Education in the Age of Gen AI: The Old Way of Training Law Firm Associates ‘Just Doesn’t Work’

March 28, 2024

[Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series on legal education in the age of generative AI. You can read Part 1 and Part 3 here.]

“It takes four years to make a fourth-year associate” is a common refrain from SixParsecs founder Jae Um when framing legal’s talent pipeline conundrum. The consensus is that to be truly practice ready, young lawyers require more training than law school currently provides. Witness, for example, the contention around clients’ increasingly common refusal to pay for first-year associates.

The expectation shift that has accompanied the rise of generative AI has made this persistent issue more acute. “Acute” might be an understatement. Um has publicly predicted that GenAI is poised to reshape 80% of the corporate legal wallet. Reshape, not eliminate.

Um’s hypothesis is not that GenAI will eliminate the need for lawyers but, rather, that GenAI is likely to increase the overall demand for well-trained lawyers and the well-crafted systems that serve as force multipliers of their expertise. The challenge becomes how to train young lawyers when the traditional brute-force methods are no longer viable—because the machines are superior at entry-level tasks.

How do we most effectively and expeditiously develop talent to the point where a young lawyer is additive to the lower-level work at which the machines increasingly excel?

“Some firms are embracing the technology, recognizing the need to radically alter their training and evaluation of their legal professionals. On the other hand, some firms are cautiously resisting, maintaining that many basic tasks that make up the grunt work—which can now be optimized or automated through AI—are essential for training new lawyers. As a legal community, we recognize it’s imperative we unite to develop real solutions. But persisting with traditional practices, when clients know they’re overpaying for the status quo, is unsustainable in the face of current market dynamics and disruptive technological advancements.” says Darth Vaughn, managing director, Legal Ops+ and Litigation Counsel at Ford Motor Co. (Ford recently won the 2024 Legalweek Leaders in Tech Law Awards for Best Use of AI and Most Innovative Legal Ops, while Vaughn took home the individual award for In-House Innovator of the Year.)

This mounting challenge is not lost on law firms. “We have to think about how we disseminate judgment and discernment without the manual slog that people learned through in the past,” explained Caitlin Vaughn (no relation), managing director of learning and professional development at Goodwin Procter. Vaughn continued, “If new lawyers are not going to learn by doing a task repeatedly and making lots of mistakes, we needed a new approach.”

Vaughn has brought that new approach to Goodwin’s intensive, eight-week new-associate training program that blends self-paced learning, experiential live training sessions, and interactive exercises with real-time feedback. She and her team have, as Vaughn describes it, “designed a program that enables associates to learn from the highest quality work rather than via volume, and by integrating useful feedback that supports their learning, without waiting on a partner to review work product.”

Goodwin’s program comprises two conceptually coherent but substantively distinct learning paths for transactional and litigation associates. Transactional associates experience eight simulated transactions—from entity formation to cashing out—built around a hypothetical client, including mock assignments like drafting, diligence, and emailing with a client, on which the participants receive feedback. Similarly, litigation associates progress through the lifecycle of a trade secrets matter—from complaint to post-trial motions, also with mock assignments submitted for review.

Additionally, Goodwin offers a mini-MBA program, Innovation Challenge, and a professional skills track through which new associates learn and practice the core business and people skills that will be critical to their development and success.

The simulated nature of the substantive training supports comprehension and retention. As Vaughn explained, “When the pieces weave together in a story it helps the associates retain the lessons because they ‘know the client’ now. They see how things work from phase to phase, building on each other. The more context they have, the easier it is to see how each piece fits.”

The Goodwin training is premised on what Vaughn terms the “three-legged stool” of asynchronous learning via videos, live learning sessions led by senior attorneys, and interactive practice exercises that provide real-time feedback on simulated work product.

For prework, the associates utilize training videos provided by Hotshot. “We like these because they are short and match the ability of the adult learner to absorb information,” Vaughn says. Beyond the immediate learning, the prework enables new associates to familiarize themselves with the broader library of Hotshot content and its availability for just-in-time learning—which will always remain essential, no matter how excellent the training program.

The Hotshot videos cover the core concepts, allowing presenters in the live sessions to focus on scenarios rather than level-setting. Facilitators can assume participants have a foundational understanding, freeing them to dig into the hypotheticals and offer real nuance, including war stories and an insider’s perspective on the “Goodwin way.” In addition to the presenters, seasoned associates serve as mentors to the participants as they work through the scenarios in groups.

After each live session, participants practice the skills they learned. For this, Goodwin uses Praktio, an interactive training platform that teaches professional skills through realistic, on-demand exercises and provides real-time feedback. The platform offers a safe space for making, and correcting, mistakes without overtaxing partner resources.

“The on-demand videos and live lectures enabled me to gain exposure to the diverse kinds of litigation work that we do at the firm—more so than I would have had I jumped right into specific billable matters,” said first-year litigation associate Victoria Kingham. “My favorite part of the program was working with experienced associates in small groups during our interactive trainings, not only because it presented a substantive learning opportunity, but also because the associates were kind and welcoming.”

“As a first-year associate in the crazy legal market of 2021, I lost myself so deeply in the trees that I was oblivious to the forest,” recounted Goodwin fourth-year technology associate Pablo Hernandez Romero, who has worked with Vaughn’s team as a facilitator of the simulated transactions. “Given how the legal market has changed since 2021, we saw an opportunity to teach our first years how to deliver exceptional client service by balancing skill-building, ambition, collaboration and humility. We’re starting to reap the rewards of this training and believe it will help us craft a new culture of Biglaw as we continue to help our clients solve the world’s most complex problems.”

In the end, Vaughn concluded, “We can’t take a lecture-based approach to training anymore. It just doesn’t work. In fact, it never really worked.”

And we need training to work, especially with the way GenAI has shifted expectations. As Vaughn looks ahead, she recognizes, “Instead of having new associates doing the first round of review manually, in the future, we envision having them do quality control for the technology’s review. That takes a different skillset and judgment level.”

Casey Flaherty, LexFusion co-founder and chief strategy officer. Courtesy photo

Casey Flaherty is chief strategy officer at LexFusion, where he helps accelerate legal innovation. Flaherty is also a legaltech founder and has been a BigLaw litigator, in-house counsel, legal operations consultant, and law firm executive. He is an expert in the shifting dynamics of the legal market, legal technology, and the design of legal services to meet business needs at scale and pace.


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