Mind your business

Legal training needs to strike a balance between technical legal expertise and commercial nous. Jim Hever reports on some innovative learning techniques


Extensive research over many years in many countries has established that experiential learning is the most effective method of acquiring new skills and ideas (see diagram). We begin by becoming aware of our concrete experience to check what is really going on, which we want to improve or use. We then reflect and analyse our experience and compare this with what we already know. This leads to building ideas for change, which in turn leads to active experimentation with new ways of doing things. The diagram indicates, the experiential learning cycle matches perfectly the structure of our brain and engages our whole brain, including our thinking, emotions, creativity and, in fact, our whole person.

For learning to be really effective a number of conditions must be present to ensure programmes and methods are practical and useful at work (see table). The table can act as a way of evaluating any training event or the effectiveness of any programme.

It is not surprising, then, that leadership guru Warren Bennis compares the ineffectiveness of law schools with that of MBA programmes and business schools. In the May 2005 edition of Harvard Business Review, he argues that both fail to prepare people for business roles because of their overly academic emphases and lack of practical application. In effect, they emphasise ‘cognitive learning’.

This kind of learning is what is mostly associated with academic institutions. It is why so many MBA programmes and traditional management development programmes fail to provide people with competencies that make a difference at work. In law firms, the results of an over-cognitive emphasis can be seen in the frequent cry that partner X is a great lawyer but not very commercial or not good with clients. In in-house departments, the complaint is sometimes made that lawyers are over-focused on compliance and do not help the business sufficiently.

The focus of most legal training is on technical knowledge, on deepening one’s academic understanding of specific aspects of the law and on keeping up-to-date with changes in the law. This is mostly a cognitive focus. It teaches lawyers to view the commercial world through a legal prism, whereas it would be more valuable to clients to have lawyers who did the opposite – who saw the legal world through a commercial prism and learn how to apply their cognitive learning practically to solve real business problems (experiential).

As far as clients are concerned, the priority is on the practical use of the law in real business situations. It is the commerciality of the legal advice and its application to their specific situations that is critical, not the depth of technical legal knowledge behind that advice.

Undeniably, lawyers face a very real tension between being independent officers of the court and being truly commercially-minded. Most legal training focuses on the former at the expense of the latter. It creates a mindset of searching for flaws, rather than looking for creative commercial solutions. After all, it is far easier to train someone on legal theory (cognitive) than to train them on how to apply practically that theory in a fast-moving commercial environment (experiential).

In recent years, the problem has been recognised at the pre-qualification level. The City LPC run by BPP Law School in conjunction with five City firms, the bespoke, corporate-focused LPC provided by the College of Law for three City firms and the College of Law’s new corporate-specific centre in Moorgate, due to open later this year, can be seen as attempts to offer more practical, commercially relevant training to law students.

For practising lawyers, the issue is not so easy to address. You cannot create a quick-fix course in commerciality if it is to be really effective. Yet to be perceived positively in business, commerciality is key.

In the mature markets of Europe and North America, hard-won competitive advantage lies in innovation, in new products and services and in speed to market. In the financial services market, for example, increasing government regulation drives lawyers to emphasise compliance. But winning market share in the financial services sector is not down to having the best compliance advice; the companies that succeed are those that are able to apply commercially that compliance framework in a way that facilitates innovation and delivery to market. The priorities of the legal team need to be aligned closely with the commercial agenda of the business.

The client development centre (CDC) developed at Addleshaw Goddard is its response to the need for experiential, commercially focused training for practising lawyers. Its range of services and products includes rapid-response secondments, team-based business simulation training designed for lawyers, project-based leadership development, performance-based coaching, roundtable discussions, conferences and a number of innovative services that are being developed in line with clients’ needs and that are tailored to the requirements of specific individuals, teams and organisations.

While the CDC is aimed specifically at in-house counsel, the need it addresses is just as strong in private practice, if not more so.

Developing the practical commercial skills that clients demand is too important to leave to ad hoc opportunity and gradual experience. It needs more than two or three LPC-based initiatives, welcome as they are. Meeting the needs of the client should be at the heart of all legal training, at every level, not the after-thought it too often is.

Jim Hever is head of the client development centre at Addleshaw Goddard