Brand new approach
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30 June 2014
In conducting a review of training needs, matters such as increasing knowledge and developing skills are taken as read. These are the expected outputs from any investment in training, but with planning and the right kind of training design, an additional and valuable benefit can be derived from the training spend, that is building and maintaining the firm's brand.
The modern law firm, in the same way as any other provider of goods or services, increasingly needs to establish itself as a distinctive brand, offering a distinctive service. Considerable time and money is spent on designing a corporate image to express to existing and potential clients the essence of the firm. This time and money is wasted if the project is not followed through to the delivery of quality service and firms strive to ensure that this is achieved.
Training is, of course, a key factor for deliverying a quality service. However, training has more to offer in building the brand than simply raising the skills level of those within the firm who provide the service to the client. Properly designed training can make an additional contribution to building and maintaining the brand.
A unified approach
In establishing and maintaining a successful brand, it is essential that those delivering the services identify themselves with the values associated with the brand. If they do not, then it is unlikely that they will deliver service to the client consistent with the brand. Achieving internal buy-in to the values encapsulated in the brand image is essential if the service is to be delivered in accordance with those values. Unless there is a unified approach and sense of common identity within the firm, it will be impossible to project a distinctive brand identity to clients.
Achieving a sense of common identity is a particular issue with multinational firms. The simple fact of geographical spread can lead lawyers to identify with their own office rather than with the firm as a whole. Where firms are seeking to build and maintain a global brand and seeking to attract and retain the loyalty of, in many cases, global clients, it is crucial to build staff's identification with that global brand. Failure to do so risks failing to meet the client's expectations.
Most multi-jurisdiction firms hold regular partner retreats where partners from all the offices get together to discuss strategy, review performance and plan for the future. It is the teamworking involved in this process, including working through disputes and differences rather than simply the act of meeting, that establishes and builds bonds that help to forge a global identity at partner level. Few firms can afford the considerable expense and opportunity costs of simply providing meeting opportunities for staff from multiple offices to get to know each other. However, where that investment can be made to achieve multiple outcomes, the concept of bringing groups made up of lawyers from different offices together becomes more attractive. Training involving staff from multiple offices, properly planned and designed, serves a dual function. Not only do staff develop their knowledge and skills, the training can also be designed to forge the bonds and sense of identity that are central to staff identifying with the global brand. To be effective, the training must actively involve the participants in teamworking and problem solving that is relevant to their day-to-day practice.
Learning by doing
'Talk and chalk' training, where one person holds court in a room, does not achieve this involvement. At best, this type of training provides an opportunity for networking during the breaks. In contrast, learning by doing actively involves delegates. They work together through simulated cases designed to develop skills and knowledge and to assist participants to identify and play to the strengths of each individual within the team. This working as a team supports the establishment of the global identity and common ethos and helps to build the brand. The underlying concept is not new. In the 1980s and 1990s, sport-based team-building exercises, such as paintballing, were popular for building this team identity and philosophy of cooperation. To an extent they do this, but the team being forged for the paintballing exercise has an entirely different purpose and develops a different skills set than that needed in the work environment. Training through carefully designed simulations, worked through in small groups with well-designed problems that draw in the whole team are more easily transferable back to the workplace. Through the technical skills they are developing, participants can see the direct relevance to their work, as well as having the added benefits of building a common identity and working as a team. The sense of identity that is fostered during such training encourages internal buy-in to the global brand.
The same approach works for UK-based multi-site offices, particularly where expansion has been by acquisition. The danger is that those in the acquired practice may feel as if they have been 'taken over'. It is natural to want to cling to the old and familiar way of doing things and to resist identification with the new firm. Training by simulation demonstrates the benefits for the whole team when all team members work actively together. Each individual brings their own contribution to solving the problem and a sense of corporate identity is easier to achieve.
Exactly the same principles operate across disciplines within firms. In firms of all sizes there tends to be a gulf, increasingly apparent with earlier and tighter specialisation, between contentious and non-contentious work. There is a great deal to be gained, not least for future cross-marketing to clients, by using training to build understanding and a sense of identity across various disciplines within the firm. Well-designed training simulations where contentious and non-contentious specialists work together, each contributing their own expertise towards finding solutions, demonstrate the areas of crossover, as well as uniting the various disciplines under the same brand.
Internal cohesiveness and a common approach and philosophy across the firm aids recruitment and retention. A clear and maintained sense of the firm's ethos, its philosophy and where it is going will attract the brightest and best and crucially retain them for the long-term. And a stable team can only be good for the client and for maintenance of the firm's brand.
Where there is internal brand identification it is easier to deliver a consistently high-quality service that meets the client's expectations, which in turn helps to establish brand recognition and loyalty in clients. Internal brand identity brings a shared set of approaches and values. This does not mean an unthinking 'tick box' way of working, but instead a common mindset in establishing the client's goals and meeting the client's service-level expectations.
Training is the key. Training providers must work with the firm to establish the training outcomes, the firm's philosophy and the image and message it wishes to impart in clients. These must be built into the training design. Applied in training across disciplines and departments, this entrenches and maintains the brand image the firm wants to project.
Paintballing has its place, but firms should consider how to get best value from the training budget. Training designed not only to increase knowledge and skills, but also to build both internal and external brand identification provides added value by increasing clients' brand awareness and loyalty and makes sure that money spent on the corporate image is not wasted.
Fiona Cunningham is head of the professional division at Nottingham Law School