In-house career development opportunities let workers move forward without job-hopping. (Bigstock/Bigstock)

WilmerHale likes to describe itself as a full-service international law firm working at the intersection of government, technology and business.

But at its core, the global firm, with offices in the District, is only as good as its people, says managing partner Bob Novick.

“We’re a ‘talent’ business, and that’s all we are,” he says. “It’s critical that we invest in that talent every day because that’s what we sell to the marketplace.”

Indeed, what they sell are litigators with Supreme Court experience. Lawyers in a regulatory practice that once held high-level government positions. Legal specialists who hold scientific and technical degrees.

And yet the economics of the business are changing, as clients embrace in-house practices and lower-cost alternatives to traditional Big Law. That makes it harder and harder for top firms to give younger lawyers real-world professional experience. A lot of high-dollar clients these days simply refuse to pay for the services of a lawyer with less than two years of experience.

“The client perspective is ‘you train them on your nickel, not on our nickel,’ ” Novick said.

WilmerHale’s answer: A slew of creative ad-hoc workshops and a companywide commitment to pro-bono work. The firm holds at least one workshop a week covering such basics as oral advocacy, accounting and ethics as well as more esoteric topics such as the “regulatory environment in the broker dealer world.”

For those seeking a management role or thinking of starting their own firm, Novick even presented a seminar breaking down the business side of the legal industry.

Still, Novick echoes many in other industries in emphasizing the value of on-the-ground experience over staged workshops. For on-the-ground work, the firm relies on pro-bono cases to help young lawyers learn the ropes. With these cases the stakes are still high, but clients are less likely to be finicky about the specifics of an lawyer’s résumé because they are getting the work free.

“It’s probably the case that for a first-year lawyer, a pro-bono case lets them do things more on their own,” Novick said. “That creates some hands-on experience that is real.”

Younger lawyers certainly aren’t the only ones taking on pro-bono cases; the firm requires all of its lawyers to commit at least 5 percent of their total billable hours to pro-bono cases.

“It’s not like the younger lawyers do pro-bono work and the older ones don’t,” said Novick, “but you’re certainly right that a younger lawyer might be more inclined to take on a pro-bono matter. You’ll get a lot more exposure.”

WilmerHale’s efforts seem to be appreciated by employees. They gave the firm the highest marks among D.C. area Top Workplaces for career training.

WilmerHale is hardly the only firm that received high marks for training.

Down the road at ChasenBoscolo, a personal injury law firm with offices in Falls Church, Va., and Greenbelt and Waldorf, Md., management prefers to hire and train young lawyers, mostly because more-expensive talent often had trouble meshing with the firm’s entrepreneurial culture.

“We can teach people how to practice law the way we practice it, but we can’t teach our culture,” says managing partner Barry Chasen. “We reached a point where we were never going to hire another lawyer with experience, so instead we hire people straight out of law school and we train them.”

They do it primarily though mentoring, in which new hires are paired with more experienced lawyers.

In addition to working with newly minted lawyers, many law firms also look to help professionals with critical skills make the transition to law. When a patent agent or technical specialist at District-based Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox wants to attend law school, the firm often picks up the entire tuition tab.

This sort of education reimbursement is one of the most common — and expensive — ways that companies support employees’ careers. Some surveys show that close to 9 out of 10 companies offer tuition reimbursement in some form.

In some cases, employees can get entire degrees on the company’s dime. At Mark G. Anderson Consultants, a D.C.-based company that represents owners in real estate disputes, employees can expense up to $5,250 a year for classes, and human resources manager Heather Davis says she has approved courses that cost up to $10,000. And it is not just law firms. At Mitre, a sprawling nonprofit organization that operates federally funded research centers, employees can sometimes charge up to $25,000 per year for tuition.

Technology companies are quick to shell out for professional certifications, stamps of approval that are becoming increasingly important in advanced fields such as cyber­security.

TCG, a small District-based technology contractor, sets aside a $2,500 annual training budget for each employee that can be rolled over to the next year. Fairfax-based technology contractor InTec allocates $3,000 a year for education reimbursements. Rockville-based Insurance Associates actually requires employees to do some sort of continuing education, paid for by the company.

Employers see it as an investment in their workers’ future and as a way to keep them from looking for greener pastures as the local job market heats up and the demand for talent increases. Some even use employer contributions to make it harder for employees to leave.

“If you have tuition reimbursement there’s usually a caveat that says ‘if we’re going to spend money on you, you have to stay with us for a long time, or you pay us back,’ ” said Rose Stanley, an employee benefits expert at the human resources association WorldatWork.

Federal contracting giant CACI, for instance, will sometimes spend up to $12,000 a year on tuition but requires employees to stick around for a year after they finish.

Mitre has a two-year tenure requirement for those who earn graduate and undergraduate degrees, and a three-year tenure requirement for a more robust program that includes financial support for outside research.

With smaller reimbursement programs, companies feel less pressure to recoup their investment.

At the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, employees are eligible for tuition reimbursement whether they work full or part time , and they can walk out the door the day they graduate if they choose. But the Hyatt’s tuition program caps subsidies at $1,000 per year per employee.

“It may not pay for your whole college, but it will pay for part of your college,” said Nathalie Rytting, Hyatt’s director of human resources.

Rytting said Hyatt attaches no stipulations regarding employees’ tenure.

“We don’t believe in that,” Rytting said. “We just want people to get educated.”

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