How winners learn their lessons

As competition in the legal market increases, more and more firms are recognising the need to develop good management skills throughout their organisations to remain competitive.

The ability of practices to manage themselves effectively at every level will be one of the critical factors in sorting out the winners from the losers as competition continues to intensify over the next few years.

Law practices need to develop a much deeper understanding of what is really involved in – and meant by – management.

Management no longer simply involves low-level administrative tasks but is concerned with issues central to the success of the firm.

Managing a legal practice is not a matter of collecting time sheets but of managing staff, teams and clients, the work and the profitability of the firm with the aim of ensuring that everything supports the achievement of the practice's strategic business objectives.

Many firms now realise that management is something in which all partners are involved and that is not an area that can simply be “delegated” to a managing partner or some other professional manager.

So in order to increase the management skills throughout a practice all partners, not just the interested few, need to have their core management skills developed.

Training plays a vital role in helping to raise the level of management skills in a firm but it is not, in itself, enough.

Displaying effective leadership and management skills in a practice is more about exhibiting the right behaviour and attitudes than it is about skills in a conventional sense.

Consequently, people should be helped to understand and “manage” their own behaviour in line with the needs of the business.

Training is a critical part of the learning process because it provides people with an opportunity to focus on the issues and it helps them to learn new ways of thinking. However, it is what happens after the training that is important in terms of helping the newly learnt skills to take root.

Some legal practices put the whole partnership through a training workshop programme, assume that everyone has been trained and then leave staff to get on with it.

Under such circumstances training is rarely effective and often leaves the people being trained, and the firm as a whole, dissatisfied. The benefits of training diminish rapidly if the lessons are not reinforced in the work environment and done so in a relevant way.

The process of developing new and higher levels of management skills in people is best achieved when certain conditions exist.

The first condition is that those being trained should understand the context in which the training is taking place, particularly in terms of the practice's strategy.

Too often training courses are conducted without a clear strategic aim or any business rationale. Under these circumstances trainees struggle to understand the relevance of the training, messages rarely stick and behaviour does not change.

The second factor is related to the way lawyers learn – the way in which their psychology and intellect influences them.

Lawyers enjoy debating and testing a theory or management principle and tend to understand it quickly. They also want to know how it can be put into practice. So it is important that training has a very strong practical application if it is to be effective for lawyers. Often, training courses remain at the conceptual level and fail to address practical matters.

A third important consideration is ensuring that key management principles are foll owed up and reinforced. In addition, there should be adequate support for any planned changes or developments.

Most training has a limited shelf-life and its effectiveness soon fades. Therefore, it is important to carry out a follow-up session within three months of the original training.

Training is high on the agendas of many law firms and more are turning to it as a way of improving the operation of the practices.

Those legal practices that ensure training is placed in a clear, strategic context, that it is practical and that is fully followed up once the initial programme had been completed, are enjoying greater success and benefits from the investment they are making.