Tonic for the troops
13 May 2013 | By Natalie Stanton
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Law firms often appear to focus their training efforts on the newbies to the legal profession, but increasingly programmes target mid-level associates
Training contracts hog the limelight when it comes to legal training. In an attempt to snap up the best quality candidates and mould them into the perfect NQ, firms throw everything but the kitchen sink into training up their entry-level and junior lawyers. But what happens after this point? Are mid-levels left floundering in a legal training wasteland?
Fortunately, no. Law firms have caught on to the idea that robust training initiatives are just as crucial for mid-level associates as they are for newbies in the legal profession. In fact, despite a tough few years for the sector, there’s more training on offer than ever before. Just as marketing funds are often considered ‘recession-proof’, training managed to withstand the heavy budget cuts being made elsewhere.
“Most large commercial firms have dramatically increased their education and training over the past five years. It’s critical to the acquisition and retention of good mid-level associates,” says Mills & Reeve family law partner Roger Bamber.
Training needs shift somewhat as lawyers make the tricky jump from junior to mid-level, roughly four years after qualification. Already equipped with legal know-how, the focus shifts towards ‘soft skills’ and professional development - things like people management, client relationship building, and monitoring finances. Training programmes like CMS Cameron McKenna’s, which is pieced together around the central tenets of “best people, best practice and best profit”, arm mid-level associates with the practical tools they need to step up into a leadership role at the firm.
Expansion is à la mode right now, with firms continuing to balloon in size via bolt ons, mergers and new offices. They’ve come to realise that training is about more than filling people’s heads with knowledge - it’s a powerful tool to aid integration. If success is on the cards, their lawyers will have to build healthy working relationships with each other, regardless of whether they’re based in Milton Keynes or Maputo.
Julia Clarke, global learning and development partner at Clifford Chance, says: “Training has changed hugely, from the local ‘learn from the people around you’ approach, to a much more global approach. As we’ve grown there’s been a focus on consistency. Training plays a role in helping to achieve that.”
It’s not just huge global players that have taken this on board. Even mid-size Mills & Reeve, due to merge with Manchester firm George Davies on 1 June 2013, has realised the merits of taking a joined-up approach to training, development and communications. The firm’s head of knowledge, learning and development Trevor Comyn explains: “Our knowledge, learning and development team is very heavily involved in integration for the merger. The idea is to get new people feeling part of Mills & Reeve as quickly as possible.”
As a result, firms are making an unprecedented effort (and busting their budgets) to bring lawyers face to face, particularly as they make the slow creep towards partnership level. Events come in the form of departmental get-togethers, sector-focused retreats, peer group trainings, and even diversity initiatives - ultimately, any way that the firm can shake up its lawyers to engage with colleagues outside of their own work bubble. For Mills & Reeve this involves the odd away day. For Shearman & Sterlingit requires flying mid-level associates off to its annual global firm conference in New York.
Of course, the luxury of jetting your lawyers around the globe en masse doesn’t come cheap. Thankfully, online tools such as Skype and WebEx can complement this approach, or replace it completely.
Virtual training means that networking with your colleagues in Shanghai from your living room couch or videoconferencing room is a completely feasible option.
“When we run a programme we need to ensure that all our associates globally have the opportunity to access that programme. There’s an increased emphasis on virtual classrooms and increased access globally, as opposed to traditional forms of face-to-face training to a group in one location,” says Patricia Walsh, global head of HR at Squire Sanders.
Webinars are an ideal solution to this challenge, allowing associates to tune in from anywhere in the world. Mills & Reeve, for example, is using an increasing amount of WebEx technology to keep its lawyers connected. This allows users to log into a live PowerPoint presentation from their desk, dialling into a phone line or video connection in order to hear or see the presenter. It’s an interactive experience, allowing the host to point at parts of the screen or highlight words as they talk, says Comyn.
