Edge International

Training & Skill-Building – Creating A Culture Of Knowledge-Sharing

Bithika Anand

Training, development and skill-building are concepts that have largely been under-rated in law firms. The debate often is – whether they are a cost or an investment? The dilemma also stems from the uncertainty concerning the return on investment and how to scientifically measure the value addition from training and development activities. This article aims to discuss the benefits associated with skill-building and how can law firms foster a culture of knowledge-sharing, mentoring and growth.

Is it worth the time, effort and money?

One of the primary issues that firms cite for underinvesting in training is attrition. The possible movement of lawyers from one firm to another is the cause of hesitation in initiating skill-building initiatives. The question that often emerges while deciding whether or not to initiate a training & development programme is – “Will the lawyers take the benefit of training and join the competitors for better pay-package?” However, this clearly under weighs the high productivity, efficiency, responsiveness and quality that lawyers achieve when imparted with right skill-set. The untrained and unaspiring lawyers would want to stay with the firm as long as they can. It is often the aspirational ones that are the most mobile. Training can serve a brilliant retention tool for those who are sharp and growth-oriented.

Law firms need to consider training to be an important component of ‘cost of doing business’. Also, training creates skill sets, rather than focussing on leveraging the existing skill sets. This becomes a huge distinguishing factor as most of the law firms hire from a similar talent pool. Their ‘competitive edge’ emerges from not just hiring the best lawyers from the available pool; but spending time, effort and money to groom their lawyers into becoming a wholesome professional.

Technical Training or Skill-Building?

Law firms also face a tough choice in selecting a training programme. While some firms conduct active surveys to identify areas where their lawyers feel they need hand-holding, others develop their programmes with diverse emphasis based on demography, practice areas and sectors services by the firm. The most popular training programmes involve training the lawyers on technical legal aspects, as these programmes upgrade their knowledge of law and familiarize them with practical aspects of application of law to real life issues.

Other programmes focus more on skill-building. Several firms are cognizant of the fact that a knowledgeable lawyer will always have a good head start, but as they grow up the ladder, they don several hats – of being a counsellor, mentor, rainmaker, decision-maker and a manager. While most of these skills are acquired ‘on the job’ organically, training can be of immense value in building these skills.

Another significant area, for those who practice law in providing services to businesses and industry sectors, is in the commercial-legal domain. These training programmes involve training the lawyers about business issues and practice nuances that are specific to the industry sector they cater to. These programmes are organized on the fundamental premise that ‘law is an applied science’. A lawyer with only core technical knowledge, but limited business knowledge, may not do justice in working with clients. These commercial-legal training programmes are aimed to add value to their client-servicing and help lawyers in understanding of commercial issues, especially those pertaining to clients’ industry sectors.

Fostering a Training & Development Culture

Firms can create a culture of training & development by having their senior leadership members (say, Partners or Senior Partners) commence training and knowledge-sharing sessions on real and practical issues. This could be something as basic as a debriefing after every litigation matter is concluded or after every major transaction is closed. This also serves as a great pre-cursor to starting a full-fledged training programme. A culture of knowledge-sharing proves to be the catalyst in changing the attitude of lawyers towards training. When firm’s own leadership invests time in sharing their learnings and key takeaways, the growth is organic and relatable. While domain experts and subject matter specialists from outside add a new dimension to the training programmes, internal training and skill-building often the first step in creating an environment of receptiveness.

Benefits of Training & Skill-Building

The most tangible outcome of training and skill-building is the enhanced quality of work product. This also results in increased trust in delegating work to trained resources. When seniors delegate work with trust and confidence, not only does it result in reduced stress, but also creates a symbiotic relationship between the seniors and juniors where the juniors respond with enthusiasm and high morale.  A law firm that is recognized for investing in training its lawyers often enjoys a reputational edge. Such firms witness the best of the best lawyers applying to work with them, thereby resulting in enhanced quality of new recruits. Clients are also more receptive of engaging with skilled lawyers and if the juniors in the firm are trained well, the benefits of such engagement results in higher leverage and better profitability on client mandates.

Creating Responsibility

Law firms that actively take part in creating a culture of knowledge sharing give due emphasis on organic mentoring and skill-building. Senior lawyers in such firms often play the role of a coach and mentor; and helping their team members learn and grow doesn’t feature low on their priority lists. In fact, they take up engagement with their teams as one of the key responsibility areas; and tasks like delegation, supervision and feedback become a part of performance evaluation at the senior level. They allow their junior team members several opportunities to work with them and observe them in court and client meetings. Such firms have in-built performance reward mechanisms that encourage, recognise and reward effective delegation. Certain firms actively contribute to making their environment conducive to training and development by encouraging their lawyers to continue making themselves valuable in terms of market standing and venturing into newer areas of practice.

