Did you read a November, 2011 New York Times article: What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering? It referenced an American Lawyer survey finding that 47% of clients surveyed did not want first or second year associates working on their matters. It also identified what clients are saying to firms:

But the downturn in the economy, and long-running efforts to rethink legal fees, have prompted more and more of those clients to send a simple message to law firms: Teach new hires on your own dime.

Are you  in a firm that is investing in your  associates’ skills, or is only interested in your associates’ billable hours? In the last week I have coached and taught senior associates in two firms on how to develop their skills and become successful at securing, retaining and expanding relationships with clients. Those two firms are not only investing in their associates. They are also investing in their clients.

When I was named the partner responsible for attorney development in my old law firm during the booming economy, I spent a lot of time with our firm’s associate committee. I discovered that very few of our associates had any kind of plan with written goals to develop their skills and become more valuable to our clients. (Do your associates?) I decided to teach career planning with written goals to the associates in each of our offices.

I scheduled my first session for a lunch program on a Friday at our Los Angeles office.  On Tuesday that week I learned that very few of our Los Angeles associates had signed up. The office administrator told me the reason was they “have to get their hours.”

At the time our firm had a grid with pay and bonuses based on hours beginning at 1950 hours and increasing at every one hundred hours . Our associates knew how to work the system. We had a large number at 1950 to 1960 hours and then it dropped off dramatically. Not unexpectedly, a second surge occurred at the 2050-2060 numbers, then another dramatic drop off. I could go on, but you get the picture.

I thought our bonus system was backwards. When you reward hours, you get hours. Your lawyers are more concerned about their hours than they are about the quality of their work. Clients do not want to pay for more hours.

Believe it or not, they would prefer to pay law firms for work done more efficiently because the associates have developed the skill set on the firm’s dime. I love the opportunity to work with law firms that “get it.”