Human Resources and Law

Law firm uses 'free-agent' approach for new recruits

December 16, 2015
TAGS Varnum
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Brion Doyle
Brion Doyle. Courtesy Varnum

A law firm is trying out a “free-agent” approach for its new associates, which allows them to spend their first two years with the firm working with a variety of teams, rather than being hired directly into a practice.

Varnum said the approach helps new associates “gain a sound understanding of the firm” as they “decide on an area for their legal focus.”

Varnum, which is headquartered in Grand Rapids and has five other offices across the state, said it began using the free-agent approach last year and believes it’s paying off so far.

“Our free-agent approach provides associates with a well-rounded experience,” said Brion Doyle, chair of Varnum’s recruiting committee and partner in the firm’s Grand Rapids office. “So far, the feedback on this approach has been overwhelmingly positive from new recruits and students.”

He said many law students haven’t had experience working in a law firm, and, therefore, might not know which practice is the best fit for them.

The free-agent approach also benefits associates who do know which practice they plan to join.

“Having the opportunity to work in other areas strengthens the associate’s skills and understanding of their primary area,” Doyle said.

John Sturgis joined Varnum’s Grand Rapids office as an associate in September 2014, after working at the firm in the summer of 2013 as a summer associate. He said he’s benefited from the firm’s free-agent approach.

“In my experience, law school provided a solid foundation for how to ‘think like a lawyer,’ but it conveyed little about the actual practice of law,” Sturgis said. “As a new associate, being allowed — and encouraged — to work in multiple practice areas was an enticing prospect.”

Sturgis said he spent his first six months in Varnum’s labor and employment practice, followed by five months in litigation, and he is currently working with the real estate and regulatory practices.

He said in addition to being exposed to multiple areas of law, another benefit is working with different members of the firm.

“I had the opportunity to work with and get to know the individuals actually practicing in these areas,” Sturgis said. “It also resulted in relationships that will hopefully continue throughout my career. This latter benefit would have been much more difficult to achieve in the absence of the free-agent program.”

As part of the free-agent approach, new associates move offices as they move practices, which Varnum said “provides increased interaction and diverse work opportunities.”

Sturgis said there are some challenges that come along with the free-agent approach.

“The free-agent program often required that I take on tasks outside of my comfort zone, such as covering a hearing or taking a deposition,” he said.

But Sturgis said inevitably the challenges were worthwhile and have “resulted in growth and confidence.”

“Varnum's free-agent program helped me succeed as a new associate,” he said. “it was integral in determining where I fit best within the firm.”

Doyle said the firm believes its “holistic perspective ultimately prepares our associates to better serve our clients.” 

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