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May 02, 2024

Law Firm Partners, It’s Not Just Your Imagination. Young Associates Aren’t Thinking Critically.

I just returned home to New York City last week from a “road show,” meeting with ten clients in five days in cities like Birmingham, Dallas, Portland and Los Angeles. I am always thrilled at the opportunity to meet in person with our fantastic clients. It’s also an invaluable chance to get partners’ views on what’s happening in the market and their firms.

My big takeaway in terms of a “legal industry trend” is: law firm partners believe there is a crisis of critical thinking among their associates. From coast to coast, nearly every firm partner I met with had a similar observation: young associates are more likely to think they can “check the box” on an assignment and move on, they’re not deeply inquisitive, and they’re not tailoring their work by thinking globally about clients’ unique situations.

There are scores of articles out there attempting to decode the characteristics of this youngest cohort of workers. This generational difference in approaches could be due to Gen Z's digital nativism, the rise of standardized testing, or even their unprecedented level of fear and anxiety.

Whatever the cause, there’s no question that a critical thinking deficit poses a serious problem for law firms, associates and clients.


It’s Not Your Imagination

At AltaClaro, we train thousands of law firm associates in the foundational skills of legal practice, and we, too, have noticed a difference. We track associate feedback for our courses and have noticed that in recent years, the number of associates who thought our courses were too difficult has increased.

We used to see perhaps 10% of associate feedback that emphasized the assignment in one of our courses was too hard or the assignments too ambiguous. Now as many as 40% of our enrollees might give this feedback for the exact same assignment.

If firm partners are right, and Gen Z lawyers are thinking differently – and less critically – than prior classes of associates, this shift in feedback makes sense. In the second stage of an associate’s journey in an AltaClaro class, it is all about “doing” and applying the knowledge from the videos to real world assignments. This stage puts into practice the key principles learned, fostering synthesis, prioritization, and drafting skills through real-world simulation exercises, which are inherently designed to be imperfect in substance and form.

In short, our courses are tough, and they require real-world critical thinking skills. Yet AltaClaro won’t be making our courses any easier in response to this new trend in feedback. Rather, we’ll be leaning into our approach to help the youngest generation of lawyers learn the critical thinking skills they’ll need.


Why Are Critical Thinking Skills Essential?

Critical thinking skills for a highly effective lawyer involve the ability to objectively evaluate and interpret complex legal issues, foresee potential outcomes, devise innovative solutions, and make reasoned judgments, all while understanding the broader implications of any decision or outcome. These skills include the ability to understand the clients' objectives and negotiate terms or a resolution that are most beneficial.

For law firms, having lawyers with strong critical thinking skills is invaluable. It enhances the quality of the firm's legal services, leading to increased client satisfaction and retention. It also contributes to the firm's reputation for sound judgment and thorough analysis, which can attract new clients and top talent. Finally, it helps law firms mitigate risks by avoiding costly mistakes, poor decisions or ethical breaches, ultimately protecting the firm's integrity and bottom line.

Luckily, these crucial critical thinking skills can be taught. Below are five ways AltaClaro teaches these key skills to young associates.


Five Ways AltaClaro Teaches Critical Thinking

1. Actual Real-Life Assignments

Every AltaClaro course includes an assignment that provides associates with the opportunity to immediately apply lessons learned in the course to solve real world client scenarios. The assignments use transaction documents derived from actual deals and are designed to simulate an assignment an associate might be given in practice.

2. Messy Fact Patterns

Each assignment offers the opportunity to solve a “puzzle,” just as an associate would be expected to do in real life. This means the assignment’s fact pattern and its task-related materials are imperfect. AltaClaro’s assignments do not specify the particular approach the associate should take or provide a detailed checklist of what the associate should do to complete the task because that doesn’t happen in real life. Instead, AltaClaro provides general assignment guidelines but then requires associates to exercise critical thinking skills to complete tasks such as identifying all of the relevant issues (both in substance and form) and deciding what to prioritize based on the time constraints of the assignment.

3. Business Issues & Practical Considerations

AltaClaro’s assignments require associates to take into account the client’s business posture and practical circumstances. For example, if our client is the seller in a particular deal and does not have much leverage due to financial issues or size, what are our realistic chances of negotiating certain provisions? Where should we anticipate compromise and where should we hold firm? Assignments also provide opportunities for associates to account for market conditions and other practical considerations.

4. Imperfect Information to Prompt Questions

The assignments require junior associates to ask the key questions that they should ask when doing real-life legal work. For example, in the context of drafting an agreement using a precedent document, the associate should learn to ask questions such as, “Is this provision in the precedent relevant to the present deal?”, “Are there provisions missing from the precedent that are necessary to protect my client?”

5. Apply Knowledge in Unfamiliar Waters

Some of AltaClaro’s assignments are purposely designed to differ from the course topic so associates can develop the capacity to analyze and navigate through unfamiliar materials effectively. The aim is to empower the associate to apply what they have learned in the course to any practical scenario, even if they encounter unfamiliar documents or situations (just as they will in a real-life law firm setting). This approach not only helps reinforce the associate’s comprehension of general drafting concepts but also encourages them to think critically about the specific requirements and considerations relevant to any task and to think about the course topic as a whole.


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 quality work product more efficiently, 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, Startup/Venture Transactions, 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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About the author

Abdi Shayesteh

Founder & CEO of AltaClaro, an experiential learning platform that delivers researched-backed practical skills training solutions for lawyers. Serial entrepreneur, founded and successfully sold two startups prior to age 30. Over 15 years of experience as a corporate and banking attorney in diverse settings.