Edge International

Talent Development:  Beyond the Assignment

David Cruickshank

In BigLaw firms, or in any firm with multiple associates, an assignment of work by a partner or senior associate, is a signifier of many things.  To the management committee, it signifies leverage.  To the partner, it is project management and the choice of competent associate.  To the associate, it can signify repetitive drudgery or an opportunity to learn and impress.  In the worst circumstances, with a tight deadline and insufficient support, it can signify a set-up to fail.

I propose a definition of the typical assignment that all members of a firm might embrace.  An assignment is a career development opportunity.

Thinking of the assignment in this way, what can partners and associates do to ensure that there is a career development benefit for the associate in most assignments?  (I’ll concede that every partner is going to have to assign some drudgery work that is beneath the development level of the available associate.)

Let’s begin with the initial delegation.  As I teach in my management skill courses for partners and senior associates, a complete delegation must:

  • provide a “big picture” context for the work
  • review likely issues and resources known to the delegator
  • be specific as to product, time allocation and deadline
  • wrap up with a summary provided by the recipient.

While most of these steps are the delegator’s responsibility, associates can step up and offer a summary.  This gives the opportunity to clarify and provide tips for the recipient.

To signify career development, a partner can do more at this stage.  During the delegation, ask “Have you done one of these before?”.  A “no” answer means that you’ll need to do some check-ins and coaching along the way.  Each time, you’ll talk about how this work relates to more complex and challenging work that lies ahead for the associate.  When you make the assignment, you can also schedule a time for feedback, even for the more experienced associate.  This signifies that you care about both the work product and the associate’s development.

If you are going to be working with an associate for more than 40-50 hours in a year, you will be asked to evaluate their performance for the year.  For that group of associates, the partner should keep a file of ongoing development notes for each associate.  The assignment is core evidence of development, so you might organize your notes chronologically by assignment.  Given the annual evaluation criteria, what strengths and weaknesses did the associate exhibit on this assignment?  Share that feedback when the assignment is completed, not months later.  Your notes are for a year-end evaluation summary.

In many firms, the partner-associate duo is not the only influence on assignment choices.  Where a practice group has an assigning partner or committee, the partner cannot choose an overworked associate.  However, that assigning body is also supposed to ensure that new assignments help build the associate’s career and that the work can justify the rate being charged to a client.  While it is intimidating to do, associates who believe that neither of these goals is being regularly advanced, should raise their concerns with the assigning body.  In a firm that touts its talent development (as most do in their recruitment pitches), the assigning body should be there for the associate.

Another institutional check on assignments is the diversity promise of law firms.  Are diverse associates getting the same quality of assignments and career development as others?  As partners keep assignment notes and prepare for annual evaluation throughout the year, they need to be conscious of even-handed treatment of diverse associates who are available for work.  A diversity officer or committee can assist if you are unsure about how to handle this aspect of assignments.

Finally, when the assignment has been completed, the partner can “tie the bow” on an assignment by connecting it to career development, in a later conversation that covers four things:

  • tell them how the work product was used in the overall transaction or litigation
  • pass on any expressions of client satisfaction
  • ask the associate what they learned from that assignment
  • ask the associate what kind of future assignment would be a challenging addition to their career trajectory.

Assignments are not just about obtaining a work product.  They are about developing and retaining talent.

Talent Retention: A Big Conundrum

Bithika Anand

With the rise of the new East, emerging economies of Asia are undergoing a tremendous transformation. With the continued inflow of foreign direct investment and major policy changes, businesses are flocking to capture the opportunities presented by increased customer base.

This is intensifying the competition for talent and leadership – a trend that is cutting across all sectors including legal.

With shorter career progressions (associates getting promoted to partnership in just six to seven years), expectations are growing higher. This coupled with unclear growth path for seniors – post becoming partners – is making it increasingly difficult for the mid-sized and small law firms to retain their performing assets (lawyers). The buoyant legal-talent market is just adding to it. All these factors are seriously affecting the competitiveness, sustainability and growth of the mid-sized and smaller law firms in India.

While almost every firm identifies retention as a major challenge for them, only a few have started addressing this issue. There is a huge gap in managing expectations and aligning them towards the interest of the firm.

Realizing this gap, some firms have started engaging professionals to coach their lawyers and partners in a bid to retain their talent pool by helping them realize their progression and role in the growth of the firm. However, the focus is more on pressing and tactical priorities – immediate talent retention – and much less on long-term solutions.

Pinpointing a problem is only the first step to finding solutions. Some firms have started taking steps including reduced-hour schedules, alternative work arrangements, mentorship programs, steering committees, etc.  However, most firms that have implemented such programmes feel that changing the firm’s culture has yielded better results than changing business models or billing requirements.

