Lead a lawyer to learning

by 26 Jun 2007

The business of education is a serious one for an increasing number of Australian law firms. But just how do the teams of people organising CLE for a firms lawyers keep control of quality, quantity and partner involvement? Kate Gibbs and Clare Buttner report

For an older generation of lawyers and partners, legal training often meant sitting around the corner from a partner and receiving ‘education’ via returned, red ink-bloodied drafts that you’d put together for them. Or, perhaps, a quick trip to the cafédownstairs with that partner, when they’d take the opportunity to divulge all the things you’d done right and wrong, and what they needed from you in the future. But an increasing number of firms are now realising that continuing legal education is much broader and more interesting than ever before.

From the most basic education, such as having a specialist within the firm teach others in the firm about his or her practice area in a formal setting, to the more elaborate weekends away with external coaches and soft skills trainers, the continuing education opportunities for law firms are now vast.

Some firms have teams of experts working on the job of figuring out exactly what is available in terms of continuing legal education (CLE) and continuing professional development (CPD), who should get to go, and how much should be spent.

At Minter Ellison, a team of six is dedicated to the learning and development of the firm’s lawyers and partners. Similarly, at Mallesons Stephen Jaques a people and development department of seven –which includes two senior lawyers – ensures that money is properly dedicated and that staff receive training in both soft skills and black-letter law.

But the challenges for learning and development teams are more complex than just trying to figure out what to spend the firm’s budget on.

Getting partners on board

While most partners will say they ‘love the law’, some are unwilling to support training of themselves and their solicitors for the softer skills. For the learning and development teams interviewed, the trick is trying to persuade those partners who were trained a very different way that times are changing, and that the needs of both clients and staff are not what they used to be.

According to Mallesons executive director of people and development, Kate Rimer, some partners are completely open to embracing a broader range of skills and are enthusiastic about getting involved, and are even driving it in their teams. But others have alternative priorities and need further encouragement to change the old-fashioned mindset that legal education includes only black-letter law.

“I’ve worked inside and outside the legal profession and I think when you know your business is changing and your clients’ needs are changing you have to think about how to compete in the market and meet those needs. Some partners … say ‘I love the law’ and probably have to be encouraged to think more broadly about what the implications of managing a team and managing clients means today that it may not have 10 years ago,” says Rimer.

But learning and development teams have to appeal to partners’ business sense, says Rimer. At Mallesons, both client and staff feedback illustrates a need for CLE, and an appreciation of it when it has occurred.

“We have been running surveys for the last couple of years, [and] it is very hard to ignore data that says you get great results when you do some quite simple things around people skills and client skills,” she says.

Nicole Girard, who heads the learning and development department at Minter Ellison, agrees that you have to get the firm’s partners on board. She has found it useful to build relationships with partners in a practice area that takes on a role for learning and development within the firm.

At Baker & McKenzie, professional development manager Andrea Verway says the challenge for professional development departments within firms is convincing partners that soft skill training is not just a feel-good exercise to keep generation Y happy.

“As I keep saying to the partners, this is not new-fangled. Some of them want to say mentoring and coaching is a fad. But this is the way it used to be back when the senior guys came into the picture in the 1980s. You came into the firm, somebody took you under, usually his, wing and you just followed him around,” says Verway.

Those who can, teach

Star players are picked out by learning and development teams to coach others within the firms. Girard at Minter Ellison says her team thinks about who the stars are in practice areas, marketing, and client development. These people are carefully selected for their abilities and skills in order to provide ongoing and cost-efficient internal continuing education to others.

“If it is marketing we need, we pick out one of our star marketing partners and work with them to run a program. [The same is done] for risk management and those sorts of things,” she says.

At Mallesons, lawyers and partners are encouraged to get involved where they can in sharing their skills and knowledge. But as partners’ high billing targets make them increasingly busy, learning and development teams turn to junior lawyers.

“When firms are extremely busy, a challenge is for partner and senior lawyers to find time to present. Having said that, there is a push – and a lot of encouragement for lawyers in particular – to invest in the non-billable contributions to the firm,” says Mallesons’ Rimer.