Relationship building and scheduled training sessions are absolutely critical to firm success. However, despite the onslaught of these types of programmes, informal training continues to hold its own.
Clarke, who has worked at Clifford Chance since qualifying 25 years ago, explains: “Informal learning is still just as important as formal learning. In fact, there will be more personal learning in the future thanks to videos, the internet and technological advances. Training has moved on a long way, but one mustn’t forget the informal side and how important that is. You have to help people to take responsibility for learning themselves.”
Perhaps the best thing about informal training is its flexibility. Lawyers can squeeze it in between meetings, unlike that long haul flight to New York. Online training videos are particularly effective. As they have become increasingly simple to film and post on firm intranet systems, there has been a massive surge in their usage in recent years. Currently handy for catching up on missed sessions, firms are also looking at innovative ways of using the technology.
Take Shearman & Sterling, for example. The US firm is planning on using the technology to provide “short bursts” of training such as a quick dash through a partner’s top 10 tips on building client relationships, or billing time for example. Similarly, Clifford Chance has a huge collection of five-minute films on its intranet, featuring partners from every corner of the firm’s vast network sharing their wisdom.
Current topics include building your profile within the firm, and golden rules for going into a pitching meeting. Ultimately, the idea is that lawyers can tailor their own training schedule, picking and choosing from the vast mosaic of sessions on offer - and, of course, slotting it seamlessly around their billable work.
Another perk of technology is that it can build on the knowledge acquired in more formal, scheduled training sessions.
“It helps us lengthen its impact,” explains Clarke. “Previously, the challenge was that people would forget what they’d learned. Now you can send a video link, saying: ‘Remember what you’ve learnt here? Put it into practice’. You can have follow up webinars with people who attended a classroom course six weeks later. It’s an opportunity for peer learning and it helps us gauge how successful our training has been.”
Social media is another exciting area to watch, as legal practitioners increasingly use the likes of Twitter, LinkedIn and blogs to raise their profile. It is already common practice for associates at CMS Cameron McKenna to spend time with the firm’s communications team in order to fine-tune their social media presence. LinkedIn profiles are polished to perfection, and the firm ensures that its lawyers are signed up to all the relevant online groups for networking and career development in their particular areas of interest. Expect to see further developments in this area in coming years.
Before videoconferencing or mass departmental training were born, firms had a very different way of doing things and many still swear by the ‘learning by doing’ method. Having input from real people is still valued by some, including by bringing in experts from outside the firm.
“On the legal side, three or four times a year we bring in some top academics - usually the type of people who have written the leading textbooks on a matter and are at the cutting edge of legal academic training,” says John Worrall, head of professional development and training at Shearman & Sterling’s London office, outlining the firm’s approach. “On the business side, we have experts talking about things like pitching and reputation skills. We have an interesting course on communicating across borders. On the finance side, we bring in people who have specialist abilities in understanding accounts and financial statements. About 80 per cent of our training is led by people within the firm and 20 per cent by external people brought in.”
Another way of ensuring that lawyers feel confident to step up and take on weighty responsibility is to provide them with a structured, failsafe support network. Most firms have some sort of mentorship programme in place, whereby they match up their younger lawyers with a partner ‘buddy’.
Perhaps the most important element of the mentor-mentee relationship is trust - the partner’s role is to be an objective sounding board. So, firms including Squire Sanders and Shearman & Sterling aim to keep formal professional development decisions as far removed from the mentoring process as possible.
“We don’t want our lawyers to feel as if the partners will be informing on their pay and progression,” explains Walsh. “It’s about personal growth and development.”
Across the pond, a few firms are beginning to take mentorship schemes to a whole new level. Crowell & Moring, for example, has developed a new ‘sponsorship programme’ for its US associates (see box, below).
Time will tell whether this line of thinking will creep into the psyche of firms in the UK. Either way, it is clear that mentoring relationships will continue to play a significant role in the training of junior and mid-level associates.
