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Why (Some) Big Law Firms Don’t Care About Associate Development

How good are law firms REALLY when it comes to associate development? The practices vary widely, whether you’re an associate in a US, UK, Australian firm or otherwise. And according to a recent report in AbovetheLaw, which indicated how associates can easily get overlooked when it comes to courtroom experience.

The issue arose over oral examination of witnesses in cases involving

While it may be the case that associates can get to handle some real-life courtroom experience by cross examining pedestrian witnesses who have no real influence on case outcomes, when it comes to the meat-and-potatoes side of things, then the firms are hard-pressed to permit the associates to have the work.

The issue that arose was one involving GSI Technology v. United Memories, with Magistrate Judge Paul Grewal saying:

In a technology community like ours that prizes youth—at times unfairly—there is one place where youth and inexperience seemingly comes with a cost: the courtroom. In intellectual property case after intellectual property case in this courthouse, legions of senior lawyers with decades of trial experience regularly appear. Nothing surprises about this. When trade secret or patent claims call for millions in damages and substantial injunctive relief, who else should a company call but a seasoned trial hand? But in even the brief tenure of the undersigned, a curious trend has emerged: the seasoned trial hand appears for far more than trial itself. What once might have been left to a less experienced associate is now also claimed by senior counsel. Motion to compel discovery? Can’t risk losing that. Motion to exclude expert testimony? Can’t risk losing that, either. Motion to exclude Exhibit 20356 as prejudicial under Fed. R. Evid. 403? Same thing.

So how did Judge Grewal propose to deal with this issue?

Here’s what he recommended:

But with no fewer than six post-trial motions set for argument next week, surely an opportunity can be made to give those associates that contributed mightily to this difficult case a chance to step out of the shadows and into the light. To that end, the court expects that each party will allow associates to present its arguments on at least two of the six motions to be heard. If any party elects not to do this, the court will take its positions on all six motions on the papers and without oral argument.

What actually happened however was that the lawyers decided that instead of having associates present argument they should instead handle matters themselves on the basis of filings.

GSI is represented by BigLaw’s DLA Piper and had any number of associates who might have handled the “work”, although United Memories is a smaller, tech-focused boutique firm that may not have the same associate resource (Ruyak Cherian).

 

As AbovetheLaw noted:

There’s no good way to spin this from the partners’ perspective. If the briefs researched and drafted by associates are so strong, then what possible harm could that associate do in arguing them? And why was oral argument so important when a seasoned *cough* higher billing *cough* lawyer was going to do it, and so unnecessary now? Plus, when Judge Grewal specifically asked to hear from less-experienced attorneys, he signaled himself as a sympathetic ear — he didn’t make this unusual request without planning to grade on a curve.

Think of this episode the next time a firm tells you how much they value their young lawyers: one of the biggest firms in the world would rather stay silent than let one of its legion of associates talk to a judge for 10 minutes… and still publicly crows about its commitment to “help our lawyers reach their highest potential as professionals.”

(If you’d like to decide the matter purely on the filings, both the order and response

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