The firm is open to using external providers for some soft skills training, but when it comes to black-letter law, it argues that they already have the best available specialists at their disposal.

“I think that is a comment on the calibre of people within the firm. We don’t really go outside for black-letter law issues. But there is a range of professionals that we use for other issues,” she says.

At Bakers, as well, external training is limited. “I can tell you that a very small portion of our budget would be allocated to lawyers to go off to conferences or do external training programs,” Verway says.

“Lawyers would tend to teach black-letter stuff and that’s pretty much the way we’ve organised it. Each practice group has their own professional development program and we support them and help them but they run their own black-letter show internally. And they might choose to have an expert from an accounting firm come in or a barrister they know, but they are really controlling that content. I think you would find that across most firms now.”

External providers are best for soft skill training and practice management education generally, says Verway. “Classrooms are good, they’re good for hardcore presentation skills, for business writing, for teaching lawyers how to read financial statements, but there’s not a heck of a lot else that I’m keen to send people off to do.”

Firms are shifting away from formal training programs in favour of mentoring and coaching programs, she says.

“Most firms these days wouldn’t be using the word ‘training’ very much – it’s become the dirty word because we’re not very interested in sticking lawyers in classrooms all the time. I’m much more interested in informal learning – so mentoring and shadowing and encouraging the partners to be coaching the baby lawyers. That’s a better way to learn negotiation than sending someone off to a two-day course,” Verway says.

At Arnold Bloch Leibler, the education and training is regularly reminiscent of traditional education and training, with an emphasis on informal training, says the firm’s human resources manager Kate Clark.

“In addition to the more formalised approach to training, hands-on training at ABL is much like an apprenticeship with our junior lawyers working directly with partners who delegate, coach and give feedback. We don’t have a pyramid structure in which work is delegated down through a hierarchy of levels – our young people work directly with the senior experts who provide high quality training opportunities every day,” Clark says.

At Corrs Chambers Westgarth as well, lawyers are keen to learn from more senior practitioners within the firm, says Karen Bennett, Corrs’ national people development manager. “The support of the partners in sharing their knowledge, experience and expertise is very important to the growth and development of our lawyers. Our lawyers are eager to learn from the partners, which is evidenced by our most popular programs being our Partner Insight Series, where partners provide insights on current client matters, and our intensive masterclass programs led by our practice group leaders,” she said.

While the downside of doing training internally is the expense of the time invested by lawyers preparing and conducting training, Clark says there are advantages.

“The benefits are that internal presenters know the audience, know our client base and know the firm’s culture and needs and therefore the training is directed more precisely to the outcomes we want to achieve,” she says.

Responsible learning

A shift in the focus of training means lawyers are being taught to be more independent in seeking out their own professional development needs.

“I think the trend now is to teach people to take care of themselves. So when you start at the firm and realise you need to learn something, go learn it. Like, ask people, tell them what you want to do, build up your network, if you don’t know anyone in the intellectual property department, well then go and meet someone,” Baker & McKenzie’s Verway says.

At Minter Ellison, as well, staff are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning, according to their needs. The firm offers a core skills program that uses a mixture of internal and external providers. People book themselves into courses and programs using a booking system. If they see a workshop or an external seminar they might like to attend they can go off and attend it.

But, they have to justify it and get approval for the spend, making it a worthwhile one for the firm as a whole. “We ask that when they get back to work they run an internal CLE for their group,” says Girard.

“It’s trying to get as much value from an individual attending something external and bringing that back into the firm,” she says.

When external providers are brought in, however, firms still want control of the content. All firms interviewed by Human Resources magazine agreed that they work closely with external providers to ensure the learning is relevant and of the highest quality.

“For most things that we do we would work very closely with the providers,” says Bakers’ Verway. “The classic example is business writing – we would spend a lot of time with that provider making sure the examples used in the program were Baker & McKenzie [issues].

“Instead of doing role plays or hypotheticals, you would actually have people working on their own problems. Why do a role-play when you could work on a difficult conversation that you need to have with a partner in your real life right now? The providers want to just come in and do their show, but quality control provides better learning. We’re difficult in that way. We have a really strong sense of the content,” she says.