14 May 2012 | By Joanne Harris
It’s promotion season for UK law firms, but what sort of training have the class of 2012 had to help them to partnership?
Becoming a partner is many young lawyers’ aim when they start out on their careers, but these days making the grade is not a given. While several top 25 firms have promoted more new partners this year than last year, others have kept promotion levels low.
For those who have made it, their careers will now begin again. They need to think about matters such as client development, managing a team and the financial issues of the law firm in which they have taken a stake. It is a big step up from being a senior associate.
Luckily, law firms are geared up to help their new partners make that transition. As the class of 2012 discuss below, training programmes take several forms but are designed to guide senior associates into a different way of thinking. A number of firms have a senior associate development centre or similar programme, which takes place around two years before partnership.
Mentoring programmes involving partners and other senior staff within the firm, or external coaches, are also popular. Indeed these attract the most praise from new partners, who feel that one-on-one coaching or mentoring enables them to focus on the things they need to develop most.
There is a broad acknowledgement that general business skills are just as vital as black-letter legal skills. Addressing this early on is important, believe the new partners, who think that many junior lawyers are aware that concentrating only on technical legal work will hinder their careers later on.
Certainly solicitors at all levels of qualification will get the most out of the training offered by their firms if they are willing to be proactive and seek out the best options for themselves. Demonstrating a desire to improve your own skills sends a sure sign to a firm’s management that you are seeking promotion and could well help you follow in the footsteps of this year’s new partners.
Sarah Sivyour, Ashurst
2000-02: trainee, Ashurst
2002-12: associate, Ashurst
2004-05: secondment to Canary Wharf Group
2012: partner, Ashurst
Ashurst real estate lawyer Sarah Sivyour has had several useful pieces of training during her career. Although she says nothing was targeted specifically towards her recent promotion to partner, she believes aspects of the training the firm has provided has been useful on the partnership path.
Sivyour’s training has fallen into two categories: career development and more general skills. In the former, the most significant piece was Ashurst’s senior associate development centre course, which she took at six years’ post-qualification.
The course, which lasts a couple of days, covers senior associates’ expectations, career progression and skills training, and discusses elements such as managing clients and managing colleagues at the firm. It also covers financial management, which, according to Sivyour, is useful for a new partner to understand
the way the firm functions from a business perspective.
Not all of Ashurst’s senior associates are invited on the development course; candidates at the appropriate level are identified by heads of department, although it is specifically not a preparation for partnership.
“Because of the level it was at, it was very good at getting me thinking about the ways in which I was working and the kind of things I wasn’t doing already,” Sivyour says. “A lot of it sounds like common sense but it’s getting you thinking along those lines, getting tips for doing things.”
She says that perhaps even more useful, and especially from the point of view of the track to partner, was the one-to-one mentoring she has received from partners within the real estate department.
“They move away from the generalities and they allow you to start thinking about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” Sivyour says of the sessions. “One of the things where we’ve had a fantastic amount of support from the real estate partners was making sure that things weren’t left to the last minute.”
Sivyour says her training has taken account of the need to develop beyond the basic technical requirements of being a lawyer.
“Personal and business skills are obviously vital and everyone now understands that, even at a junior level,” she believes.
Along with the rest of Ashurst’s class of 2012, Sivyour will shortly go on a course aimed at new partners, which she says will be useful to help make the transition from senior associate.
“That’s really important because however much stepping into the shoes of partners you’ve done as a senior associate, you always need to continue learning things from different people. I suppose you could call it transition coaching really,” she says.
Sarah Woodsford, Burges Salmon
2001-03: trainee, Burges Salmon
2003-12: solicitor, Burges Salmon
2012: partner, Burges Salmon
Sarah Woodsford is one of four of out the seven new partners promoted this year at Burges Salmon to have spent her entire career, from trainee upwards, at the South-West firm. The new family law partner believes this speaks volumes for the quality of Burges Salmon’s career development, and she describes a training programme designed to encourage self-motivation.
“My experience has been a continual flow of training in the direction
in which I intended to go,” says Woodsford.
On qualification solicitors are trained in peer groups. This enables those who have joined the firm after qualifying elsewhere to integrate with those who trained at Burges Salmon and build connections with colleagues in different departments.
That training is followed at around five years’ PQE with a one-day course at Burges Salmon’s senior associates development centre, which focuses on generic professional services skills rather than specific legal skills. Actors play the role of clients and pose problems to be solved.
“You’re dealing with what’s in front of you,” explains Woodsford, adding that senior associates are given a report identifying strengths and weaknesses. “I found it a real confidence boost,” she says.
Every senior associate is assigned a “career coach” from the firm’s learning and development team, and helped to design a personal training plan. Nothing is mandated but, says Woodsford, a wide range of courses and support is offered.
“Everything I’ve ever asked for has been provided,” she enthuses. “It’s down to you – you’re not pushed into it. By the time you get to senior associate level you know what you need.”
Once she knew she was on the route to partnership, Woodsford asked for an external coach to help her prepare the business plan to be put to the partnership committee, and in particular how best to present it. She says that the career coach provided by the firm was a critical point of contact, encouraging and helping her to develop the key personal skills needed for the move to partnership.
“In making the transition from fee-earner to partner, you’re essentially becoming a marketer and a manager. If you haven’t had that transition training it’s a culture shock,” Woodsford believes.
That style of training continues into partnership. Woodsford and her peers will all be given the support of a transition coach so they have someone to go to if they need advice in the first months of partnership.
The key message, Woodsford stresses, is that she has felt supported throughout her career at the firm and that has helped her, and other lawyers who started out at Burges Salmon, stay there.
