With Trial Skills Training, Younger Law Firm Lawyers Provide Clients With Greater Value

Thursday, June 1, 2006 - 01:00
Peter Gruenberger

Editor: What brought about the interest in teaching trial skills and the development of the Weil Gotshal trial skills training program (Weil Training Model)?

Gruenberger: Training has always been important for me as a Weil Gotshal partner because the world as it becomes smaller is becoming more competitive. You need to train the Firm's partners to be better trainers and its associates to do the best job for the client, the profession and themselves. I became interested in training a long time ago. We worked with the Hecht Training Group and had an ad hoc training program from the mid-1980s until about five years ago. At that time, we decided to create a new system for training litigators who need to become trial lawyers.

When I started to practice, trials at big firms were an afterthought. As the world became more complicated, business people looked more to lawyers to solve problems in the courtroom. We needed to create skill sets for associates that they did not receive in law school or by carrying a partner's bag into the courtroom. We also wanted to create a reputation in the firm for our litigation practice that had a heavy emphasis on trying cases for clients in the more complex world. Today, there is more competition for business in the "bet your company" litigations we are increasingly seeing. This includes fields where such cases were once rare, such as patents, other intellectual property and bankruptcy cases. In those cases, you now need skilled trial lawyers, not just litigators or bankruptcy experts.

Training young lawyers is part of our mentoring philosophy. When we talked with associates, they asked for more learning and feedback from experienced people. Other goals were to improve recruiting in law schools, increase the retention of associates, and focus media attention on the firm's emphasis on excellence.

With these goals in mind, we affirmatively tried to change the ad hoc program we had in place. We could have used external consultants solely to provide this training. We chose instead to use external consultants on a limited basis and use our partners as faculty.

Hecht: As noted, Weil Gotshal decided to implement a formal training program because law schools do not train law students to be trial lawyers. I am a skills teacher at UC Berkley. At our law school we have a clinical program. That program has students that represent real clients under the supervision of faculty. That is one of the places where students get skills. The other is people like me who teach simulation skill courses. More top-rated law schools are increasing the skill simulation part of their offerings. However, law schools do not purport to teach students to become trial lawyers.

Editor: Corporate counsel often complain that even in the best firms, lawyers (particularly younger lawyers) may be assigned to their cases who are not able to perform at levels consistent with a firm's superior reputation. Does the Weil Training Model address this concern?

Gruenberger: Yes. For example, back in 2004, The American Lawyer chose us as the Best Litigation Firm in New York. The editors of that survey pointed to our program as one of the key factors that led to their decision.

Hecht: The regard in which the program is held by clients is illustrated by the fact that Westinghouse asked Weil to put on a training program for its in-house counsel. I was part of that program. That has not happened often, but it demonstrates that clients appreciate the effectiveness of the program.

Editor: Why does the Weil Training Model use Weil Gotshal partners as faculty?

Gruenberger: One big reason is that I have always felt that I learned more by teaching than any other method. Partners who are chosen as faculty learn as much or more than the people they teach. Partners' leadership skills also improve. How to get across ideas to associates and work well with them is an important skill. Although the partners who teach give up an eight hour day to do a deposition program and many hours in preparation, we think that it is worth it. Also, we deliberately have tailored the system to fit our firm's and clients' needs by keeping the program inside the firm. Collateral benefits of the Weil Training Model include improved client development, client communication and all the things that my colleagues did with clients when we were beginning our careers. We want to inculcate in younger lawyers the importance of the entrepreneurial spirit and of building client development skills.

We wanted to culminate our four-five year training program by having our associates engage in a weekend trial workshop every other year. The program requires us to go off site every other year to do exercises, two days of practice and faculty demonstrations, and a half day of trials.

We run the trial program in one place, generally in a New York suburb. The other eight or so interactive programs take place twice a year, once in New York and once in one of the four Western cities where the Firm has offices. Each of those programs lasts a day or day and a half. Partners from all of the offices are involved in this program.

Editor: How many people are exposed to this program?

