Sandhurst course shows BLP trainees the ups and downs of a life in law
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It’s early morning at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (RMAS) and a platoon of officer cadets in full uniform charges past a group of nervous-looking Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) trainees.
The cadets swing onto the monkey bars with ease and neatly leopard-crawl under barbed wire before scrambling into river-filled tunnels, slowly disappearing out of sight.
But this is not some new initiative to boost army numbers by recruiting fresh young legal talent, but the latest batch of BLP trainees taking part in the firm’s three-day Career Development Core Zero (CDC-0) programme.
CDC-0 is the first of BLP’s career development courses aimed at providing structured training to BLP legal staff at each stage of their careers, from trainee and newly qualified (NQ) solicitor to junior and senior associates and eventually to partner.
Aimed at bridging the transition between LPC student and first-seat trainee, the CDC-0 programme focuses on buzz phrases such as ’personal brand’, ’making a positive impact’ and ’maximising success’.
In short, it has been designed to support NQs as they make the move from student to trainee rather than just plonking them at their new desk and handing them a box of bundles.
The programme comprises a day spent at the College of Law, where the trainees studied their LPC, a day at Sandhurst and finally a day at BLP itself.
But why Sandhurst?
The CDC-0 course was designed by BLP with the help of the Inspirational Development Group (IDG), a company that works in association with Sandhurst developing leadership and team ethics within non-military groups such as law firms.
Tim McEwen, IDG’s Sandhurst project director and former army officer, helped to create the programme and is also active in its delivery.
“This is about combining leadership, fellowship and partnership expertise. Not only is it great fun and a teambuilding exercise for the trainees, but they really have to think about the tasks we set them and learn lessons that can be transferred to the world of work,” he says.
In-house trainer at BLP Stephen Weiner, who spearheaded the project back in 2007, says: “We believe there’s a crossover with the skills and attributes Sandhurst tries to foster in its cadets and those we look for in successful BLP trainees: integrity, moral courage, effective communication, professionalism and more. The programme is certainly no boot camp, but it’s an essential part of understanding the role of a successful trainee solicitor.”
Once at Sandhurst, trainees have to take part in the world-renowned assault course. They have to negotiate their way around the course armed with a bunch of balloons, representing the firm’s clients, as well as a bucket of water that symbolises clients’ needs.
The assault course is followed by an afternoon of orienteering where each group has to navigate its way through Sandhurst’s vast wooded grounds to various task points.
Each task involves an array of poles, pulleys and other contraptions that the trainees have to navigate their way through in Crystal Maze style. Trainees have to use a mixture of brains, brawn and teamwork to complete each one.
“The message we’re trying to send to the trainees is that they’re fully supported for their entire training contract. We don’t believe in the sink-or-swim mentality,” explains Weiner. “If someone’s struggling, it’s in the firm’s interests to help, coach and support them, not least of all because in doing this we’re also avoiding risk.”
But Sandhurst is just one part of the programme and trainees are also given various presentations and workshops on a range of issues, such as commercial judgement and conflict management.
One exercise, hosted at BLP’s offices, sees the new trainees given a quick presentation on a complicated corporate transaction. They get five minutes to report the brief back to a partner, who is for the purposes of the exercise about to go into a meeting with a client and wants to be brought up to speed on the file. Trainees then get feedback on their performances.
“Successful lawyers make a positive impact in displaying what used to be called soft skills: presenting, building rapport and relationships, establishing trust, reliability, responsiveness, communicating, retaining perspective and a good sense of humour. All the things that contribute to a great personal brand at work,” explains Weiner.
There are often various misconceptions about leadership and teambuilding programmes and it would be easy for critics to label CDC-0 as just another ’bright HR idea’. But Weiner claims that this scheme is unique and pays lip service to the well-worn phrase ’hit the ground running’, because coming off this programme BLP trainees can do just that.
“The first day of your first seat can be incredibly daunting: small office, new people, new politics, new IT systems, trying to impress, trying to learn the ropes and trying to hide nerves,” he says. “I want trainees to feel like they’ve received a head-start, that they’re supported and that they have tools at their fingertips to deal with those difficult situations.”