Danielle Drummond-Brassington, CMS Cameron McKenna
2002-04: trainee, CMS Cameron McKenna
2004-12: associate, CMS Cameron McKenna
2012: partner, CMS Cameron McKenna
Among the 34 lawyers promoted to partner across the CMS network this year was London-based real estate lawyer Danielle Drummond-Brassington.
Drummond-Brassington was identified by the firm as a prospective partner several years ago and has been through a number of different stages of training en route. This has included a course at the so-called CMS Academy, which over two or three days trains fee-earners from across the network on things such as negotiation skills, pitching and various team-building tasks.
“Once you’ve been identified as a potential partner you’re invited to participate in the Development Centre,” she explains. At the centre, partners-to-be experience some of the tasks they are required to complete as part of the partnership assessment, for example competency-based interviews and presentations.
“The purpose isn’t to pass or fail, rather to highlight areas for development a year or so before the partnership assessment centre,” adds Drummond-Brassington.
Any development needs are identified and addressed in one-on-one coaching sessions, which also helps prospective partners to formulate a business plan. Drummond-Brassington was invited to the Development Centre course two years before undergoing partnership assessment.
She says she has been able to access training across a range of areas, such as getting advice on a presentation before a talk at an industry event. Drummond-Brassington thinks that lawyers need to be trained across a range of areas.
“It’s somewhat ironic that as a fee-earner you spend your time trying to be the best lawyer technically and then once you become a partner, while that remains important, you need to manage a team, be a great leader and juggle lots of administrative tasks as well,” she points out. “In today’s business world, being a good lawyer isn’t sufficient. You have to build strong relationships, both with your clients and your team. These soft skills are ones that people need to be encouraged to develop.”
James Walsh, Eversheds
2003-04: articled clerk, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Melbourne
2004-07: solicitor, Mallesons Stephen Jaques
2007-12: solicitor, Eversheds, London
2012: partner, Eversheds
Australian telecoms specialist James Walsh joined Eversheds five years ago from Mallesons Stephens Jacques (now King & Wood Mallesons). He says the fact that he came through a different training route to many of his peers at the firm has not had a negative impact on his route to partnership.
Walsh says much of his training since he joined Eversheds has been relatively informal but very useful. In particular, in the past two years he has been involved in a mentoring scheme designed to help senior associates gain all the competencies they need to make it through the partnership interview process and into the partnership.
“In the past year I’ve probably had a lot more of that informal mentoring because I’ve been on that track,” Walsh says. “There were a lot of conversations in the past year in which I’ve had to make sure I ticked all the boxes that were required.”
He says his line manager helped him to find other people from around the firm who could provide advice, not just in the commercial team but in other legal and also support departments.
Walsh says that while the support was freely available, he did have to show a certain amount of initiative.
“The type of people that the firm tends to look for these days are those who are self-starters,” he believes. “There’s definitely the support there, but they don’t shove anything down your throat.”
The informal training, he thinks, was as much use, if not more useful, than previous formal training on both the technical side of the law and also soft skills. The mentors also helped Walsh prepare a good business case to put to the interview panel during the partnership assessment period.
Although he left Australia while still relatively junior, Walsh says much of the training offered by Eversheds and other UK firms is comparable to that available in his home jurisdiction.
“I think now we’ve got quite a globalised legal profession, so I don’t think that there are a lot of things being done differently, particularly in the common law world,” he says.
One thing Walsh would like to see though, which he thinks would enhance the quality of advice provided by lawyers, is a greater sector focus in training. He says he has given training on telecoms to other Eversheds colleagues.
“As a specialist I truly think sector-based training is essential in today’s legal market and that’s because clients these days want lawyers who understand their business,” he says. “For me in hindsight it might have been useful to have done engineering at university as well as law.”
Ffion Flockhart, Norton Rose
2004-06: trainee, Norton Rose
2006-12: associate/senior associate, Norton Rose
2012: partner, Norton Rose
Ffion Flockhart’s route to partnership at Norton Rose began early. She says the firm “takes the view that the skills required to become an effective partner don’t develop overnight, so the training starts early and it continues throughout your career”.
Norton Rose runs courses known internally as International Academies, which address a range of skills over a period of several years.
Flockhart, a litigator promoted in this year’s partnership round, explains that International Academies 1 and 2, which are attended by junior associates, cover topics such as presentation skills and cultural awareness. Mid-level associates attend Academies 3 and 4, which focus on business development and project management. Academies 5 and 6 are the most intensive, giving senior associates and of counsel a chance to develop their personal marketing implementation plans and learn more about key topics such as effective financial management and strategy.
The academy courses are run across the firm, giving associates a chance to build an internal network.
“Developing an effective internal network is crucial as it lays the groundwork for the cross-referral of work within the group,” she says.
Flockhart was also part of a pilot scheme, the Careers Strategies Programme. The programme, which is being continued, aims to identify the most promising female associates to improve the ratio of female partners in London. Associates are given training on networking, negotiation and communication skills as well as an external coach for in-depth development.
In the year leading up to partnership, Flockhart and her peers attended partnership academies with a spotlight on their business cases.
“The most helpful training was on effective financial management, strategy and the sessions with the coach on giving effective feedback,” she says. “The training has been carefully designed by our in-house team to provide the essential tools to succeed, all of which was useful.”
Flockhart says that while lawyers these days are more commercially savvy than previously, understanding the mechanics of how a law firm works as a business has been one of the more helpful aspects of the training provided by Norton Rose.
Partners in time
Being made up to partnership is a culmination of many years of hard work. But today’s promising associates are supported by a wide variety of training programmes, designed to enhance their business and personal skills, as well as legal skills.