Reimagining new attorney onboarding through a computer science lens

June 23, 2021 – When futurizing themselves, law firms should examine not only their internal culture, client engagement, and client service offerings, but also the new associate onboarding experience. Investing in new associates more deliberately has both short-term efficiency and long-term market competitiveness payoffs.

Reconceptualizing onboarding as a product enables taking lessons from computer science to bring onboarding into 2021.

Human-computer interaction, or HCI, is a specialty within the study of computer science that focuses on improving end-user experiences. HCI focuses on how best to deliver the core value proposition of a product or service versus the proposition itself.

Jakob Nielsen, dubbed the guru of Web page usability by the New York Times, laid out 10 usability heuristics — simple principles, or rules of thumb — for interaction design. While these principles were designed with software in mind, they are also applicable to product design and to any client-facing service. These heuristics provide rules of thumb for ensuring a positive user experience and are of primary importance for the new user.

Poor HCI causes new users to operate the underlying system inefficiently, experience frustration and stop using the product. Law firms should apply Nielsen’s principles to their own new users — incoming associate classes — to improve job performance, satisfaction and retention.

This article describes how firms can apply these principles to modernize new associate experiences. It is clear that modernizing is the way forward: last year, 62% of technology-leading firms reported increased profitability, versus just 39% of transitioning firms and a mere 17% of trailing firms. “The 2020 Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer.”

New associates often find law firms opaque and daunting. It can be hard to identify what is going on, what the firm is prioritizing and how the associate fits into the bigger picture. Communicating system status helps associates understand the firm environment and the broader effects of their actions.

Within firms, system status involves both high-level strategy and assignment-level context. Communicating the purpose of each assignment to associates will help them better tailor their work to align with case, client and market strategy. Transparent communication also creates predictability and builds trust.

This goes both ways. Firms should train new associates on effective communication and collaboration.

A data-driven analysis of corporate legal departments identified that efficiency and collaboration served as a top-three criterion upon which to evaluate law firms. “Future Ready Lawyer,” Wolters Kluwer.

Familiarity makes it easier to learn and to operate at maximum potential. Law firms should pursue meaningful diversity to match their internal systems to the real-world.

When there is mismatch, new associates will likely find the firm unfamiliar, confusing and even alienating: minority associates depart firms earlier and at higher rates, a trend observed to occur with even greater disparity among entry-level associates, “Starved of Professional Development, Minority Associates Are Fleeing Big Firms,” Report Finds,, Sept. 30, 2020.

When users have agency to navigate a product, service, or experience, it helps them avoid feeling stuck or frustrated. Firms should provide associates with clear ways to navigate — and take time away from — the firm as needed. One concrete way firms can implement this is by prioritizing mental health.

Attorneys need the freedom to take a break from the system: medical studies show that taking vacation reduces fatigue and improves productivity, “Effect of vacation on health: moderating factors of vacation outcome.”

However, existing time-off models disincentivize their use because they only displace existing billable hours expectations into future weeks.

Firms can reduce cognitive load for associates by ensuring internal consistency and standards. New associates may spend extensive time learning to navigate assignment systems, wondering if assignments are distributed fairly, and how fairly they are evaluated relative to other associates.

Firms that do not examine fair work distribution will likely create an inconsistent experience for new associates. Such associates will spend undue time discerning whether they have the best opportunities, taking energy away from providing their best work product.

Graceful system error handling is important; preventing predictable errors from occurring at all is even better. Firms are much more familiar with common pitfalls than new associates are. Firms should introduce technology and systems intentionally designed to help new associates avoid common mistakes.

As the modern work environment becomes increasingly technology-dependent, it is vital to empower new associates to exercise recognition, not recall, with technology. While both are methods of retrieving information from memory, recognition entails understanding the subject, while recall consists of rote memorization. Recognition creates longer-lasting skills that are more rapidly and easily deployed.

Currently, only 27% of lawyers feel they have the skillset to improve their productivity via technology. “Future Ready Lawyer,” Wolters Kluwer. While many associates receive technology training, it is often structured as recall learning rather than recognition learning.

Firms should train new associates for technical literacy, aiming for technological understanding. Firms should teach associates to talk the talk (what’s the difference between AI and ML?), and walk the walk (when do you use # versus ! in a boolean search?), reaping the rewards of both.

Systems that experience repeat or heavy use should be designed with flexibility and efficiency in mind. In the modern law firm, this means implementing technologies to speed up frequently-repeated processes — for example, contract drafting, discovery and bluebooking — so that associates can spend more time on more complex, bespoke work.

McKinsey predicts that 23% of attorney work is automatable: that doesn’t even address what portion of the remaining 77% could be made more efficient. “Automation and US Jobs,” McKinsey Global Institute,

A focused design without unnecessary parts will be more effective at communicating itself to users than one with distracting or convoluted features.

The new associate experience is not unlike drinking from the firehose already: firms should take care to avoid unnecessary information, and to clearly present important information, like assignments, time entry and firm culture. This shares space with the concept of signal-to-noise: the best system will have high signal and low noise; the latter distracts and competes directly for user attention.

Users inevitably make mistakes and new associates do too. It is important to design systems to account for this. Law firms must create environments where associates are not afraid to make mistakes, own up to them and learn from them.

Firms create this culture not only through high-level messaging but also specific action. Error messaging must be clear, expressed plainly and identify solutions. This extends even beyond errors: a clear feedback system overall is vital to help new associates grow.

While firms should aim to create intuitive, self-explanatory systems — no one needs a manual to watch Netflix — some portions are too complex to learn without additional documentation and assistance. New associates may find certain aspects of their role and within their firm accessible, but other pieces will certainly require training, mentorship or just better-designed systems.

Taking the time and energy to commit tribal knowledge into documentation helps accessibly codify existing practice and gives firms a chance to review and innovate over it. Additionally, well-supported mentorship systems help new associates get on-demand help with more complex situations.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Wendy Curtis

Wendy Butler Curtis is Orrick’s Chief Innovation Officer and can be reached at

King Xia

King Xia is the firm’s inaugural Innovation Fellow and splits time practicing law in Orrick’s Complex Litigation & Dispute Resolution group and futurizing legal practice via legal innovation; he formerly worked at Google as a software engineer. He can be reached at

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