B.C. Orienteering – Thoughts on Orientation Programs for New Lawyers

I must start this post with a confession that the title above is borrowed from a song by Vancouver artists “Said the Whale”. It is not only a great song but also a great topic statement for a subject that has been consuming my attention of late; that of orientation programs for new lawyers in British Columbia. Although the context in which this topic arises for me is province-specific, I know from conversations with young lawyers and law students from across Canada that law firm orientation programs, or rather oftentimes the lack thereof, should be a topic of significant interest for lawyers in many parts of the country.

Why should I care?

Why this topic should be of interest to a wide range of lawyers is very simple. There is a demographic reality facing the legal profession in Canada which sees a significant amount of the profession nearing retirement age (the average age of lawyer in B.C. is 51). These aging lawyers are the senior partners of law firms from across Canada and most should be actively thinking about succession.

On the other side of the coin we have a new generation of young lawyers entering the workforce with a different set of values and life experiences than that of their predecessors. In my role as a management consultant I regularly hear from frustrated lawyers who have invested in an articling student or young lawyer only to have this individual leave their firm after a relatively short period of time. Often the lawyer is frustrated and confused as to the reasons that the young lawyer has left and chalks it up to some deficiency in the generation as whole such as a lack of loyalty, or an unwillingness to endure hard work.

Through my work with law students and young lawyers I know however, that these generalizations rarely hold up under scrutiny and in fact the decision to leave can often be traced to a relatively simple organizational management issue, such as the lack of a formal orientation program.

What do young lawyers currently face?

To illustrate the different scenarios that young lawyers may face in regards to orientation, I will offer the contrasting experiences of two students.

The first, Student A has secured a position with a small to medium sized firm in Vancouver. Upon arriving to work on his first day he is greeted by a partner who calls him into his office for his orientation briefing. The partner explains that he is the student’s assigned mentor and provides the student with an orientation binder containing useful information such as firm policies and procedures, useful contacts and instruction on use of firm systems such as voicemail and photocopiers. The student is also provided with a schedule for their first week that contains a variety of pre-scheduled orientation meetings including information technology, human resources and courthouse library orientation. The partner provides the student with a firm tour and then leads the student to their office. The partner leaves the student in their office to familiarize themselves with a promise to meet back for lunch at noon.

The second, Student B has secured a position with a small to medium sized firm in the Interior of British Columbia. Upon arriving to work on his first day he is greeted by a partner who shows the student to his office. The partner explains that the stack of files on the student’s desk will need to be addressed as soon as possible. No further orientation is provided.

Why does orientation matter?

When I recount the above scenarios to lawyers I am sometimes met with a comment or two about “coddling” or some expression that the lawyer in question had to figure things out for themselves so why shouldn’t their junior. Those who share this attitude often miss the wider point that new employee orientations are now standard practice within most sophisticated industries (and in my experience most law firms of 25+ lawyers) and that these practices generally lead to more stable, long term employees.

More importantly, I have found personally that orientation programs, and other formal programs such as mentoring and evaluation, are highly valued by the current generation of law school graduates. While I have not conducted any research into the matter, I believe this may have to do with relatively recent changes in parenting and educational programs that place a high value on structure and planned activities. For recent law school graduates, the articling experience may be the first time they are truly away from a formally structured environment and therefore easing them into the workplace through a properly structured orientation program may be one important key to retaining them for the long term.

What can I do?

Orientation programs can range from a simple binder to a full month of structured activities, the choice of which often depends on internal resources. Even the smallest firm can develop an orientation program however, and I would encourage all lawyers who are hiring a student or young lawyer to develop some form of structured orientation.

If you would like a list of further resources on this topic feel free to send me an e-mail.

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