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March 07, 2024

Diving In: Building Associate Confidence in Legal Waters - A Lesson from Triathlon Swim Coaching

In the world of triathlon swim coaching, it’s not uncommon for coaches to prioritize teaching advanced techniques to swim efficiently. However, they may not realize that their athlete is unprepared to just survive the turbulent, high-contact nature of a mass triathlon start, where hundreds of swimmers enter the same water at the same time. This scenario finds an intriguing parallel in the world of legal training, particularly within transactional practice areas. Partners, adept and seasoned in the nuances of legal practices, may have trouble imagining the learning curve of their new associates. As a result, they rush to enhance the associates' efficiency, deal acumen, and speed, often overlooking the crucial groundwork needed for success.

Just as a swimmer must first learn to survive the chaos of the open water before focusing on speed, new associates need to establish a strong foundation before they can effectively navigate the complexities of a transactional practice. In this blog, we will share four lessons I’ve gained from triathlon swim coaching, discussing how they apply to new associate training and how AltaClaro’s unique approach mirrors the essential training methodologies of the sport. 


#1. Foundations First: Transactional Associates and Basic Skills

Transitioning from the controlled environment of law school to the fast-paced world of transactional law can feel like moving from a calm pool to the turbulent open waters. Much like a coach teaching stroke intricacies to a swimmer, partners can sometimes overlook the basic foundational transactional skills that new associates lack. As a result, new associates often find themselves in deep waters, expected to swim alongside seasoned professionals. That’s why new associates need to start with a foundational curriculum before moving onto more advanced ones—just as it’s important to master basic swimming techniques like proper breathing before jumping into the open water. 

Every transactional associate, regardless of the specialty transactional practice group the firm eventually assigns them to, needs to start with a core set of skills and knowledge. Initial training should cover areas such as drafting and negotiating contracts, forming corporations and other entities, transactional due diligence and disclosure schedules, and preparing closing checklists.  

Furthermore, it’s crucial for first-year associates to gain a thorough understanding of the particular transactional practice areas they will be engaged in, similar to how a swimmer must understand what it’s like to swim different water types such as rivers, lakes, and oceans. Examples typically include overview and deal mechanics courses in M&A, Real Estate, Lending/Finance, Capital Markets, and Technology Transactions. These courses typically cover understanding key terms, terminology, players, structures, typical documents, deal stages, and key tasks that a junior associate needs to master when supporting deal teams within each of these specialty practice areas.

With the foundational courses out of the way, it’s time to take associate training to the next level by offering more in depth training programs, as well as courses that cover drafting and negotiating core documents and agreements. Similar to the approach above, there are certain skills, tasks, and assignments that a transactional associate should master regardless of their specialty area. There are also more specialized deeper dives and drafting courses, depending on their relevance to the firm and associate. 


#2. From Theory to Practice: Transitioning with Confidence through Effective Learning Experiences

Transactional associates should move from theoretical learning to practical application in a structured manner. Before facing the complexities of real-world legal scenarios, associates will benefit greatly from training that addresses essential survival skills in the legal pool. This allows them to hone these skills within a safe, controlled setting—much like swimmers will prepare for the open waters by recreating similar conditions in a pool. 

Practical simulation exercises and tailored feedback are essential to guiding a new associate’s critical thinking and application of what they’ve been learning. While passive learning methods such as video lectures can have their place, they cannot fully replicate the demands of transactional practice. For example, merely running issue-spotting workshops to teach people how to properly swim wouldn’t yield the desired results because people need to engage with realistic work to develop skills. After all, imagine learning how to swim in the open water solely by watching videos! By going beyond passive methods and incorporating meaningful exercises with feedback, associates can gain practical experience without using real client work or on the client’s dime (as that would get expensive).

Adopting a structured learning pathway, from start to finish, is essential to developing proficient transactional associates. This approach, comprising Learn, Do, Review stages, parallels the methodical way one would approach learning a complex skill like open water swimming, ensuring learners build a solid base, engage with practical challenges, and refine their skills through feedback. 

1. Learn: The foundation stage, similar to learning basic water safety in swimming. Here, participants engage with video lectures and quizzes focusing on key legal principles and concepts. This stage is designed to ensure a deep and interactive understanding of the basics.

2. Do: This stage involves applying learned concepts to mock transactions and simulations, mirroring the transition from basic swimming skills to practicing strokes in the pool. Participants engage in real-world-like assignments that challenge them to think critically and apply their knowledge in practical scenarios.

3.  Review: This stage involves expert review and live feedback sessions. Participants' work is scrutinized, and constructive feedback is provided, much like a swim coach would analyze and refine a swimmer's technique. This stage reinforces learning and helps in identifying areas for improvement.


#3. Navigating More Challenging Currents: Enhancing Critical Thinking through More Difficult Simulation

In open water swimming, encountering and overcoming various difficulties, from unpredictable currents to murky waters, is essential for building resilience and adaptability. Similarly, in the legal realm, critical thinking is an indispensable skill for any attorney; associates must develop the capacity to think critically across different levels of challenges to effectively navigate the often-treacherous waters of transactional law. 

One of the key learning objectives for any training during an associate’s early, formidable years is to help them gain the critical thinking skills they need to take on any real-world assignment that comes their way. Ideally, in addition to the importance of making the training experiential, the training should have nonlinear training elements. By integrating different levels of difficulty within the simulations, associates are not only challenged intellectually but are also trained to adapt their approaches based on the context of the problem.

For example, the practical simulation exercises should be imperfect in substance and form. Just like real-world clients, there should be missing facts, loopholes, and gray areas, as if drafting and editing documents for a client. The idea of frustrating them in a safe and simulated environment will go a long way in building muscles for the real world.


#4. Slow Down to Speed Up: Building Legal Stamina

In the world of swimming, beginners often want to compete immediately, pushing themselves to swim as quickly as possible. However, they soon learn that by initially slowing down and focusing on mastering the fundamentals, they can improve their overall speed and efficiency.

This principle holds true in legal training as well. We observe that new associates develop more effectively when they take the time to build their legal stamina before diving into the rapid currents of real-world legal work. By first engaging in simulated transactional work that mirrors real-world scenarios, new associates can begin building their legal stamina. This allows them to apply their foundational knowledge in a controlled environment, steadily building their confidence and competence for the real work to come. And by gradually increasing the complexity of work, associates can strengthen their endurance for sustained transactional challenges.


Looking for a Proven Legal Training Solution?

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.

With AltaClaro, you can get your associates billing sooner, increase training retention and engagement, and save on resources used for legal skills training. Our online boot camps help lawyers leverage technology and learn practical legal skills in a hybrid format through mock transactions and live feedback sessions with seasoned practitioners. From programs in M&A Transactions and Corporate Transactions to Capital Markets, Lending Transactions, Real Estate, and IP/Technology Transactions, our course catalog spans beginner to intermediate level classes. 

Interested? Schedule a free 30-minute consultation with one of our experts and learn how you can empower your associates to hit the ground running.

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About the author

Rick Rattray

Rick Rattray is a career innovator in edtech, having served in Senior Vice President roles at Kaplan, Shorelight, and Barbri, and as EVP at Vista Equity’s ReliasLearning. Rick’s day job is serving as AltaClaro’s Chief Operating Officer, where he is passionate about building scalable process to support Associate success. In his time-off, he’s an enthusiastic competitive triathlete and open water swimmer, having completed at Sprint, Olympic, 70.3 (half ironman) and 140.6 (full ironman) distance events. He is usually among the top 5% on the swim and understands how easy it can be to forget what newcomers don’t know when they start.