Good Things Come in Small Packages

The Bencher—September/October 2017

By John A. Elzufon, Esquire and H. Garrett Baker, Esquire

A great mentoring program is essential to any good law firm. Today’s mentees are tomorrow’s attorneys, and constitute the future of the firm. Firms of any size should provide a setting for training and professional growth for junior attorneys—but smaller firms may be better positioned to provide mentoring experiences that are meaningful to both mentor and mentee.

At large firms, mentoring opportunities are essentially built into the hierarchy; summer and junior associates are typically assigned to specific partners on designated assignments. While this provides associates with readily identifiable individuals to whom they can look for guidance, they may have less opportunity to meet their colleagues in other departments of the same firm. Often, the largest of firms are spread across different geographic regions and it may not be feasible to know everyone within the firm and across various specialties. Further, the scope of assignments may be limited in large firms: Junior and senior partners generally assume responsibility for major portions of the case, while associates perform more research-oriented or “behind-the-scenes” tasks.

While smaller firms may not have the same capacity for mentoring, the opportunities for professional growth and experience may be even more meaningful. First, mentees and associates can become familiar with diverse practice areas and with the specialties of firm members other than their assigned mentors. Due to the smaller base of operations, everyone quite literally gets to know everyone else. Even while working in a given legal specialty, associates have the chance to familiarize themselves with other areas of the law in a more holistic legal experience.

Small firms also may be able to offer an “open-door” policy that makes senior attorneys more approachable. Junior attorneys can workshop a question, an approach to an assignment, a legal theory, or any other matter of concern informally through face-to-face discussion with senior members of the firm even if they are not assigned to each other.

This opportunity to bounce something off of a more experienced attorney informally is not only less intimidating but highly educational. Junior attorneys can ponder the issue and formulate their own sense of what solution might be best before asking more seasoned practitioners for confirmation. As senior attorneys, the authors have found that first asking the junior attorney, “What do you think?” can be very affirming: Mentees can offer their own thoughts about important aspects of the case and then seek guidance, rather than simply implementing strategies that have been handed down. Junior attorneys learn that their perspective is valued and to form their own judgments, rather than just relying upon the judgment of others, which also helps to build confidence.

In smaller firms, junior attorneys often can play more active roles in cases earlier in their careers. Depositions, motions, hearings, and even trials are often reserved for junior and senior partners in large-firm settings. In smaller firms, however, newer lawyers by necessity play a more active and central role in litigation.

One of the authors had an experience in his own practice where this proved true. One of Elzufon’s most satisfying mentoring experiences occurred about 15 years ago when he decided to let one of his associate attorneys take “first chair” in a medical negligence case. Although her trial experience was limited and none of it in professional liability/medical malpractice, she had performed admirably as an associate and she knew the case file well. Damages were limited because of the nature of the injuries; even in the worst of circumstances the verdict would never exceed policy limits.

“There was no doubt in my mind she was ready for a trial as ‘first chair,’” he says. He told the carrier that he wanted her to first chair the case, but that he would be at counsel table and be ready to step in if he thought that matters were not proceeding well. He also agreed not to bill at all for his time. The carrier said that was fine as long as the doctor agreed, which he did.

“I told the associate this was her trial. While I was there to give advice if requested, I would not volunteer any suggestions and all decisions were hers and hers alone. This was truly her trial,” Elzufon says.

The junior attorney was a bit shaky at first, but her confidence grew with each passing day. When it came time for closing argument, she presented with all the poise of a seasoned veteran.

“Watching the growth of this attorney before my eyes was one of my more satisfying professional experiences. By the way, she won the case,” Elzufon says. He sacrificed a week of his time and the firm took a financial hit, but it was worth it. As a side note, the judge who presided over that trial cited the case staffing as a model of how mentoring should be done.

Elzufon’s co-author, Baker, was tasked with arguing an appeal before the Supreme Court of Delaware only 18 months after being admitted to the Delaware bar. While this would be a daunting task for any new attorney, it was even more so given that the appeal was based on an evidentiary issue and to which no objection had been raised by former counsel during trial. As such, a plain error standard applied on appeal. Nevertheless, it was very meaningful to know that the senior attorneys entrusted that assignment to him.

“Of course, I worked harder on it than anything I ever had, but ultimately was able to prevail and convince the Court that the matter should be remanded for a new trial based on that error,” he says.

Junior attorneys in smaller firms may get more exposure to the individuals or entities that the firm is representing. Representation of clients is, of course, any law firm’s reason for being. Management of client needs and expectations is an important training ground for junior attorneys. The best way to learn how to counsel and assist a client in terms of legal needs and issues is to actually meet with the client and learn how to be of service.

In the authors’ view, there is no better teacher than experience. While it is of course important to have a firm textbook understanding of the fundamental theories of law, it is only through implementation and putting those theories into hands-on practice in a real setting that junior attorneys can gain a holistic understanding of those principles and their application.

The importance for firms of all shapes and sizes to emphasize and implement strong training programs for junior attorneys cannot be overstated. However, there is much to be said about the quality of the on-the-job training provided in smaller firms, where staffing resources demand that junior attorneys play more active and leading roles in the development of cases at all stages. In that setting, attorneys obtain front-row, hands-on, practical training that prepares them to step in and confidently handle any aspect of a case. u

John A. Elzufon, Esquire, is founder and senior litigator of Elzufon Austin and Mondell in Wilmington, Delaware.  H. Garrett Baker, Esquire, is a director in the workers’ compensation department of Elzufon Austin and Mondell. He is a founder and president of the Randy J. Holland Delaware Workers’ Compensation AIC.

© 2017 John A. Elzufon, Esq. and H. Garrett Baker, Esq. This article was originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.