Ready, Set, Bill? An Orientation Blueprint for New Associates

  • September 17, 2014
  • Julie Stauffer

The hiring process is complete, and your newest associates – all carefully selected for their skills, experience and firm fit – are ready to start work. Or are they?

It’s easy to assume that after three years of law school, summer student placements and several months of articling your new hires are ready to dive right in. However the truth is that, like most new employees, they’re in need of a proper and thorough orientation process.

Instead of working on isolated assignments, they’re suddenly expected to build and manage a practice. “It’s a pretty tall order when you make the shift from student to associate,” explains Marlene Kane, director of professional development at McMillan Binch Mendelsohn’s Toronto office.

As lawyers, they need to juggle conflicting deadlines, attract work both internally and externally, deliver top-notch client service, take full responsibility for their files, and master the firm’s billing process.

By investing some time and effort in welcoming and orienting your new associates, you can make sure they conquer the steep learning curve, feel comfortable with their new responsibilities, and develop a strong commitment to your firm.

Here’s a chronological breakdown of how to successfully orient and welcome new associates to the firm:


You can make the newest members of your team feel valued – and help them become productive as quickly as possible – by taking care of a number of details before they arrive.

Thank them for joining

Once the contracts have been signed, get things off on the right foot by sending them a welcome note or picking up the phone. Tell them how pleased you are that they’ve decided to join the firm and how confident you are that they will have a positive impact on the firm.

Minimize those first-day jitters by letting new associates know when they should arrive, where they can park, whom they should report to, and what kind of activities been scheduled for their first week.

Have paperwork ready

Kathy Slocombe, human resources manager for Vancouver-based Alexander Holburn Beaudin & Lang LLP, has personalized binders prepared for new associates when they walk in the door. These include their letter of offer, law society forms, benefits information, and firm policies and procedures. When they arrive, she reviews everything with them so they feel confident that all the administrative work has been dealt with properly.

Provide the tools they’ll need

Have an office set up, complete with a computer system, telephone, basic office supplies, and a nameplate on the door. Make sure they have a telephone extension and an e-mail address assigned to them, and add that information to all your organizational lists and directories. Don’t forget to add them to the firm’s Web site too, so that they have an external presence right away.

Your new associates will need passwords for computer systems, photocopiers, etc. and, in some cases, a set of office keys/cards, instructions on turning the security system on and off, and a parking pass.

A calendar marked with upcoming training sessions and practice group meetings will help them plan those first few weeks, and business cards will ensure they’re ready to start networking.

Spread the good news

Inform partners, associates and the new associate’s support staff of the new hire and when he/she will be starting work. But don’t forget the rest of the firm as well.

McInnes Cooper’s marketing department creates a newsletter with photos and bios of all new associates. Karen Hollett, one of the Atlantic firm’s two professional development coordinators, says this helps with work allocation, as partners have them in mind when they head off to court or meet with clients.


When your first-year associates walk through the door, don’t just toss them some files and set them to work. An orientation program – either formal or informal – will help them feel comfortable with their new responsibilities and hit the ground running.

The Orientation Process

 “I think that every firm, no matter how small, should have at least a one-day orientation,” says Rebecca Pitts, a second-year associate at McInnes Cooper’s Halifax office. “Even if you have the new associate shadow someone for one day … just so that the unknowns are made clear.”

If your associates are new to the firm, an orientation program is an opportunity to convey the organization’s values and standards and to get them familiar with all the resources available, so they can use them as effectively as possible.

Even if they have summered or articled with the firm, there’s still a lot to learn about their new role. “It’s a whole different ballgame,” Pitts explains. “There’s a whole onslaught of issues that you didn’t have to deal with as a student or an article clerk, such as accounting and billing, trust funds, the management and structure of the firm, working with a secretary, a lot more direct contact with clients, expectations in terms of business development, things like that.”

Norm Letalik, a partner and managing director of professional excellence at the Toronto office of Borden Ladner Gervais, believes a big part of orientation involves teaching new hires how things are done in the firm. “It gives us a chance to talk about best practices,” he explains.

And then there’s the team building aspect. “It’s far easier to create a firm culture when you have a common training program,” says Letalik.

In bigger firms, orientation helps new associates get to know the colleagues who will form their support network and learn their areas of specialization. It also helps senior associates and partners to get to know the new hires.

