Looking over my shoulder as I typed, my tween daughter asked, "On the rebound? Who?"
Instead of ignoring the impulse to do otherwise, I jumped at the chance to share my thesis. I explained, "My premise is that the legal professional development field is bouncing back from the harsh consequences of downturns in the economy. Professionals are reviving traditional approaches and creating innovative strategies in an effort to add value in their firms where the impact of tighter budgets has threatened even professional development bread and butter programs, including in-house CLE programs and new associate training."
"Oh, you mean 'rebound' like that," my daughter quipped. "I thought you meant like when a girl and her boyfriend break up and she gets a new guy to cheer her up."
Maybe that is what I meant. Law firms, still stinging from the effects of former robust and successful professional development programs being radically reduced or eliminated, are now openly courting new ideas and initiatives that they hope will be more effective and efficient than their predecessors. Professional development is on the rebound; we are the new guys.
With the legal profession losing 3,100 jobs between November 2010 and November 2011, no one needed to tell us it was over.
This Bureau of Labor Statistics figure served as the final warning to firms that the time had come to say goodbye to traditional legal management practices. Indeed, there were other harbingers of the challenges we would face. The National Association for Legal Personnel reported both the average number of hours worked and the number of billable hours worked per year declined as the slowdown in the legal economy began in 2008. The average total number of hours worked was 2,032. The average total number of hours billed was 2,066. By 2009, those numbers were unchanged. With a few exceptions in some smaller firms, the stagnation and precipitous decline was felt across firms of all sizes and most practice areas.
As business faltered, experts reported that the professional "gentlemen's agreement" model in law would have to give way to a business model driven by competitive market forces. This, however, was not a revolutionary proposition. As early as the 1950s, Judge Richard Posner described the legal profession as "an intricately and ingeniously reticulated though imperfect cartel." As the number of purveyors of legal services grew, Posner noted, "the cartel was shattered, and the profession became intensely competitive."
Several factors, including the proliferation of law firms and associated costs, the hyperspecialization of services offered, and the changing expectations and demands of clients created a perfect storm of unsustainability that would have to be managed differently. Professional development professionals, whose perch in law firms offered a broad overview of business operations, recognized early that the old rules no longer worked and that innovative and result-oriented initiatives would be key to their firms' future.
So Who is This New Guy?
Professionals in our field would have little trouble compiling a list of gaps in the skills of attorneys and how those deficiencies result in clients' demands going unmet. The list would include:
- business acumen Do attorneys understand how the moving parts of a company or firm work together?;
- leadership and management Do attorneys know how to set a new direction and how to guide people in that direction?; and
- client service Do attorneys solicit and value feedback on whether their product or service meets the client's expectations?
Professional development programs are filling these gaps by identifying and implementing programs that increase real-world practical understanding of the problems clients face. No news there. Developing attorneys to work in real time with clients is at the very core of our professional mission. What is new in this rebound relationship is that professional development professionals are renewing the emphasis on core competency frameworks that serve as a guide for these initiatives. In this new relationship, we know there must be a foundation for our programs that can be defended in a hostile budgetary climate.
Three innovative approaches deserve discussion because they directly address a deficiency through innovative curriculum rooted in leadership and management training and tradition. The first program is an ambitious partnership of two powerhouse institutions of law, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP and Harvard Law School. Not unlike most firms, Milbank launched a training program for its new associates where continuing education is provided over the course of an attorney's career with the firm. The difference, however, is that the training requires every Milbank associate to participate in an annual progressive program at Harvard. Scott Edelman, Vice Chairman of Milbank, said, "Collaborating with Harvard Law School on this program evidences Milbank's absolute commitment to the professional development of our attorneys. This groundbreaking program will provide our lawyers with tools to ensure the provision to our clients of the most high-quality, effective, business-savvy legal service available in the market." The curriculum, which was developed in partnership, sought to provide a balance between theory and practice, the success of which will be directed and measured by traditional business metrics.
Second, U.S. firms are adopting a traditional British training model called "secondments," where firms loan attorneys to a client or pro bono organization on a temporary basis for a specific project or to fill a short-term need. A variation is to offer secondments to attorneys between offices within the law firm. Attorneys who are unsure of what area of law they would like to practice or attorneys who are in a "flat" practice group with limited opportunity for growth can greatly benefit from taking secondments. They are a valuable way of offering attorneys professional development and career opportunities without having to leave the firm. Taking a secondment also demonstrates an attorney's flexibility and adaptability, qualities inherent in effective leaders and managers. Firms benefit from attorneys who take a secondment with clients because they acquire transferable skills and knowledge that can be put into practice when they return to the firm. The attorneys can share their experiences and skills with the team and other departments within the firm to enhance the client relationship.
Last, the "gentleman's agreement" approach to business development has given way to new approaches that acknowledge the intensely competitive environment in which a law firm must survive. To that end, attorneys are embracing the fact that sales is an important skill set that must be mastered if their practice and business is to thrive. Since legal services almost always require personal contact with the buyer, sales in law firms are typically defined as "client" or "business" development. Increasingly, firms are developing frameworks in which attorneys learn to: 1) identify clients, 2) develop a relationship with clients, 3) gain initial legal work from clients, and 3) expand the work for a client. Most major law firms have now implemented business development programs at the associate and partner level, for practice groups, offices, within client teams, and/or for industry groups.
As Posner predicted decades ago, the cartel is shattered. Yet, few new attorneys enter a law firm practice with an understanding that a law firm is a business and that attorneys need to contribute to the firm's bottom line. Consequently, law schools are beginning to offer students courses on business development and networking. In 2010, Fordham University School of Law offered as electives, "Law Firm as a Business" and "Law Firm Marketing." Law schools such as Fordham, pride themselves as institutions that offer a "complete education" that includes teaching about the business of law. New lawyers entering law firms from schools like Fordham will be able to become profitable sooner than those who hail from traditional academic law schools.
These approaches are gaining momentum and popularity across all geographical lines. Time will tell if these initiatives are fruitful. That is the tenuous nature of being on the rebound. Law firms still value professional development and will continue to invest in initiatives even during economic downturns. We now know, however, that all change is not growth and all movement is not forward. We must ensure that our initiatives and strategies have an intentional direction and measurable goals so there will hopefully never be another breakup.
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