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.

Associate Advancement and Client Dissatisfaction

David Cruickshank

Is your firm aware of client dissatisfaction with the way your associates are developed and advanced? The signals of dissatisfaction are all around us, yet most firms just manage the symptoms, without restructuring their associate talent development model. Your firm can get ahead of this problem with a solution that leading firms have adopted – a “levels and promotion” system.

What are the signs of client dissatisfaction? One clear complaint from clients is that “We’re paying for first-year associates to be trained.” In frustration, many corporate counsel have simply banned first-year associates from appearing on any bill.

Another complaint is that associate billing rates go up each year according to the seniority of the associate. The client sees no connection between another year on the job and advanced competency. In other professional services organizations and the client’s company, advancement results from increased competency and promotion over one’s peers. Clients rightly complain, “Why are we paying a higher hourly rate for a fourth-year associate just because they are a year older?” This leads clients to demand a contradictory regulation of their bills: “Push work down to more junior associates.”

Selling the First-Year Associate

Instead of capitulating to client “bans” on first-year associates, firms can respond in two ways. One is to provide intensive training, at firm expense, in the summer program and the first three months of the associate’s full time job. Summer programs can improve what associates already do reasonably well – research and writing. What they lack are hands-on client assignments and intensive supervision. Leading firms also develop competency standards for legal analysis and writing. They provide one-on-one outside coaching for some. Firms like Skadden and Milbank demonstrate what can be done in the first year. They have external training programs, matched with firm assignments that bring first years “up to speed” more quickly in performing valuable tasks.

A second response is to develop data on the relative cost of a trained first year doing a legal task like “writing a diligence report,” compared to a second or third year. However, we need to know the average time and cost for that task at each level. Is it really true that a third year can perform a task in half the time of a trained first year? If firms can demonstrate that a competent result can be achieved on a task at a lower total rate, why should it matter that the first year spent 80% of the time on the task and a supervising third year spent 20% of the time?

Many clients are still not convinced – based mostly on anecdotal evidence. So they stick with the first-year ban. That’s why firms that have upfront training and the data to support the cost of legal tasks have an advantage. They can sell the client on using a first year because of both competence and costs.

Levels and Promotion, not Just Seniority

Levels and promotions systems for associates have been around for about ten years, but they have not penetrated firms outside the AmLaw Top 50 to a great degree. Orrick was one of the first firms to adopt such a system, and despite “being different” when they go into the recruiting market, they have not retreated.

In brief, how do these talent-advancement systems work? First, they are based on competency more than seniority. Firms develop explicit competency statements and standards, both in broad legal skills (e.g., writing, communications, analysis) and in practices (e.g., facility with practice-specific documents). Associates are then evaluated according to competencies, not just years on the job. There are specific levels of advancement and one gets promoted at several levels of increased skill and knowledge. The promotion levels will sound familiar: Junior Associate to Midlevel Associate; Midlevel to Senior Associate; and sometimes Senior Associate to Counsel or Income Partner.

Why is this different from a seniority system? The difference is that the highly competent junior lawyers can advance faster, despite a lack of seniority. An associate with 2.5 years of experience can become a Midlevel. An associate with 5-6 years may become a Senior. And it cuts both ways. An associate who is not progressing through the competencies will be held back. So a third or fourth year might still be titled a Junior Associate and paid accordingly.

These systems take time and expertise to establish in the first place, and ongoing investment by the lawyers to evaluate and promote their lawyers. But when it comes time to raise the billing rates of their associates, leading firms have an answer that their corporate clients understand. “On July 1, Jill’s billing rate will increase because she got a promotion to Midlevel Associate.” The firm will educate their clients on the competencies that Jill has attained and will celebrate her formal promotion. Clients see this type of advancement in other professional services and in their own backyards. They will be sold and the dissatisfaction irritant will go away. Beyond that, Jill’s firm should have a competitive advantage.