Training Can Assure That Even Junior Law Firm Lawyers Earn Those Fees - Part II

Saturday, July 1, 2006 - 01:00

Editor: Please tell our readers about your background.

Mastando: I am a partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group in the Litigation/Regulatory Department at Weil Gotshal. I was a summer associate here in 1995 and started full-time in 1996 in the Litigation Department. I left for one year to clerk for the Honorable Federico A. Moreno, a Federal District Court judge in Miami, Florida. I then came back to Weil Gotshal and have been here ever since. I handle a wide variety of litigations in numerous substantive areas, including insurance, IP, antitrust, private equity, class actions and other traditional complex commercial matters.

Editor: From your perspective as a former student and now a teacher, how would you describe the Weil Gotshal trial skills training program?

Mastando: The course of studies that we provide to train litigation associates is comprehensive and quite unique. It has only gotten better since I started as an associate in the mid-1990s. Incoming associates start with a multi-day orientation program. This is followed by a number of seminar programs especially for the more junior associates covering such topics as evidence, discovery, pleadings, and privileges. Then, as associates move up the skill ladder, they take interactive programs that offer a significant amount of hands-on experience - learning by doing. These include skill- enhancing workshops in such areas as deposition taking and defending, taking experts' depositions, brief writing and direct and cross examination.

The training culminates in a trial program for more senior (fifth and sixth year) associates that have completed all the previous programs, which takes place off-site over three days. During that period, associates focus their entire attention on trial preparation and on the trial that takes place on the last day. It is a four to five hour trial that the associates conduct on their own with the partners serving as judges and jurors. It is an incredible program.

The course of studies that we offer involves a lot of work, but it receives extremely high marks from associates - and from partners who further hone their own skills as a result of the teaching experience. I participated as an associate a number of years ago and now participate as faculty. The associates value it tremendously - they all learn a lot and have a good time. They recognize that the great amount of work is rewarding.

Editor: How do the programs fit into associates' work experiences?

Mastando: When associates first come into the programs, we train them on topics that relate directly to their current work assignments, such as discovery, privileges and research and writing skills. As they advance in their careers, they are subsequently exposed to the deposition and evidence programs. We have three different deposition program levels, each requiring increased experience. Typically, we will have sets of six associates being evaluated by two faculty partners, with each associate taking and defending two depositions each lasting 20 minutes. The goal is to see that all associates take all the programs and then participate in the trial program. If an associate has not completed all of the preliminary programs, he or she does not get to participate in the trial program.

Associates get extensive feedback from the partners overseeing the learning-by-doing programs, and there is a high faculty to student ratio. The feedback from the individual sessions is not translated into whether someone is ready to participate in a particular work experience. Everyone tries to view the programs as an opportunity to learn and critique. One does not want associates concerned that there might be a direct relationship between how they perform in the training and their advancement in the firm.

Editor: How does the firm justify the time taken for the training course?

Mastando: The programs require a great deal of work. This is true for both the partners and associates. The programs are only effective if everyone puts in sufficient time to prepare. The assignments are often very complicated and time consuming.

It says a lot about the associates and the partners that they want both to spend the extra time and go the extra mile to have these experiences. They know how valuable it is to the associate's individual development.

The time spent on these programs is justified because it makes us all better lawyers, helps us to develop and perfect our skills, and makes us better able to respond to our clients' needs. The development and training and the skill sets that the associates possess are very important both to the firm and its clients. I also find that associates are very willing to put in the time and work because it is something they enjoy doing. There is no feeling that the time spent on these programs is too much. This training helps associates to build their confidence and develop their skills. Associates demand this type of training in the current marketplace. They want to learn from partners and interact with them. Clients know that we have these training programs and want to have well-trained associates working on their matters. This is one of the reasons that partners are eager to see that the associates who work with them complete their training and are willing to put in a significant number of hours themselves acting as faculty.

The programs take place continuously (at least once a month), as associates develop, over a five-to-six year period. It is a very detailed course of study that requires a lot of time and involvement by the associates and the partners as teachers. It makes the balancing of work and training more of a challenge. But it pays off for everyone, students, teachers, and clients, because in the end we all benefit greatly from the experience.

Editor: Tell us about the role of the partners as faculty.

Mastando: I have been teaching for three to four years. Even as a senior associate, I taught certain programs for junior associates. All of the litigation partners are involved in one or more of the training programs. Because some have more experience in particular areas, their involvement provides the associates with a rounded view of the many aspects of litigation practice. Because we all participate, it sends a message to the associates that all the partners care about their development.

A large number of our partners from all over the country participate in the off-site trial program. It is universally viewed as essential to what the associates must learn to do. This and all the other programs give the partners as a group a great opportunity to interact and bond with each other and with the associates. You are exposed to new approaches to issues; you think about issues differently when you get the perspectives of others.

Materials used in the programs are prepared by the partners taking part in them. This involves an immense amount of work. The written materials used in the training programs have proven to be so valuable that associates retain them as practice guides throughout their careers.

When I prepare for a deposition skills training workshop, there is a lot of material I have to read and there are a lot of issues that I have to consider when giving them feedback. You have to prepare. You cannot arrive on the day of the training and hope it works out. You have to know in advance the details of the issues that will be addressed. Preparation for the trial skills program is even more arduous; you have to know the entire record file for the hypothetical trial. Partners have to know it as well as the associates in order to effectively act as the judge and jury and evaluate the associates' performances.

Editor: Does the training course foster teamwork and collegiality among the partners who teach and the associates?

Mastando: One of the useful things I have found in participating in the training programs is how much you learn from your other partners and the associates. The partners get to discuss an associate's performance among themselves before they give him or her feedback. They discuss what they thought and how best to approach the evaluation of the associate's performance.

Being involved in these programs together with other partners and associates creates an atmosphere of teamwork and collegiality. The most positive aspect is that teambuilding is inclusive. Both partners and associates work as a team. This is great for associate morale and recruiting and retention.

You get to see how other partners react and view problems and issues. This is always valuable because people take varied approaches. It is a shared experience that people enjoy talking about. It is very focused and people put a lot of work into it. The off-site trial program is just like going through a mini-trial together and there is a bonding experience from working on a trial with a team.

Editor: Do you have any final comments?

Mastando: Peter Gruenberger, a distinguished litigation partner and Chair Emeritus of the Litigation Training Committee, has done a great job in developing and expanding the Weil Gotshal trial skills training program. The new Chairs, Ralph Miller, Lori Pines and Scott Martin, are continuing this work and further refining the program. Our outside consultant Henry Hecht has also been instrumental in the success of the course. Peter Gruenberger and the many others who have contributed to the success of these programs should be proud. Taking the programs involves hard work and participation involves a significant time commitment. Yet, across the board, the reaction of the associates who have participated in these programs has been very positive, and they are the best judges of the experience. Our associates are getting experiences that they like, and they are happy to put in the time and effort, including the necessary preparation, to make the most of those experiences. In the end, everyone benefits.

Part I of this series of interviews on the Weil Gotshal trial skills training program for litigation associates appeared in our June issue.