Respect, transparency, and a fair playing field are important in any organization. With lawyers increasingly having options to practice law in a way that fits into their lives (whether in a traditional firm or in an alternative practice model), it is all the more important to ensure that they feel valued and are appreciated for their contribution and good work.

Talent management and leadership development have been pretty low on the priority list of executive committees at law firms. With the Indian legal market going through an important phase (as the talks of liberalisation gain grounds every passing day), the key to growth will be managing the turbulent tides of talent scarcity, employee expectations and leadership shortage. Hence, more than ever before, law firms of all sizes need strong, guiding hands to steer them through rolling waves of change.

Building Trust: The Inviolable Rule

Sean Larkan

With all the attention given to the external forces bringing about change and impacting the legal profession, we sometimes forget how much of successful legal services business is still about human relationships and building trust. Trust is the key building block for so many different areas and interactions in law firms: one that impacts just about every aspect of our existence and our success or failure. Look at any successful firm and you will find they have managed to build trust in some or most of the ways highlighted below. Often it is by accident; ideally it is also by design.

Trust is something we can all understand: we know how we feel when we trust an organisation. We will sometimes ‘buy now and ask questions later’. We will assume their product or service, and even what they say about it, is tried and tested and is good. We will refer others to that organisation. We will be loyal to it. We may even suggest to a bright young star that they should apply to work for that organisation. In some respects it becomes an organisation that in our mind doesn’t have many if any substitutes.

There are very few so–called “black and white” or inviolable rules in the areas of leadership and management of a law firm – one, however, is this underpinning, foundational role of trust. As leaders and managers, we ignore it at our peril.

Let’s consider some areas within our professional businesses where trust is this central element:

  • whether leaders will be successful in taking their firm, their colleagues and staff with them;
  • how effectively support service managers will undertake their roles;
  • whether key client relationships will be enduring;
  • whether the firm’s brand is trusted enough to bring in a steady flow of work, and win key projects;
  • whether high calibre personnel will instinctively want to join the firm as employees or partners;
  • whether staff feel truly engaged in the firm – will they want to make their careers at the firm, stay with the firm and go the extra mile for the firm?
  • the impact of trust on staff turnover and the costs associated with that;
  • whether clients will pay bills promptly;
  • Aside from the firm’s brand and pulling power, will partners individually be able to attract work?
  • Will the very best service providers drop everything to do work for the firm?
  • Will clients will do everything they can to appoint individual partners to do their work, or refer others to those same partners?

The challenge in addressing something like trust, particularly as it impacts so many different areas of a firm, is to get this message through to everyone in the firm beyond intellectually, and make it stick. It is important that everyone in the firm understands this. After all, every interaction they have with others, and how they go about their work, impacts trust in one or more of the ways mentioned above.

This will require a convincing argument, and moving people at the firm beyond the usual casual ‘Yeah I get that. It’s obvious, and I will bear it in mind’ attitude. Somehow they need to be moved to actually do something about it. Otherwise it continues to be one of those important things that everyone agrees on, but little gets done about it.

How do you address this from a practical perspective? Some examples:

  • ensure everyone understands concepts like Brand Fusion – ensuring that what you offer and promise is actually delivered – especially important for employment brands;
  • build the concept of trust into your leadership development training and coaching;
  • ensure that trust and its impact are fully understood by all in the firm, and that it is covered in your values or guiding principles;
  • make trust part of your expectations in terms of partner or staff performance criteria and contributions;
  • build principles like responsiveness and reliability into all of the above and make it part of the firm’s DNA;
  • ensure that everyone who has staff reporting to them takes a genuine interest in them and is accountable for building trusted professional and working relationships with them – we do this via our Responsible Partner® program;

The benefits can be immense:

  • trusted leadership and management;
  • high levels of staff engagement with positive impacts on employment brand, staff turnover, recruitment effectiveness;
  • dramatically improved team performance;
  • improved financial results with excellent working capital management;
  • enduring client relationships where key clients become marketing gate-keepers, referring other potential clients to the firm;
  • a brand for which there is deemed to be no substitute – in Marty Neumeier’s words (The Brand Gap) a ‘charismatic brand’;
  • the very best service providers beating a path to your door; and ultimately,
  • lasting differentiation which is difficult for competitors to replicate.

So it is worth discussing all the implications of building trust with partners and staff, building their understanding around this, and getting their active involvement and support. No-one in the firm should ever again under-estimate the central and far-reaching importance of trust.