Back to school

Law firms have come to realise that continuous training for lawyers is one of the best ways to win clients in an increasingly competitive market. And, as Ryan Dunleavy reports, nobody is too old to learn.

Law firms are looking closer at training as their next big gun in the battle for work from their ever more demanding clients.

In the past most qualified lawyers viewed continuous legal training as merely a matter of clocking up 16 continuing professional development (CPD) hours a year to keep the Law Society happy – most of which was done through half-hearted attendance at conferences on random legal subjects.

But these days are truly over. Chris Carroll, a corporate partner at Travers Smith Braithwaite, says: "We are not concerned with what the Law Society says. We provide more than the Law Society's 16 hours of CPD anyway." And the same view is shared by all major City law firms.

CPD hours are an obligation of all qualified lawyers. But the time spent on them is minimal and the method and content of what these hours cover is so wide that they are not taken very seriously by lawyers. For instance, giving lectures and the time spent preparing those lectures contributes towards CPD hours.

Patrick Maddams, operations director at Beachcroft Wansbroughs, jokes that CPD points are taken so lightly by lawyers that some may even log on to one of the numerous web-sites offering CPD training before going to bed so that they can wake up with half of their official Law Society accredited hours.

Many see CPD as little more than an inconvenience and not relevant to the training of practitioners in modern City firms. The Law Society refuses to comment on any aspect of CPD or its improvement, but its input into education is becoming increasingly unnecessary as firms take control of training themselves.

Extensive in-depth training is now seen as essential for firms to stay competitive. Many practices are expanding their in-house training departments, instructing consultants and colleges to design made-to-measure courses, giving intensive seminars on well-established issues, increasingly using extranet and intranet facilities, and most crucially asking clients what they want from their lawyers and tailoring their training accordingly.

In-house trainers are giving tuition with particular clients in mind.

"It is an important way of keeping on top of client needs, addressing legal changes and delivery, and keeping us ahead of the competition," says Hugh Crisp, partner in charge of training at Freshfields.

Crisp says that Freshfields is keen to analyse how best to develop its lawyers' skills and it looks to other law firms for inspiration.

He says: "We look at some of the trainers and developers in places like Goldman Sachs, Arthur Andersen and Merrill Lynch. Arthur Andersen claims that it spends 7 per cent of its revenue on training. The point at those places is that training is continuous."

Law firms are reticent about providing information on training expenditure, arguing that it is too competitive an issue to make public. But Crisp says that whatever the amount of money being spent on training, it will increase.

Improving techniques and expenditure on training is seen as vital for City law firms. There are a number of options available and views on the efficiency of each differ.

Eileen Gardner, head of training at Lovells, argues that in-house education is the most sophisticated and accurate way of imparting information and skills to lawyers.

"We need to make sure that our training is relevant to our particular practices and it must focus on how to deal with our particular clients," she says.

Sue Wright, head of professional development at Herbert Smith, agrees. She says: "We bring training in-house because it is the way to get quality follow-through because we can build on what has happened before. We can build careers and people and develop individuals better than outside people can."

According to this school of thought, training should be so specific that it can be provided on demand to each lawyer.

Crisp says: "A lot of training is now a response to particular demands from clients. You contact the training people here and ask for training on say a beauty parade in a few days."

And in-house client-focused training does not stop there. When Beachcrofts became Cornhill Insurance's first legal adviser to offer national coverage (The Lawyer, 6 March), it adjusted its training accordingly. A partner from the London office and a Cornhill lawyer toured the firm's different offices and instructed relevant lawyers on how to deal with the account.

Eversheds has developed a similar programme designed exclusively for its litigators working with one of its major clients, chemicals giant Du Pont. It has teamed up with Nottingham Law School to develop training specific to Du Pont in order to enhance their relationship.

While many lawyers would argue that in-house programmes are tailor-made and ensure training is relevant and flexible, external training methods are currently flourishing. The legal press is overflowing with advertisements for tuition from colleges and consultants.

One way to train lawyers is to send them on courses, such as MBAs and LLMs. The Nottingham Law School, BPP Law School, and the College of Law are key providers of a wide range of programmes used by firms.

Peter Jones, the dean and chief executive of Nottingham Law School, claims that the advantage tutors of these courses have over in-house trainers is a depth of experience drawn from a variety of law firms, and because of this they are more objective.

"We need to challenge the doctrines involved in individual firms," he argues, claiming that law firms cannot do this internally as they are too seeped in their own dogma.

David Jabbari, the director of professional development at the College of Law, echoes Jones' sentiments.

But many law firms prefer specialists to visit their firms on a consultancy basis rather than sign their staff up for longer off-site courses.

Crisp says: "We do not use colleges but we do use specific external consultants who are good at delivering modules rather than whole courses."

And most colleges are cooperating with individual clients, departments and firms to devise made-to-measure training courses within legal practices.

But firms are not just using legal experts.

Maddams says: "If there is a particular area that we feel we need advice on and we cannot provide it in-house we will look for it externally. For instance, our medical lawyers are not doctors so we will get medical experts to come along."

And most colleges are cooperating with individual clients, departments and firms to devise made-to-measure training courses within legal practices.

E-education is another concept receiving a lot of attention from law firms as many realise the potential of the internet.

Hammond Suddards director of legal development Helena Twist says that corporate lawyers, who are often more office-bound than other types of legal practitioners, increasingly use internet sites for some of their training.

Robin Fry was an IP partner at Stephens Innocent who has now launched 2End2, an internet site which offers free 30-minute seminars. He says e-education overcomes many problems that arise from more traditional forms of tuition.

"Flexibility is the most important aspect. There are all sorts of problems connected to hours of seminars. The key to training is that it should be in short chunks," he says.

But in-house tutors say that the main problem with training is the attitude of the lawyers themselves. They believe that many lawyers, especially senior assistants and partners, see training as an unwelcome distraction from practical work on cases and deals.

One training lawyer at a magic circle practice says: "How do you get senior lawyers and partners to do training?

"There is a big problem in law firms trying to do this. Client work comes first and many of these people think they are too important to be trained.

"Another issue is that we need training from the top down. It helps the general attitude towards training in the firm if the partners and senior managers do it. Only then will it be taken seriously. But we are looking into this."

It is an opinion shared by most of the training partners interviewed. But they concede that because competition for clients is becoming so intense the benefits of training are recognised by many and senior lawyers are taking training more seriously.

Jill Janney, the special projects training lawyer at Freshfields, says: "My view is that we still have a problem with people finding time for training. It is not a priority.

"But if they do not have training it stops them taking new approaches and from being up-to-date with the law, such as the new Civil Procedure Rules. Some lawyers have not done the CPR training and they are having a lot of problems."

In a climate where lawyers are forced to take their continued development more seriously, a variety of methods to ensure that the most beneficial training is taken on board are being tried.

The only real problem for law firms is making senior lawyers realise that they should not exclude themselves from these programmes.

But only those practices that manage to keep abreast of legal changes by sharpening the professional skills of their lawyers will reap the rewards from investment in training.