Firm Paves Path To Partner

May 2, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — While to the uninitiated the path from law school to law firm might seem like a straight shot, Warner Norcross & Judd LLP knows the transition can be anything but easy for new lawyers.

That’' why Warner Norcross says it has expanded its innovative career development program to smooth the evolution from law school student to lawyer.

The program, which features flexible job assignments and in-house education, offers courses on a wide variety of topics targeted to help associates progress successfully through the ranks and into partnership.

The program has improved retention and associate satisfaction, helping WN&J earn a spot as one of America's greatest Places to Work with a Law Degree — one of only two Michigan firms to make the list.

“We recognize that studying law and practicing law are two different things,” said Alex DeYonker, managing partner of the 174-attorney firm.

“We want the associates who join our firm to build successful practices and be responsive to their clients, so we equip them with the tools they'll need in order to succeed.”

The career development program, which got its start in 1995, begins each fall when a new class of law school graduates joins Warner Norcross.

Unlike most law firms, where first-year associates are immediately assigned to a particular practice area, new WN&J associates are considered “free agents.” They do not join a practice group or specialize in a particular area for the first full year with the Firm.

Instead, they receive assignments from a “Job Jar,” which ensures they will rotate through as many different areas as possible.

The process is closely monitored by the Job Jar “czar” or “czarina,” a partner at the Firm who approves and assigns each project, ensuring that associates receive well-rounded exposure to the firm’s numerous practice groups.

The system is flexible, though, and able to accommodate associates who have an interest in a particular practice group. After three months in the Job Jar, an associate can declare a major area of practice. For the remainder of the first year, up to 50 percent of the associate's work comes from that chosen area while the rest will still come through the Jar from other practice groups.

At the end of their first year, associates are “released” from the Jar and join a practice area of their choosing. The selection process encourages practice groups to develop and maintain good reputations within the firm.

“Ensuring a general exposure to many areas pays strong dividends over the long term,” explains Cathleen Meriwether, Warner Norcross’s director of Lawyer Recruitment and Development.

“Associates have the opportunity to work in different areas of the law, and with different partners and clients.  This offers them a more well-rounded legal background which, in turn, benefits our clients.”

Edward Bardelli said that his time in the Job Jar gave him experience with mergers and acquisitions, real estate law, mortgages and corporate law — all of which he believes have made him better prepared for his career as a litigator..

“Coming out of law school into a big law firm can be intimidating," explained Bardelli, a Detroit native who was in the first Career Development class in 1995 and is now a partner.

“Rather than have someone sit you in an office and say 'Go to work,' Warner's approach fostered a real connection with the people I began working with — and with other attorneys throughout the firm.  You really do feel the firm cares about your development and wants to help you become a partner.

“The biggest point about the Career Development program is that it shows associates a path for success,” he said.

“As firms get bigger, it's easier to lose track of associates,” he added. “Our program is a structured way to make sure everyone has the information and resources to succeed.”

Warner's Career Development program also offers new associates a broad range of training in their first year. A series of short courses are offered on everything from writing briefs to running effective meetings. These courses are designed to help associates develop and sharpen their skills, and are part of a larger package of classes that are offered up through partnership.

First-year associates attend dozens of courses on a host of topics, including some traditionally overlooked in law school:

  • How to Read a Financial Statement

  • Taking and Defending a Deposition

  • Forget Legalese: How to Write Clearly and in Plain English

  • Ethics and the Business of Law

As associates progress toward partnership, Meriwether said they take sessions on client and billing management, business development, networking and referrals, cross-marketing, supervision and mentoring of the next generation, and other areas of practice development.

She said seventh-year associates attend courses on partner finance issues, including buy-in, taxes, insurance and retirement planning.

“This formula works well for us,” Meriwether said. “The firm's program provides new associates with an immediate connection with attorneys throughout the firm, while training them to better serve our clients.

“By offering courses throughout an associate’s tenure, we develop more highly trained, well-rounded attorneys who have forged long-lasting relationships with their clients – and the firm.” 

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