In all cases, an orientation program demonstrates that you value your new associates and are willing to invest in them. You can’t do a big sales job on prospective associates, says Slocombe, and then ignore them when they walk through the door.

“We want to make sure that all the processes are in place so that the associate feels there’s a commitment made by the firm,” she explains. “We put a conscious effort into telling them that we want to help them succeed.”

An orientation program can also be a valuable recruitment tool, demonstrating that the firm cares about professional development.

Key Elements of a Successful Orientation Process

Firm culture and structure
New associates will be concerned about how many billable hours they are expected to work, how they will be evaluated, and how much new business they will need to generate.

Your orientation program should cover the expectations, policies and practices of the firm, and the structures in place to help them meet those expectations.

Consider including a closed-door session where senior associates can speak frankly with new associates on what to expect. Your new hires will be much more willing to believe your firm values work/life balance, for example, if they hear it from lawyers who have recently gone through that first year.

Explain how the firm is structured and how it functions so that new associates know how they fit in. Describe what the different committees are and how decisions are made. A briefing on the history and philosophy of the firm will help new associates understand firm culture, and by talking about where the firm is heading, you’ll send the message that they have a role to play in creating that future.

Practice management
New associates will also need to know the nuts and bolts of practice management. Think about including topics such as billing, reports, principles of docketing, filing procedures, time management, confidentiality, ethics and conflict of interest.

Keep these sessions as hands-on as possible to ensure they assimilate the information – people learn much more by doing than by listening.

Business development
Now is the time to stress that a law firm is a business. Talk about your marketing strategy and how new associates can attract clients. A session on networking skills can be particularly valuable.

The McInnes Cooper orientation even covers the etiquette of a formal dinner party. “I know a lot of us giggled about it during the session, but it was actually very, very effective,” says Pitts.

To retain clients, your associates need to satisfy them. Offer tips on communication skills – especially listening skills – and consider organizing a panel of clients to discuss what good service means from their perspective.

Practice skills
At this stage in their career, new lawyers should be familiar with basic practice skills, but this is a good time for a refresher on research, business writing, public speaking, communication skills, and negotiation—the more interactive, the better.

Working as a team
New associates may be working with an assistant for the first time in their career, so a session on how to work with assistants, law clerks and paralegals can be very helpful. Include advice on setting up daily routines, developing strong working relationships, and conducting performance evaluations.

The McInnes Cooper orientation program includes a panel discussion featuring a particularly effective team of partner, associate and legal assistant, each providing their own perspective. “They work well together, they have fun together, they work efficiently together, and that’s what we want to encourage people to work towards,” says Hollett.

To make the most of firm resources, new associates have to understand how to use them effectively – whether it’s the library, the records management system, the photocopier or the fancy buttons on the telephone.

McMillan Binch Mendelsohn offers training on how to use technology to be more efficient, covering topics such as how to organize your in box, how to flag items for follow up, and how to use the firm’s contact information system.

Career development
Now is also a good time to discuss evaluation procedures, salary reviews and promotion pathways, and to provide tips on how new associates can find their niche in the firm.

“I think everybody likes to know where they’re going, what the expectations are, and where they’re going to be in three years or five years,” says Bill Hood, a managing partner in the Saskatoon firm of Stevenson Hood.

In a busy practice, it’s easy to forget to schedule regular evaluations or develop formal guidelines for pay increases, but by taking your associates for granted that way, you risk losing them to a competitor.

Welcome to the firm
Give new hires an opportunity to meet their colleagues at a practice group lunch or welcome dinner. Social get-togethers may seem like a lower priority than squeezing in a session on the key aspects of due diligence, but that casual banter over a beer will lay the groundwork for strong teams and effective communication.


No matter how good an orientation program your firm offers, it’s going to take a while before your new associates feel really comfortable in their job, so don’t assume your work is done at the end of week one.

Encourage questions

One of the most important things a firm can do for new associates is create an atmosphere where they aren’t afraid to ask questions. It can be very intimidating to ask a senior partner what to do, explains Sue Connolly, a first-year associate at McInnes Cooper’s Charlottetown office, so it’s critical to reiterate constantly that new associates will never be ridiculed or reprimanded.

“My first summer with McInnes Cooper I understood very clearly that you ask any of us anything, anytime,” she says. “I think you really need to foster that environment.”

Hood stresses an open door policy, but he recognized a couple of years ago that younger lawyers weren’t always getting all the information they needed. “I suspect at times, although the door is open, they may feel they’re intruding,” he says.

