As we all know, common law or similarly originated doctrine gives precedential authority to prior court decisions on the belief that it is unfair to treat comparable facts differently on different occasions; thus, the doctrine of judicial precedent.
Why is this history lesson so important today? It reminds us that the U.S. legal system favors the past.
In fact, legal decisions made in courtrooms by court officers—judges, jury, and counsel—from decades ago are still carved in metaphorical stone for current generations to remember and emulate.
And, because legal professionals value the past, they also value past experience.
Again, it’s why attorneys are separated by year-based delineations and job titles, i.e., first-year associates, second-year associates… all the way up a linear chain to partner.
The question remains, however, does length of experience always lead to increased value to the firm?
In terms of hiring assocaites, Wharton research demonstrated that “cultural fit”—meaning a lack of employment “baggage” from previous places of employment and the ability to be retrained to fit the culture of a person’s new firm—plays a key role in the success of a new hire.
It’s the case of “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” And, law firms are no exception to this rule.
“If you have a strong culture and a clear strategy in doing things that differ from your competitor, you may want to think carefully about whether you want to hire for experience,” Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard warns.
“Or whether you want to hire people with less experience and invest more in training them in your model.”
So, depending on the cultural model of your firm, extensive professional experience may not actually add value.
Daniel Gulati, a tech entrepreneur based in New York and coauthor of the new book Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, on the other hand, believes that the opposite—inexperience—is the true advantage for law firms.
He explains in the Harvard Business Review‘s “The Inexperience Advantage,” that what young professionals lack in a deep expertise in their industry, they make up for in a different type of competitive advantage.
“Being inexperienced means you’re not shackled with decades of service in a narrow vertical and the accompanying entrenched biases and relationships. You have natural qualities to offer that companies spend millions of dollars per year in training budgets trying to replicate in their most senior executives. You question long-held assumptions, cross-pollinating your projects with outside ideas. You don’t have to pander to the person who did you a favor all those years ago, and more generally, you don’t have social capital within your organization to protect,” writes Gulati.
“This means you’re pretty free from some huge barriers to innovation: sunk costs, self-interest, and bias.”
It seems younger generations are not competing on the same plane as older generations. Senior attorneys are free to use time and experience to their professional benefit and to the benefit of their clients.
First-year attorneys, however, are an asset in law firm management—demonstrating to partners and administrators that the outdated model of running a law firm can be modified, improved, innovated.
From alternative billing arrangements to creative pricing, from freelance legal services to avatar lawyers, the legal industry is facing great change. Men with great experience may not be the best choice for keeping up.
Leave it to the inexperienced mind, which is unrestrained by obsolete technology and archaic ways of thinking.
The legal system values the past—as it should. But if your firm is ready to make its way into the future, don’t underestimate the potential for success and new ideas among your younger generation of associates.