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Gray Rule
January 2011 | VOLUME 12, NUMBER 1spacer
Gray Rule
Professional Development: Downtrodden but Not Defeated


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By David A. Cruickshank, KermaPartners, New York, NY
Professional Development: Downtrodden but Not Defeated
Professional development in law firms has faced serious challenges during the last two years but a return to program building....

If you have been working in a law firm professional development career for the past two years, check all that apply to you:

  • Your budget is lower than it was in fiscal 2007.
  • Associate retreats were cancelled.
  • Outside consulting and training were virtually halted, at least for a year.
  • The recruiting and professional development staff was either frozen or cut back.
  • Your 2010 summer class was at least 25 percent smaller than it was in 2007.
  • Business development spending and focus are on the ascendancy in the firm, often to the exclusion of other issues.

With a depressing number of checks on this list, it is tempting to think that professional development has been eclipsed, or at least diminished, for years to come. Not so. Professional development still matters. However, to make it matter in the coming two years, firms and their professional development departments will have to put their energies and money in the right places. As one of the "gray hairs" in this business, I am going to try to give you a shot of optimism with your morning coffee. 

We've Had a Great Run

If we turned law firm investment in professional development since 1995 into a Dow Jones line graph, we would see a constant upward slope, punctuated by steep jumps, when large states made continuing legal education (CLE) compulsory and permitted firms to be providers. We have been on an extraordinary growth curve—in careers, CLE products, spending, technology, and legal skills development. The first ALI-ABA/NALP Professional Development Institute, held in 2002, drew about 160 attendees. By 2010, more than 330 professionals were coming to the conference. After such growth, a pause is to be expected.

On the other hand, the build-out process is only partly completed in many firms. You have strong junior associate curricula, but your upper years could use some depth and variety. Firm leaders, until their attention turned to financial management and business development, were asking for strategic contributions from professional development directors. In the next two years, I foresee a return to continued program building and strategic talent growth and retention. The curve will continue more gradually upward, for some of the reasons that follow.

The Business Cycle Will Turn

It is hard to recognize a change in the business cycle when everything now seems grim and uncertain. Nevertheless, smart firms have repositioned themselves. Others, often midsized and regional firms, did not take such a big hit to their core practices. Big or small, the strongest firms emerging from the recession will start to hire first. They will offer a value proposition that comes in one of these forms:

  • Leave "big law" and come to a smaller, more stable firm platform.
  • Leave for a partnership opportunity. (How many made partner in your current firm in the past three years?)
  • Come to us for more responsibility and higher quality work.
  • Join a firm that mentors associates through to counsel or partnership roles.

When this happens, your midlevel and senior associates will reflect on how they have been treated in the past two years—in workload, compensation, and career development. The very people you don't want to lose will be the hottest targets for recruiters. As your firm's "internal pulse-taker," can you say that you have "recruiter-proofed" these valuable associates?

One of the best places to put your energy, therefore, is into holding your best associates close. Now is the time to alert partners to the risk and to enlist them for explicit conversations about the associate's future in the firm. This may also mean rethinking bonus structures, performance-based pay, and rewards for senior associate business development. Above all, firms have to take a measure of how "beaten down" their associates might feel, and invest in building them up again. If your firm waits until the upside of the cycle becomes firmly established, those people will be gone.

Deliver CLE Value for Clients

Think of the list of your firm's top 10 clients. Have you offered each of them training (CLE credited or not) in the past two years? This is a low-cost business development opportunity that is often overlooked by partners. The firm invests in newsletters, but it doesn't put a live partner in front of a live client audience. Professional development experts have a huge role in making their partners look good, but we have to step up and take a meaningful role.

First, you can educate partners about a variety of CLE products that can go to clients—a live presentation at the client's offices, an event at your office, a firm presentation at a client industry conference, a DVD, a webcast, or a joint client-partner presentation to a partner lunch.

Second, you can insist on quality. At my former firm, we rehearsed client courses in the firm, critiqued the presentations, and tightened up timing. Partners understood the need for this kind of investment, and they were repaid with great client course evaluations and business opportunities.

Third, if you have skills in educational design, you can get yourself embedded with a client for a session that the client's legal staff wants to be unique. Again, I have had several opportunities to go "on loan" to design sessions for the worldwide training meetings of a large financial institution. I have run interactive case studies and business leadership games, as well as the more conventional interactive panel. These opportunities came because we offered. The law firm received significant goodwill with very little investment of partner time.

Course Quality Matters

This is a "motherhood" statement, but I submit that the recession has had a measureable, negative impact on learning outcomes from training. Consider some of the things that you have been asked to do, all affecting course quality:

  • Drop outside presenters and do not replace that course, or replace it with an internal presenter.
  • Drop in-person retreats and training sessions across offices and use video-link sessions instead.
  • Move live training to on-demand webcasts.

In each case, I submit, while money is saved and convenience is increased, the measurable learning of the attorneys has probably gone down. At what point is "delivering course credits" the main outcome instead of "developing attorney skills and knowledge"? And if we are not in the latter business, why not just buy the cheapest, repackaged CLE webcasts that we can find?

High course quality—by using adult education techniques, well-supported partners, and outside consultants—will deliver better learning outcomes and better cost-benefit ratios. Let me make two observations about the "post-cutback" environment I see in firms.

First, many firms now have competencies for midlevel and senior associates that call for "management and supervision skills." There may be even higher expectations at senior levels—such as leading teams in complex matters or project management. Yet the only training the associates now get is "on the job" or from a (videotaped) partner panel. Skills like delegation, supervision, feedback, and project management are not the same as drafting a deal document or preparing a motion. Law firms typically do not have the skills templates, the best practices, or the broad-based human resources experience to teach these skills. Even the internal partner volunteer will likely offer a highly individualistic model, one that works for his or her personality. Outside consultants, usually working with small groups, have the multi-firm perspective, the skills template that works for lawyers, and the training skills to deliver sound learning outcomes—and improve the management behaviors of your attorneys. If you tell your associates they require these competencies, what is your course quality compared to the best of the external trainers? And is the weakness of your course or on-the-job outcomes worth the cost saving?

A second concern is the mislabeling or "dumbing down" of legal skill courses. To learn effective legal writing, advocacy, drafting, or negotiation, there is a mile-high stack of literature (in law and adult education) that tells us that learners need a set of criteria, practice, feedback, and reflection. They also need to see demonstrations of positive models. This is why NITA (National Institute for Trial Advocacy) trial advocacy courses are universally praised and well-attended. They have small groups, expert coaches, and good design and they follow the principles above. However, in many law firm internal courses and in public CLE offerings, what is labeled a "skill course" is too often a lecture "about skills" or a demonstration of do's and don'ts—without the criteria-based practice, skilled feedback providers, and intellectual framework for the skill. Back when there were retreats, I taught negotiation skills for transactional lawyers. We used two half days, organized small group teams, presented negotiation styles and theories—and provided opportunities for practice, feedback, and reflection. The attorneys came away with skills and increased confidence in their skills—an outcome that a lecture on negotiation (even from the top negotiator in your firm) cannot deliver.

To be attractive to associates in the skill-building phase of their careers, firms will have to truly teach the core skills. Law graduates know what that looks like—because many have had well-designed skills courses in law school. There are no shortcuts in running an effective skills course. Even if you put your energy into improving the quality of one skills course, it should be a better investment than several mislabeled courses.

In professional development, we have all had to respond to crisis in the past two years. We may feel exhausted and dispirited. But the wheel is turning, and your carefully invested energy and skills will help your firm, your clients, and your associates recognize your value once more.

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