in-office exposure. Therefore, they did not get what they’d normally get to support their professional development. However, that does not pinpoint or explain what was specifically lacking—a cohesive system or environment that constantly provided training, guidance, and, most importantly, feedback.
Because let’s face it, when you are on back-to-back Zoom meetings, it’s hard to carve out the time to review and provide feedback on an associate’s assignment. Chances are even slimmer that a junior associate on the other end would reach out for a Zoom call to ask questions about an assignment they are working on. In a shared physical environment such as an office, these activities, while still challenging, are easier to naturally make happen.
Undertrained Junior Associates: Impact and Concerns
In-house counsel and clients are starting to share their concerns. In a recent article by law.com, one leader shares that “the lawyers were simply not trained to the level [they] would typically expect.” Another said, “third- to fifth-years were instead equivalent to second- or third-years,” showing the problem doesn’t just impact the newest lawyers in a firm.
The potential impact of this phenomenon can be seen in real dollars, as clients look for reasons to reduce their legal spend and reliance on outside counsel. Some firms are having flashbacks to the Great Recession, when clients heavily scrutinized their legal bills and made it clear to firms that they did not want to train junior associates on their dime. Moreover, the concern affects hiring and marketability, with some law firms more inclined to hire lawyers who had in-office experience before the pandemic.
Law Schools and Law Firms: Failing to Fill the Gap
It’s no surprise that law schools have largely been unable to anticipate and adapt to the rapidly changing legal environment, resulting in a deep learning gap within legal education. Traditional curricula focus on learning case law and/or passing the bar exam - none of it practical for tackling real world assignments. Law firms, on the other hand, have seen a decline in training opportunities due to increased pressure on partners to bring in business and bill. As a result, at no fault of the partners, the training programs that do exist are often outdated and insufficient for equipping new attorneys with the necessary practical skills.
Bridging the Training Gap: The Way Forward
To ensure the future success of the legal industry, it’s imperative to bridge the training gap for junior associates. They should spend less time spinning their wheels and more time working independently, resulting in fewer write-offs from fewer mistakes and ultimately, more happy clients.
The best way law firms can achieve this is by implementing experiential training programs. Experiential learning is an effective learning method that consists of three key components:
2. allowing associates to practice what they have been shown; and
3. providing concrete, individualized feedback.
Research in education science tells us that our retention levels increase on a sliding scale, from the more abstract/passive—what we read, see, and hear—to the more concrete/active—what we write and do. Specifically, we retain 10% of what we learn from reading, 30-50% from watching lecture/explainer videos, 70% from participating in small interactive workshops, and 90% from doing either real or simulated assignments.
That’s why it’s so powerful when associates get to experience experiential learning through mock assignments. These realistic assignments allow associates to immediately apply lessons to solve real-world client scenarios, using documents derived from actual deals. For example, a course on contract drafting skills might require associates to:
-research for themselves what provisions might go into a typical contract,
-discuss what each provision means and why it is needed; and
-practice drafting actual provisions in a real-life context. The students would then receive feedback on their drafting.
Similar to a real transaction, the assignment should require associates to synthesize relevant information provided in ancillary documents such as mock client emails, memos from senior lawyers, and client deal documents (e.g., term sheets, precedent contracts, etc.). The aim is to create a healthy level of challenge so associates also start to build some transaction management muscles, while giving them the opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, and also build their confidence for the real thing.
Get Your Associates Practice-Ready with AltaClaro
Backed by education science, AltaClaro’s 3-step experiential learning framework consists of dynamic video modules, mock transactions, and live feedback sessions. This framework not only improves learning retention by over 80% compared to passive training programs, but it also leads to more confident and practice-ready associates.
There’s a reason why firms such as K&L Gates, Holland & Knight, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Allen & Overy, and Ropes & Gray trust AltaClaro for their legal skills training. From Fundamentals of M&A Transactions and Corporate Transactions to Capital Markets, our course catalog spans beginner to intermediate level classes.
Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with one of our experts and learn how you can empower your associates to hit the ground running.