University challenge

Eighteen months ago Reed Smith developed the idea to create an internal university that would provide comprehensive leadership, career, and personal development courses for everyone in the firm. The venture would be known as Reed Smith University (RSU) and would be the first of its kind.

Let me be clear at the outset: we have no ivy-covered walls redolent with history. We will not soon be competing on the playing field with the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Princeton or Yale. We have no PhD candidates. But RSU is a university nevertheless.

Founded late in 2004, RSU was begun in partnership with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. RSU has five schools – the schools of business development, law, leadership, professional support and technology – each of which is headed by a Reed Smith partner. RSU teaches more than 170 courses, gathered together into curricula approved and recommended by our practice group leaders. The curricula range from basic litigation skills to sophisticated business transactions, from leadership development to legal writing. They are taught by partners, staff and third-party providers, online and in classrooms, with extensive use of Reed Smith’s videoconferencing resources. Everyone, from managing partner to file clerk, is a student, and each curriculum is calculated to make us better, sooner in our respective roles at the firm.

Courses are marketed internally through a university catalogue, hard-copy brochures and desktop messages, and we are developing an intranet-based ‘learning plan’ capability to support career development.

So why would Reed Smith take such a project on?
As in the case of many significant innovations, we were driven by necessity and aspiration. The world is a rapidly and continually evolving place. Globalisation is a truism and there has been an explosion in the sources of law. Clients are ever more sophisticated with increasing expectations. Law firms across the world have grown, disintegrated and merged. Reed Smith itself has changed significantly in size and shape during the past five years, with more than 1,000 lawyers in the US and the UK and, since 2005, in Germany and France.

We recognised that, unless the firm found a way to deal with these phenomena proactively, we might not be able to remain commercially competitive. However, the more powerful inducement was a vision of what the firm could become. Given tools to become better lawyers, more imaginative leaders and more helpful service providers, our attorneys and staff had limitless potential. Our success, we realised, would depend on cultivating an environment in which everyone was committed to continuous learning. We would have to think strategically about the needs of the firm, not simply about individual skill building. We would have to anticipate the business climate and client needs of the future, not simply provide excellent service in the present. We would have to address the needs of everyone and build a common experience across the firm, not simply run courses.

The early returns have been promising. More than 80 per cent of Reed Smith personnel have already attended at least one course, and 251 of our lawyers or staff, as individuals or members of a team, have taught at least one course.

The world outside Reed Smith has also taken note, with clients, potential new hires and others commenting favourably on the innovation. We will go further in 2006 and ‘open our doors to clients and friends of the firm. We believe that this will bring a further value-added bonus to our relationship. It will, moreover, reinforce the emphasis that we place on striving for high-quality service and on continuous learning as the way to achieve it.

John Smith is a partner at Reed Smith and chancellor at Reed Smith University