Karen Sloan
February 10, 2011

Associates at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy are heading to Harvard.

The firm has agreed with Harvard Law School to launch what it believes is a first-of-its-kind associate development program. Mid-level associates will attend annual eight-day training sessions focused on business principles at the Cambridge, Mass., campus.

The program is called Milbank@Harvard.

It's not uncommon for law firms to send attorneys through intensive executive training courses at top academies such as the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania, but those programs often are geared toward leadership development for partners. Milbank's program will be open to all third- through seventh-year associates.

"We don't know of anyone who is doing something like this," said Milbank Vice Chairman Scott Edelman. "For one thing, it's going to involve every associate in the firm and a commitment over a period of years. It's not a one-year program."

Law firms have been moving away from affiliations with prestigious academic institutions, said Eric Seeger, a consultant with Altman Weil who specializes in law firm strategy. Firms are serious about instilling the skills they want associates to have, but most of those efforts are being handled internally, he said.

"It's good branding to be associated with Harvard. That has some value," Seeger said. "It might also have some recruiting and retention benefits."

Larry Richard, a consultant who runs the leadership and organization development group at Hildebrandt Baker Robbins, hasn't seen anything quite like Milbank@Harvard. There is a reason that most firms don't send mid-level associates off for business training, he said. Attorneys tend to be more receptive and motivated to learn new things early in their careers, and research shows that educational efforts are most effective when students are interested in their subject matter.

"They're talking about teaching things like economics and finance," Richard said. "Will every lawyer be interested in that? I don't know."

Still, sending associates to learn about business and client relations can't hurt, Richard said. The team atmosphere that results from bringing together associates from all offices may well prove the biggest benefit. "There is an indispensable role that face-to-face contact has in building connections," Richard said.

Team building indeed is one of Milbank's goals, Edelman said. So is increasing associates' investment in the firm. Some 40 associates will go though the program at a time, with 100 to 150 completing the training annually. Another goal is to turn associates into savvy businesspeople who understand what's important to clients, he said.

Faculty members from Harvard's law and business schools will teach the sessions, and Milbank partners will be involved. The program is being developed by the firm and Harvard law professor Ashish Nanda, executive director of the school's executive education program. Nanda in 2008 helped Linklaters develop the Linklaters Law and Business School, an extensive professional development program.

Learning about business principles in a Harvard classroom still won't be as effective as secondments with clients, which show associates how the client's business really functions, Richards said.

And including every associate may not be the best way to meet the individual needs of either attorneys or clients, Seeger said. "It surprised me that they will put all their associates through the program," he said. "Our experience is that a one-size-fits all experience is not the most efficient."

Perhaps another surprising element is the financial investment the program represents for Milbank. It includes not only the cost of the program but the time associates will spend away from client matters.

That was a significant consideration for Milbank, Edelman said, but the firm already holds four five-day conferences for associates during their first seven years with the firm.

Law firms have been rolling back spending on attorney development, according to a 2010 survey by the National Association for Law Placement. More than half of the survey respondents reported that their firm's professional development budgets decreased by 10% or more between 2008 and 2010.

Milbank associates are embracing the program, Edelman said. "Associates are really charged up about it and excited about doing it."  
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