The pending results of the Legal Education Training Review (LETR) has stirred up a huge amount of debate regarding legal training, although most commentators have been venting about its shortcomings. The current requirement of 16 hours of CPD training hardly cuts the mustard when it comes to sharpening the nation’s brightest legal minds.
“I’m a specialist in family law and could do eight hours of CPD on road traffic accidents. That’s completely irrelevant for my client,” Bamber points out.
However, on closer inspection, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about training in the legal profession. The ever-multiplying size of the world’s biggest law firms and the need for integration is necessitating more formal training than ever before.
At the same time, advances in technology mean that training is becoming increasingly flexible.
Bamber says: “You don’t have to be in a massive lecture hall with 600 people, or having to drive to places to listen to dreary lectures all day. There’ll be more informal training in the future. It’ll be more fun and more focused.”
Smartphones and remote internet access means that you can instantly watch presentations at your desk, in a taxi, or even on the beach sipping a margarita. Those sessions can be specifically pinpointed to your requirements and capacity.
The forward movement of training at the world’s largest firms is inspiring legal providers of all shapes and sizes to rethink their own lawyer development programmes.
“There’s so much in the pipeline, we never stay still when it comes to training,” says Mishcon de Reya’s HR head Vanessa Dewhurst. “We understand there’s always more that needs to be done when helping lawyers have a better understanding of their business and clients, around our core values and quality standards. We’re doing innovative things all the time.”
And that can be no bad thing.
Milbank goes to Harvard
The Milbank@Harvard programme kicked off in autumn 2011. The idea is for every Milbank associate to jet out to Harvard three times between their third and seventh years PQE. Each time they will spend a week being taught by members of the university’s law and business schools. They are even taught a class in professional ethics by the dean of Harvard Law School.
The focus is on professional development - topics including accounting, marketing and macroeconomics alongside leadership skills. The social element is also crucial, however, and Milbank organises a series of meals and events throughout the week so that associates from across the globe can get to know each other.
According to Anna Thomander, a fifth-year associate: “One of the best things is getting to know people at a similar level, so I can reach out to people in Sao Paolo or Germany if I have a question.
“It’s great being back on a university campus for a week. You get to know people in a really great way. Continuity for a number of years is a key element - each year you can catch up with old friends and make new ones. Milbank will see the benefit in years to come when people at partnership level have an incredible network.”
There’s been little expense spared on the scheme. Training partner James Warbey says: “We expanded our training budget as Milbank@Harvard is an extremely expensive programme.
“We fly the participants business class to the US and put them up in a hotel on campus at Harvard. That is expensive, but we see it as an investment.”
Crowell & Moring’s mentoring measures
The purpose of a mentorship programme is to provide younger lawyers with a support network and give them a go-to person to whom they can address any difficult or awkward questions. US firm Crowell & Moring’s sponsorship programme, in contrast, is more informal. It involves associates seeking out partners they have a connection with, who will then fight their corner in terms of professional development.
Managing partner Ellen Dwyer explains in a video on the firm’s website: “When the firm was smaller there was a lot of informal sponsorship. In addition to expecting me to do excellent work, partners made it their business to ensure that our clients knew who I was.
“They spent time creating terrific opportunities for me to demonstrate my talents, talk about me in meetings with other partners and make sure I had the type of work they thought I deserved. When we were smaller there was much more of that happening organically. We’ve grown and the effort is to ensure that the experience many of us had will be shared by a much larger group of lawyers.”
Hogan Lovells thinks big
For trainees and juniors, training at Hogan Lovells is a local affair. It is only when they hit about four years PQE and are promoted to senior associate level that things take a turn for the international. The annual Senior Associate Conference sees all 70 or so newly promoted associates from the firm’s 18 European offices brought together in London for a two-and-a-half day meeting jam-packed with electives and training sessions. The idea is to bolster their personal skills and encourage them to establish healthy working relationships.