Gruenberger: An average of 50 associates are involved in each trial program. There is a faculty-student ratio of better than one-to-one; faculty work with the associates for two and a half days. The program until now has been coordinated by a consultant from The Hecht Training Group who is the facilitator and by me.

Editor: Tell us more about the content of the litigation skills programs?

Gruenberger: We have two parallel sets of programs. One is "learning by doing." You cannot teach someone about evidence, for example, in a classroom. They have to see an evidentiary problem and react to it on the spot. That is a key skill that Henry's group helped us inculcate in the associates who participate. The "learning by doing" concept involves simulation and workshops. The training focuses on skills most directly geared to eventual trial, including interactive programs with respect to these skills. For example, the interactive program includes three different deposition programs. We have one for our summer associates. We have another program for the young lawyers in their first or second year. The third is for more senior associates right before the trial program. Henry wrote the definitive work Effective Depositions for the ABA on taking and defending a deposition

The other part of the overall program is the lecture-type presentation. It begins in our three-day orientation period that we do for new lawyers every September. It includes programs on document discovery, privileges (attorney/client and work product), pleadings, dispositive motions, preliminary injunctions, understanding the jury and ADR and settlements. We have about 15 of these "learning by watching and listening" presentations.

Each of these presentations includes training associates to work effectively with clients.

Editor: How much preparation is required?

Gruenberger: Take, for example, the deposition program where we recommend 8 to 12 hours of preparation. If someone were going to do a real deposition, it would require a lot more time to understand the material. For the trial program we give them the materials a month in advance and then they work with trial advisors in addition to working on their own.

Hecht: WG&M has improved the program by giving people a better sense of what they need to do. The training program has increased awareness in the firm that this is an important part of an associate's development. Associates seeing their peers prepare, combined with the fact that their partners are serving as faculty, are eager to fully prepare. Associates both receive feedback and provide feedback.

Editor: Do the partners for whom the associates work feel that the time allocated to their training is well spent?

Gruenberger: Yes. They have bought into the system. The highest levels of the firm have made it clear to the partnership that it has to buy into it and encourage the associates to participate in the programs and do well in them. The partners are the ultimate beneficiaries of this, because associates learn how to do things better and can help partners more extensively. Because of the success we have had, associates will stretch the extra mile to get the training.

Editor: What type of feedback do the associates provide?

Gruenberger: One of the requirements is that after every program the participants must submit an evaluation sheet. We have changed curriculum and faculty based on those written evaluations. We do listen carefully to reactions. I insist that we as faculty learn as much or more than the students.

Editor: I assume that you also bring experience to Weil Gotshal from doing this with other firms.

Hecht: I try to take what I learn from one client to another. One of the things I get is not only the evaluations and critiques by Weil Gotshal lawyers, but I also get constant feedback from various audiences.

Peter and I also talked about my ongoing relationship with Weil over twenty years. This means that I know the Weil Training Model. I have been part of its development. I know the partners that will teach the workshops, some of whom were associates when I first met them.

Editor: To what extent does Weil have training programs that update the skills of more senior lawyers?

Gruenberger: We keep our skills honed primarily by teaching. The best way to upgrade your skills is to have to teach someone else.

Hecht: Many of the senior and highly skilled trial lawyers at Weil have been involved in this program as teachers. It is not a program in which only junior level partners are involved.

Editor: What is your role as outside consultant?

Hecht: I serve three functions. I provide materials, train the trainers and train the associates. I also helped devise the program. Given our long history, there is trust among the partners that I am an appropriate person to train their lawyers.

Editor: Do you work with other consultants besides The Hecht Training Group?

Gruenberger: Most of the interactive program is aided by an outside consultant. Henry is not the only outside faculty we bring in. When we talk about damage experts, we have brought in people from NERA, Analysis Group and FTI Consulting, among others. For the writing program, we bring in someone else. For the other programs, partners in the firm do all of the audio visuals, PowerPoints and hand-out materials.

Please email the interviewees at peter.gruenberger@weil.com or hhecht@law.berkeley.edu with questions about this interview.