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VOL. 123 | NO. 71 | Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ford & Harrison Launches Billable-Friendly Training

By Bill Dries

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Very few people become attorneys because they long to delve into the intricacies of billable hours.

But it's an essential part of the modern law practice that isn't always emphasized in law school. Clients watch billable hours more closely these days, with some who are not hesitating to complain that law firms are training new lawyers on the client's dime.

This September, the Memphis office of Ford & Harrison LLP will kick off a new program that allows first-year associates to get the time and experience with clients but without having to justify the experience as billable hours.

School never ends

Louis P. Britt III, partner at the Ford & Harrison Memphis office, said the "Year One" program addresses "the failure of the law schools to really train new lawyers in the practice."

"They do a great job training them in the analytical area of research and writing and analyzing legal issues. But they don't train law students on the practice," Britt said.

The Ford & Harrison program is already in use in some of the firm's other offices. It is highly structured with clinical hours tracked and first-year associates still expected to work hard.

The difference is that work will be directly with clients and in courtrooms or other settings away from the law library or other places where first-year associates normally do research.

"We do labor employment law. One of the great training areas is in labor negotiations. The only way you really get the experience in that area is doing the work and being at the table and participating in the negotiations," Britt said. "Many clients do not want to pay for a second lawyer, a junior lawyer, sitting at the table learning."

In the case of labor talks, there are caucus sessions that each side has privately once an offer or counter offer is made by the other side. There are also strategy sessions before the talks even begin to anticipate positions and responses.

Britt, who is a veteran of municipal contract negotiations, admitted it was a process he learned by the seat of his pants. Sitting across the table from negotiating teams that include attorneys and union leaders with informally learned but formidable bargaining skills not taught in any school, can be valuable to a first-year attorney.

Changing times

What the client gets billed for and what is considered learning will be determined on a case-by-case basis by Ford & Harrison partners. For instance, sitting in on labor negotiations might not be billed to the client.

"There may be other aspects where part of the time is billed, where we believe the time that the associate is working on the matter or involved in the matter is productive and the client is going to get a benefit of it. If we feel that the purpose is for the experience and training of the associate, the client will not get billed for it," Britt said.

Second- and third-year associates also could be part of the program. But it might be less intensive than the immersion given to first-year associates.

The "Year One" program is also a partial acknowledgement that new attorneys have a different outlook than past generations - although some veteran attorneys have voiced concerns recently about too much of a priority on billable hours.

"They have, I think, higher expectations of getting involved in more-complex hands-on type work," Britt said of younger attorneys just getting started.

"There is certainly an issue that we are facing as a profession with the younger lawyers regarding the work-life balance. ... You have so many two-income families and you've got law students coming out with a tremendous amount of debt on their hands. They're trying to juggle work as well as the family responsibilities."

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