His solution was to institute Friday afternoon “show and tell” sessions in a relaxed setting outside of the office. Everyone, from summer students to managing partners, discusses what they are working on. “It’s a good way to make people comfortable,” says Hood.

Provide work experience

Ultimately, associates learn by doing. “It’s experience, experience, experience that’s the best teacher,” says Kane. That’s why senior lawyers should make a deliberate effort to get them involved on the files, have them sit in on client meetings, and take them to court – even if the hours aren’t billable.

Kane has developed a checklist for new associates to make sure they get the diversity of work experience they need under their belt.

That should include working with a number of different partners and senior associates. “In order to determine your own practice style, you should be exposed to as many different practice styles as possible so that you can find something that works best for you,” says Letalik.

Provide feedback

Regular performance evaluations and salary reviews shouldn’t be forgotten, but ongoing feedback is even more essential. To become effective lawyers, associates need timely comments on what they’re doing right and where they could improve. This could be a debriefing after a client meeting or court appearance, or detailed comments on a piece of written work.

Follow up

It’s important to check in regularly to make sure they’re settling in. At the three-month mark, Kane meets with new associates to discuss how much work they’re getting, how well they’re managing their time, and whether there are courses they need to take to get up to speed in a particular area.

There’s a lot to digest in the first few weeks, so don’t expect that all the details of your billing session from week one have actually sunk in. Provide handouts or a procedures binder that associates can refer to in the months to come.

After running a number of orientations, Hollett recognized that some of the nitty-gritty was best covered after new associates had some hands-on experience running a practice.

Now, instead of a three-day orientation each spring to welcome new associates, McInnes Cooper runs two days in the spring and one day in the fall. The follow-up session is an opportunity to tackle some topics in more detail and to address issues that have come up in the first few months of practice.

Provide mentors

Many firms have formal mentorship programs, where new associates are paired with a partner who meets with them at least monthly. These can be informal or more structured arrangements – the key is that mentors are available and take their commitment seriously.

Some firms also buddy new associates up with someone a year or two their senior – someone less intimidating than a senior partner who can explain the ropes and guide them through the minefield of office politics.

Provide ongoing training

Associates still have a large amount of legal knowledge to master, both within and outside of their practice area.

At Borden Ladner Gervais, weekly seminars offer an opportunity to get to know one another, learn who the subject specialists are in the firm, and gain a basic knowledge of each practice area.

Especially in larger firms, there’s a lot of pressure on associates to specialize earlier and earlier, explains Letalik. “So in our 101 curriculum, we have quite a large number of courses that are related to what we believe every lawyer should know about a particular topic,” he says. “For example, even if someone is in litigation, they need to know at least some basic elementary things about tax.”

Foster networks

“I think as a first year associate it’s really important that you have a good support network with your peers, so any event that the firm can have that fosters collegiality is very important,” says Pitts.

Workshops and training sessions are good opportunities to connect with other associates and partners. Social events are another way to promote networks, whether it’s regular Friday afternoon get-togethers or a charity golf tournament once a year.


If your firm doesn’t have an orientation and support program in place for new associates, it will take time to build. Your first steps should be to conduct a needs assessment by consulting with current associates and partners.

Getting the logistics in place is a fair amount of work, according to Hollett. Once the program is up and running, however, it’s just a question of making minor adjustments from year to year.

Start small, advises Kane, and then build on your successes. By involving partners, staff and associates in the planning and delivery of an orientation program, you’ll tap into a rich vein of resources and create internal buy in.

As you plan your program, think about the expectations of both the firm and the new associates. What does the firm need new associates to know? What concerns will new associates have that need to be addressed?

Smaller firms may not need an extensive orientation program. At Hood’s 12-lawyer firm, the transition from articling student to associate is quite seamless, because they’ve been involved in client meetings and working closely with senior lawyers from the outset. “The umbilical cord isn’t cut in one big sweep of the knife,” he says.

Although some kind of formal orientation helps new associates prepare for a key career transition, says Connolly, the bottom line is a supportive environment.

“The most important thing that a firm can provide is just an open door to mentors and senior practitioners that can help you get through your first time doing whatever it is that you have to do,” she says.

Whatever form they take, strong orientation and support programs have clear and tangible benefits. The payoff is a happy, productive and committed staff, as well as an excellent reputation when it comes to your next round of hiring.

Julie Stauffer is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ontario.