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April 03, 2024

The Impact of Undertrained Associates on Productivity, Profitability, and Retention

The industry challenge of undertrained associates is becoming a triple threat to law firm productivity, profitability, and retention. As law firms face the economic headwinds of 2024, it’s crucial they understand the full implications of this issue, as well as how to foster a new generation of successful, well-prepared lawyers. 

In this blog, we'll explore how undertrained associates are impacting firm productivity, profitability, and retention, outlining a proven legal training solution at the end. 


Today's Legal Training Gap

Although the legal training landscape is shifting, many of today’s junior associates are still struggling to adapt to the demands of law firms. Law school curricula still focus on learning case law or passing the bar exam—offering little in the way of practical knowledge for tackling real world assignments. 

Moreover, many law firms remain deeply rooted in an apprenticeship model. In this method, new associates are expected to learn primarily by shadowing and helping more experienced attorneys, often with minimal structured guidance or formal training. This sink-or-swim approach creates a steep learning curve for newcomers, with a significant emphasis on learning by doing real client work. Yet, while many partners are realizing they don’t want to pass the cost of training associates onto their clients, they also don’t want to take on the additional work of training new associates themselves, according to Law.com’s New Partners survey.

Nonetheless, with Millennials now making up the majority of law firm lawyers, and with Gen Z quickly reshaping the law firm landscape, the pressure is on for firms to provide adequate resources and support to ensure new associate success.


The Impact of Undertrained Associates on Productivity

Undertrained associates can wreak havoc on a firm’s productivity. Without a solid knowledge of foundational legal work, associates are often left spinning their wheels, unable to move forward without the intervention of someone more seasoned. For example, if a junior associate doesn’t have a good understanding of transactional structures and the process involved for the deal they are assigned to , it can slow things down and/or result in a senior lawyer stepping in to redo the work product. 

Beyond foundational knowledge, to maximize productivity, associates need critical thinking skills so they can propose practical solutions. For example, are they thinking through what solutions can be both advantageous to their client and at the same time be a reasonable compromise to the other side based on market dynamics or standards? Similar to the skill of identifying issues, this skill typically comes after being exposed to a good number and variety of transaction.


The Impact of Undertrained Associates on Profitability

The sooner that associates can hit the ground running on client work, the greater impact they make on the firm’s profitability. However, the challenge for many firms is to refrain from rushing their training on client work or the client dime. Clients expect associates to be well-trained, productive, and efficient, and they don’t want to pay for associates to learn on the job. This results in write-downs, which impact both firm profitability and associate morale.

In addition, under-trained associates impact firm profitability because of the great opportunity cost of pulling more senior attorneys away from billable work or from developing client relationships. If senior attorneys are always leveraged as the primary method of training junior associates–or of correcting their mistakes–a firm must consider profits lost on both the junior associate’s time and the senior’s.


The Impact of Undertrained Associates on Retention

Undertrained associates can also hurt a firm’s profitability due to high turnover. According to the NALP, the cost of attorney attrition is approximately 1.5 to 2x the employee’s salary, making it crucial for firms to retain their associates. 

Today’s associates crave high quality training and career development. According to a study by BCG Attorney Search, one of the top reasons why associates leave a firm is because of a lack of training, mentoring, and development opportunities. The study challenges the idea that money is one of the primary reasons an associate leaves a firm, stating that higher pay is an ineffective 'carrot' to keep associates loyal, and in fact makes it easier for other firms to lure associates away.

On top of that, high turnover rates can also damage associate morale and your firm’s reputation, as well as divert valuable time and resources to backfilling positions. However, more firms are realizing that associates are more likely to stay if they receive high quality training and development. By implementing a smart and effective training strategy, law firms can provide associates with the support that they need. 


A Proven Legal Training Solution that Drives Associate Productivity, Profitability, and Retention

One of the most successful training approaches being adopted today is guiding associates from theoretical learning to practical application in a structured manner—all without training them on real client work. This systematic approach consists of three stages—Learn, Do, Review—ensuring that associates build upon a solid understanding of legal principles before engaging directly with real-world scenarios.


In the Learn stage, participants engage with core legal principles and concepts through interactive video lectures, assessments, and quizzes. This initial phase is critical as it ensures that participants have a thorough and engaging understanding of the basics. 


Here, associates apply the concepts they've learned to mock transactions and simulations. This hands-on approach allows participants to navigate real-world-like scenarios, challenging them to think critically and apply their legal knowledge in a controlled, yet dynamic environment. A crucial component here is that the assignments may be missing client facts that participants need to identify, as well as business issues, loopholes, gray areas, and practical considerations. The goal is to get their hands dirty making informed decisions and marking up documents as if they are preparing a work product for a client or partner. 


In this phase, participants receive expert review and live feedback on their work. This feedback is invaluable, as it not only reinforces the learning but also highlights areas requiring further improvement, honing legal skills to professional standards. As a result, participants can jump into real-world scenarios and get feedback on their work, honing their skills and knowledge for the real world.

Serving the Am Law 200 since 2019, AltaClaro uses the Learn, Do, Review approach in their experiential learning courses that are taught by practitioners, for practioners. AltaClaro’s courses use a self-paced e-learning curriculum supplemented by live virtual sessions led by their own highly vetted faculty. Assignments consist of working on mock transactions using real-world client scenarios and deal documents, all of which are reviewed and “assessed” by experienced practitioners, who then provide interactive feedback to participants. 


Looking for a Proven Legal Training Solution?

There’s a reason why firms such as K&L Gates, 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. 


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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