INSIGHT: Recession Proof Your Legal Career—Learn By Doing, Not Boring CLEs

From Health Care on Bloomberg Law

March 21, 2019

By Abdi Shayesteh

Experts believe a recession is looming around the corner and the legal industry is expected to be impacted. While reports say the industry will not be hit as hard as the time of the Great Recession, law firms are gearing up for the storm.

Will history repeat itself with mass layoffs of lawyers? Firms are saying that they’ve been smarter about talent management this time around and that they won’t make the mistakes of the past to the detriment of their lawyers. I’m a bit skeptical about this, however, since we’ve been seeing an upward trend in associate hiring over the last few years, salary hikes at some of the biggest firms, and a series of articles about certain firms getting bigger by the minute.

However smarter the firms may be, it’s expected we will have an estimated 10,000 lawyer job losses in the forthcoming recession (compared to 18,000 jobs last time). Of course, some practice groups, like litigation, will be hit first, others unaffected (e.g., healthcare, data privacy, etc.) and others will benefit (e.g., distressed debt and restructuring).

One thing for sure is that performance reviews will be tougher this year. Profit crunches always force firms to scrutinize and weed out low/borderline performers. Associates, in particular, will be under the microscope for their competency and efficiency.

The best way to pass the competency muster is to make sure you are mastering the things you know, and more importantly, the things you need to know for your level. You need to make yourself indispensable or retool into a growth area quickly.

Trying to master or gain new practical skills in a tightening economic environment can be tough. Because the profession is a guild, the more deals or matters you manage, the more you deepen your competency. When deal or case flow is low, and/or there is favoritism inside the firm, learning opportunities become even more challenging.

From a lawyer who has always been (humbly) employed and measurably successful through two major economic downturns (Dotcom Bubble Burst of 2001 and Great Recession of 2008), here are my thoughts on how lawyers can hack their learning curve:

Make Time to Learn New (or Master Existing) Practical Skills

There are plenty of articles on successful business people who swear by making time every day or certain days in the week to learn. The same rule applies to lawyers. Many successful senior lawyers swear by it as their secret to their success.

I know what you are thinking: How do I make the extra time to learn, when I stay in the office until midnight and start all over again the minute I wake up with a deluge of client emails?

How you choose to manage your time amidst the chaos of your practice is the subject of another article. But, there are key learning moments in your day-to-day that you could be overlooking.

For example, immediately after finishing a deal or a matter, you will have a ton of new lessons learned. Was there something that went wrong in the deal? Was there an “aha” moment for you about a particular aspect of the deal? Was there something you did right? Think about the matter in your mind from start to finish and jot down what you learned.

Also, you have a set of new roadmaps to follow. Go back to all those redlines and revisions of the agreements, the brief you submitted or filings you made. Read them over and look for patterns. Are there themes that your supervisor is trying to point out? Is there a style that he/she prefers? Are there arguments or strategies that opposing counsel made that you could learn from (negotiation points, counter positions, etc.)?

Summarize them in a special notebook. You should do this for every deal and matter! Review these notes every month to internalize them. By the end of the year, you will have a treasure trove of helpful guidance.

Make Your Learning Active, Not Passive

Forget about reading treatises. They take too much time and you will only retain 10 percent of what you read.

Also, forget about those boring CLE lectures from the bar associations, old-school (and expensive) providers, or the hundreds of cheap (or free) online providers. These are not that effective, since you only retain 30 percent of what you learn from watching a video and 50 percent from attending a live lecture.

So what type of learning is most effective?

To truly retain what we learn, we need to learn through interaction (where retention rates are at 75 percent) and doing (retention at 90 percent).

But how can we like this when there are only so many hours in the day?

Seek education providers that include active learning in their approach. If they offer videos, make sure their videos are broken up into bite-sized/micro-burst segments (e.g., 5-7 minutes). Learning is more effective in this way.

Are there meaningful quizzes (with thorough explanations) to test your knowledge along the way? Real-time feedback is essential to bolster your learning.

However, microburst-learning and quizzes are only scratching the surface. Is there a simulation exercise that tests your knowledge with hypothetical client facts? For lawyers, this is where real learning ensues. Marking up or drafting documents in response to a set of client-specific facts really tests your new-found knowledge. If you have just watched something on drafting an NDA, you should immediately draft one.

Of course, learning in a vacuum will not get you very far. You need real-time feedback. You need to assess how you did on the simulations. Having access to an experienced lawyer on the subject is way more powerful than the answer key.

Deep learning really takes place in a conversation, where you can ask follow-up questions, confirm your knowledge, and get the scoop that is not written in books (e.g., war stories). Can you seek feedback from a senior lawyer inside or outside of the firm to review your mark-ups and give you guidance?

If you have a mentor, it is often difficult to tap into their knowledge when you need them most. They are typically very busy, or if you make time to see each other there is no live issue to discuss. You may have even forgotten your pressing questions by then. But, if you send him or her your mark-up of a document from a simulation exercise ahead of time, you now have something productive to talk about.

Make Sure Your Knowledge Is at Par or Above Level of Competency Needed

Whatever it is you’re learning, make sure it’s consistent with where you need to be. This is where a mentor or the firm’s professional development advisor can help.

What types of work do you need be doing to take your development to the next level? Often, associates get stuck doing the same work over and over again because they simply take the assignment that is given to them.

For example, if you are a third-year corporate associate and you have only conducted due diligence on deals and drafted a few basic agreements, while most of your peers at the same year have reviewed and drafted stock purchase agreements, you are behind.

You may get passed up (if not laid off) if you don’t expand your scope. You need to take the initiative to ask. More importantly, you need to learn by doing and receiving feedback in advance of those new matters (through the steps outlined above).

Building your knowledge, gaining mastery in what you do, and making yourself indispensable are critical goals for every professional. Unfortunately, it is human nature (especially for lawyers) to be reactive (as opposed to proactive) to what shows up in the moment.

Like anything else worthwhile, proactivity and investment in acquisition of substantive skills will pay off with dividends. Building your ark of knowledge will help you stay afloat when the levee breaks and others are stranded in the water.

Author Information

Abdi Shayesteh, Esq. is founder & CEO of AltaClaro,an experiential learning platform for lawyers that offers online practice-oriented courses taught by top legal practitioners. He is a serial entrepreneur and 15-year corporate and banking lawyer and worked in diverse settings from Biglaw to in-house at a global bank, to government and start-ups.