Summing Up

Firms that invest in building and creating skills in their lawyers gain competitive advantage that comes from the ability to develop the resources. Training and skill-building need to reflect in firms’ value system.  Traditionally, good execution, rainmaking and client retention are the parameters that are usually reflective of a lawyer’s success in the law firm model. However, with changing times, performance on mentoring and coaching the team is not the most negligible and side-lined parameter. Firms desirous of all-inclusive implementation of a training programmes follow a top-down approach; setting the two-fold expectations at the senior level crystal clear. First being the training for personal growth of the senior leadership, where they are trained to not just build a volume of work, but also the diversity of work and its quality. They are trained to transition towards high-end and qualitative work, while supervising the work of the junior lawyers in the team. The second aspect is their involvement in training their juniors. Firms’ evaluation systems must ensure that senior leaders do not constantly excuse themselves from conducting sessions or being a part of training initiatives arranged for the junior lawyers.

To sum up, the cost associated with not training lawyers will outweigh the costs of training lawyers and building an engaged team. For the lawyers who stay with you, and lots will if you have an environment that fosters training and skill-building, the benefits will outnumber the risks of breeding a team that may grow complacent.

Can Law-Firm Associates Learn to Govern?

David Cruickshank

Many firms have gone beyond the usual training diet of substantive law and ethics to offer management and business development skills for associates. One of the next challenges is to learn law-firm governance. But is this a topic for associate training, and does it matter?

From our consulting engagements we know that firms of all sizes have significant problems with governance. Some problems are structural – the over-sized executive committee, for example. Other problems stem from an absence of skilled leadership or a clear understanding of a partner’s role in governance. Firms that take a long view, as they do with business development, should consider the case for teaching associates to govern this firm, or another, when they become partners.

It’s Already Happening

Right now, the closest that most associates come to contributing to governance is during recruitment season. Many sit on a recruitment committee or are part of on-campus interviewing and selection decisions. Associates may also contribute to talent evaluations. They may be formal mentors. However, the gate closes when it comes to decisions on promotion or “managing out.”

Associates can make contributions to professional development. I have worked with associate committees in planning in-house training or retreats. This involves a committee that does more than choose the retreat entertainment and menus. They help the professional-development team design the entire retreat. Working with an outside consultant on management-skills training will mean direct contact with that consultant and conversations about content tailored to their needs. They may ask for certain partners to be speakers (not always those that management would choose). In my experience, engagement with an associate planning committee is win-win. The outside expert gets to know a few of them through advance meetings, and you lower the risk of missing the skills they feel are needed.

Another opportune time to learn governance is in training on the firm’s finances. The most transparent firms train associates on how the firm makes money, then follow it up with mid-level and senior associate training on the firm’s financial statements, profitability and revenue projections. On making partner, there is no “cliff” to leap over in understanding the levers of profitability and how you must contribute to the firm’s success.

The Case Against Governance Training

The common arguments against developing “governance competence” are:

  • “We only need a few leaders, and they will emerge as natural leaders.”
  • “Why train associates who will not make partner and will depart.”
  • “The more they get involved in our governance, the more they will want decision-making power (that should be left to partners and senior staff).”
  • “They are too inexperienced to know what to do with the training.”

The Long-Term Payoff

The case for greater associate competence in governance begins with decision-making. If associates sit on committees, they should not be window-dressing. Along with partners, they should help with decisions on recruitment, diversity, pro bono, training, advancement and early business development. Down the road, I even envision associates on a finance committee. Once they can contribute to decisions, their incentive for getting training and experience is elevated. As for the “naturally selected few” argument, the response is to increase the pool of future partners leaders by developing the breadth of their governance competence. And if they leave? They will be ambassadors and leaders in client companies, government, public-interest and other firms.

Latham Watkins knows the payoff. It is widely seen as a very well governed firm. They train associates in governance and give them a place to apply the lessons. For years, they have had a firm-wide Associates Committee (about 50 members, a mixture of associates, counsel and partners). That committee makes decisions on training, recruitment priorities, advancement of associates, and even on who should be put up for partner. Latham Watkins has never retreated from the view that trained and informed associates will do the right thing, will make the firm stronger and will create competent future partners.