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.
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.
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.
Bithika Anand is a Principal with EDGE International, advising on India specific growth and business initiatives. She is also an Honorary Consultant to the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF), where she works with the organization and its members advising and assisting in complying with best industry practices. A chartered accountant by profession, she also holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in the Management of Legal Practice from Nottingham Trent University.