Strategies for creating effective training programs for today’s law firm
With modern priorities perpetually evolving, law firm professional development is likewise transforming. To remain effective, development strategies must adapt to modern employees’ needs.
“Employees are accessing information and learning differently than they did just a few years ago,” according to Bersin by Deloitte’s infographic: Meet the Modern Learner. “Most are looking for answers outside of traditional training and development channels.”
The legal industry is no stranger to this trend.
“A lot of times there is an inclination to execute the same development programs because they’ve been done before, but I don’t think that’s the best thing to do,” says Ori Portnoy, Director of Legal Talent at Blank Rome LLP. “You have to listen to attorney demands and understand what the people who are here right now need at the levels they are at now. And that might not be the same next year for the people at the same levels.”
Firms are always striving to make training and development more effective and personalized. Below are eight strategies firms might consider to create more engaging development programs for today’s legal needs.
“First, you have to have the buy-in. You have to determine the reason you want coaching in the firm and the reason for the coaching. Then firms need to decide their commitment level. Are they going to hire someone to do it full time or are they going to outsource?”
1. CONSIDER TRAINING IN A BIGGER CONTEXT
More and more, law firms are shifting from generalized training programs to programs that are tailored specifically to a law firm’s culture and consider the specific needs of a firm’s business, clients and attorneys.
“Firms should back away from thinking training is the name of the game,” says Steve Armstrong, Principal of the law-firm consulting company Firm Leader Inc. “It is how the training can fit in with what happens before and after the training that becomes the key question.”
Through this bigger picture approach, firms are focusing more on the immediate needs of their attorneys.
“I think those in professional development are trying to align training with the skill set as attorneys need it,” says Amy Sladczyk Hancock, Director of Attorney Professional Development, Employment & Events at Andrews Kurth Kenyon LLP. “Training is more relevant if it is paid attention to the second it is needed.”
2. IMPLEMENT IN-HOUSE COACHING
Nearly one quarter of respondents to Thomson Reuters’ West LegalEdcenter’s New Associate Training Satisfaction Survey ranked personal and professional development as the one training they most desired but didn’t have access to, making it the highest ranked training category.
“I think one of the things that law firms are assessing and dealing with is the mentality of attorneys at every level for what they are doing for career satisfaction, what their long-term goals are, and their need to be more well-rounded and have a broader skill set than lawyers have needed in the past,” says Portnoy.
One way that law firms are responding to this demand is through coaching.
“More and more firms have their own internal coaches or people who are certified in coaching in-house these days,” says Armstrong.
Firms may offer coaching for career development, business development or both. Critical to a successful coaching program are top-down support and careful planning.
“A lot of times there is an inclination to execute the same development programs because they’ve been done before, but I don’t think that’s the best thing to do. You have to listen to attorney demands and understand what the people who are here right now need at the levels they are at now.”
“First, you have to have the buy-in,” says Sharon Meit Abrahams, Director of Professional Development/Diversity & Inclusion at Foley & Lardner LLP. She’s also a member of the South Florida Chapter and currently serves as Chair of ALA’s Professional Development Advisory Committee. “You have to determine the reason you want coaching in the firm and the reason for the coaching. Then firms need to decide their commitment level. Are they going to hire someone to do it full time or are they going to outsource?”
Of course, even the most meticulous planning won’t suffice if the benefiting attorneys aren’t actively engaged in the coaching.
“Coaching success depends on the willingness of the person being coached,” says Armstrong. “The goals and expectations need to be defined very carefully, from both the person’s and the firm’s perspectives.”
3. FOCUS ON PARTNERS
Coaching and other development tools aren’t solely for law firm associates, though.
“We’re much more focused these days on training and development in general at the partner level,” says Armstrong. “Many law firms have realized there is value in focusing especially on the development of new partners and of partners stepping into roles leading groups or offices.”
Coaching and sponsorship is particularly valuable for new income partners, who may have a limited amount of time to prove that they should be promoted to equity partners, notes Armstrong.
Firms are also engaging in more training for practice group leaders. According to Abrahams, many senior attorneys assume these roles with little to no training, yet their success is critical to the firm.
“Many firms have woken up to the [reality] that they have no choice but to make sure the leadership at that level is doing what they’re supposed to,” says Abrahams.
4. OFFER “BITE-SIZE” TRAINING
Given changing learning preferences, firms are increasingly embracing the idea of microlearning or “bite-size” learning. This type of training can range anywhere from a few seconds to 15 minutes, says Steve Gluckman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of LawFirmElearning, who also describes this type of training as a “SkillBurst.”
Bite-size training corresponds with the way that many people consume information today.
“Firms should back away from thinking training is the name of the game. It is how the training can fit in with what happens before and after the training that becomes the key question.”
“Attention spans have gotten shorter,” says Gluckman. “People don’t have a lot of time.” As a result, attorneys are receptive to shorter training sessions that they can digest quickly and access whenever they need it.
While lengthy continuing legal education (CLE) programs remain necessary to attorney learning, firms are using microlearning as an alternative tool for both CLE and in-time training.
For example, some firms create modular CLE e-learning programs, says Gluckman. The course is broken into multiple chapters, so attorneys can quickly review an individual topic. But the program can also be viewed in its totality to receive CLE credit.
“If you set it up correctly, you can leverage that one resource in a number of ways,” says Gluckman.
