MoFo University Helps New Attorneys Bridge the Gap between Law School & Practice

Topics: Government, Law Firms, Legal Education, Legal Innovation, Surveys, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

law schools

In Thomson Reuters’ examination of methods that law schools can use to help their students become more “practice ready,” we identified law school faculty already integrating practice-ready skills into their curriculums as well as legal organizations helping new associates connect theory to practice. In the following series of profiles, we explore how these approaches are shaping both law students and law firms.

“Our assumptions about new associates don’t match reality,” explains Diane Downs, chief legal talent officer in Morrison & Foerster’s San Francisco office. “They are comfortable and familiar with technology, but they don’t know about the technology systems used in a law firm.”

The firm’s onboarding program for new associates addresses technology training, among several other areas, in three phases: orientation, integration and MoFo University.

“One thing we’ve had to adapt to is providing more technology training up front, such as using Westlaw and LexisNexis in the ‘not all free’ world,” Downs says. “It’s also about new associates learning to delegate and to use library and technology resources at a cheaper cost for the client.”

The Biggest Gap to Bridge

Downs says that in terms of the way new associates think and analyze questions, they have been given great skills from their law school, but there are still gaps the firm has to address. “What’s usually the thing we have to really help bridge is the idea of, ‘What is commercial? What does a client really want?’ Clients don’t want a 30-page theoretical answer to their question; they want a practical answer that protects them legally.”

She said shifting new attorneys’ mindsets from “I” to “we” mode is a crucial part of MoFo’s onboarding process. “Orientation is a week or two of figuring out how to use our system, seeing who’s who, getting a mentor and getting acclimated to our rhythm and flow,” Downs says. “Integration is what I call, ‘going from I to we.’”

Diane Downs of Morrison & Foerster

Downs explains that it comes down to changing the new associates’ outlook. Instead of allowing new hires to say ‘I used to do my memo this way’, they see, ‘This is how we do it at MoFo’, she adds. “It comes with time and engagement. We expect the integration process to take anywhere from three-to-six months to get someone to feel like they are part of a team.”

The firm’s third phase is MoFo University, a three-day, on-site all-hands training that happens around the 60 to 90-day mark, Downs says. “We found the timing is better after a few months when they know how to work on assignments. We want them to have context when they are starting to learn in various practice areas.” The process includes a ‘getting to know you’ component, since having a network is valuable part of onboarding and integration, she says, adding that the firm brings together its leaders, its director of training and outside trainers, and covers topics like how to be successful in this environment. Then new hires are given subsequent training for specific practice areas.

“One of the things that’s great about MoFo is the level of specificity of the onboarding training to the practice group,” Downs adds. “It’s really granular and really helpful.”

At the practice group level, she says, the firm depends on pairings — a partner and an associate mentor. “Some pitfalls are practice-specific, particularly on the transactional side. It’s a steep learning curve for those specialized types of practices. The biggest gap to fill is purely knowledge.”

Mindset of Continuous Learning

Downs said law school faculty can help by setting law students’ expectations that they should be as studious as attorneys as they were in law school. Encouraging a mindset of continuous learning helps new associates understand they’ll need to acquire more knowledge and skills throughout their careers to be successful.

“The thing that can really propel a new associate to success is for them to approach it with a sense of ownership,” Downs explains. “Demand the resources required, and you probably will be seen as a go-getter, not as outstepping your place. Being tentative and not asking for what you need can be a detriment. We want your input and analysis. Ask appropriate questions, and run your assignment as though you’re running a deal.”

She said new hires often need to remember to go beyond legal analysis, and to consider the commercial problem and what’s at stake for the client.

“At a law firm, some people give an assignment with lots of background, overview and clarity, and others don’t,” she said. “New associates should be informed about what they need to do to do an assignment well. They should develop a template or framework for taking an assignment. They need to ask questions like, ‘When do you want this? What do you want — an email, a memo? What’s the budget?’ It’s having a commercial awareness.”

Being an effective attorney comes down to understanding the business and thinking strategically. “This is a client-service business; our clients rely on us,” Downs says. “Being excited about that is what makes someone successful.”


For profiles of technology innovators in the legal education field, click here!