5. ENCOURAGE PARTICIPATION AND OWNERSHIP
Important to executing an effective training program is garnering buy-in from lawyers so that they participate and encourage others to engage in the programs as well.
“The way that I really garner enthusiasm and buy-in is I get the participants involved,” says Hancock. “I feel like we’re partnering in developing and presenting. Every success we can tout, we do, so people can see results.”
One way to encourage involvement is to create a committee or team for a specific training, says Abrahams. For example, when Abrahams launched a business development training program at Foley & Lardner, she formed a business advisory board to share curriculum ideas and to champion the training to other attorneys at the firm.
Another method of driving attendance to training programs is to recruit revered partners and rainmakers as speakers, says Abrahams. Lower-level associates may not have as much access to these senior attorneys, and a training program can provide a valuable opportunity to engage with them.
In fact, partner involvement can be a tremendous help in promoting engagement in training programs. According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report, more than half of responding employees would take a training course suggested by a manager.
Hancock suggests that administrators leverage individual partners’ needs into training opportunities. For example, if a partner is frustrated with junior attorneys’ billing practices, the administrator can collaborate with the partner on a curriculum on billing and then ask the partner to help present the program. Once the partner has ownership in the program, he or she will become a champion for it.
6. INCORPORATE ACTIVE TRAINING
When it comes to training, there is no doubt that hands-on training drives engagement. “Well-designed hands-on training is the best training there is,” says Abrahams.
Hands-on training can take on many forms, but firms should always aim to customize it specifically for the participating attorneys’ specific skill sets and needs.
For example, Blank Rome offers a Trial Academy Program, which aims to provide senior associates and some counsel and junior partners with trial skills. The attorneys are placed on teams and receive coaching from the firm’s seasoned trial lawyers. The teams then engage in a series of mock trials in Philadelphia courtrooms, with former judges presiding and witnesses and juries made up of lawyers from the firm. At the conclusion of the trial, the participants review video footage with their coaches and also receive feedback from the judges, jury members and coaches.
“We specifically focus this program at that stage of the lawyers’ development because our goal is for them to utilize this and bring it into the client work that they do,” says Portnoy.
7. BOLSTER CLIENT UNDERSTANDING
More than half of respondents to the New Associate Training Satisfaction Survey from West LegalEdcenter indicated that they would like additional training in client relations.
“There’s more emphasis on making sure that lawyers really understand the business perspective of their clients,” says Armstrong. “It’s showing up more and more as part of training curricula.”
Some firms, for example, are implementing simulations on solving a client issue, running a matter from a client’s perspective, and dealing with a client’s complaints during the course of a matter, says Armstrong. He notes that such simulations haven’t been widespread so far because large-scale simulations can be expensive and time-consuming. This type of training offers attorneys a safe space to troubleshoot how to address client needs and learn effective strategies for supporting their clients.
“I think those in professional development are trying to align training with the skill set as attorneys need it. Training is more relevant if it is paid attention to the second it is needed.”
Secondments are another channel for gaining perspective on client needs. While secondments are nothing new, firms can use them as a tool for being proactive about their clients’ needs. For instance, if a firm learns that one of their client’s in-house attorneys will be out on leave — or if the firm realizes that a client seems overwhelmed in-house — the firm may offer to place one or more of its attorneys on secondment for however long the client needs, says Hancock.
“That’s a way to embed some really effective training on both sides of the house,” says Hancock. “The client sees that you’re taking the initiative and really dedicated to learning their business. And you’re embedding your attorneys right in the midst of it, and that’s the best training you can get.”
Another popular method of seeing the world from a client’s business perspective is through what used to be called mini-MBA programs, which recently have become much more sophisticated, says Armstrong.
8. MODERNIZE E-LEARNING
E-learning has become a common tool for development and a method that meets the demands of modern learning. For example, LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report found that 58 percent of employee respondents like to learn at their own pace, and 49 percent prefer learning in-time when they need it. E-learning addresses both of these preferences.
A lot of firms have used e-learning to basically present classroom CLE sessions in a different format, but many have not unlocked its potential as an engaging, interactive resource, says Gluckman.
“One of the things that I think is very exciting about professional development is you’re continuously reevaluating what you’re doing in terms of what people are doing and how the practice of law is changing.”
For example, some firms offer programs that allow attorneys to directly interact with the course, simulating a real legal scenario. Their choices will dictate the path of the course, and the environment allows them to make mistakes and truly learn, says Gluckman.
Firms are also looking for ways to customize off-the-shelf e-learning resources. According to Gluckman, personalizing the program allows you to incorporate your culture, firm terminology and specific firm policies into the training. Generic, one-size-fits-all on-demand learning is just not as effective or desired today, he says.
Sometimes, buy-in can be the biggest hurdle for testing innovative training approaches like more advanced e-learning. Gluckman advises firms to start small but think big.
In seeking to make development programs more engaging and effective, firms should focus on the big picture and be willing to adapt to the times and needs of their attorneys and clients.
“One of the things that I think is very exciting about professional development is you’re continuously reevaluating what you’re doing in terms of what people are doing and how the practice of law is changing,” says Portnoy.
About the Author
Mary Kate Sheridan is a writer and attorney with a JD from Columbia Law School and a BA in writing from Mary Washington College. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School.