There are two constant themes from senior solicitors, both of which revolve around the prospects for partnership in the larger law firms. The first is to question whether anyone wants to be a partner now; the second is how one gets to be a partner if, heaven forbid, that is what you want.
Much has been said and written recently about alternative career paths. However, whatever formal structures are put in place, the truth is that no one has any long-term future in any law firm unless they are able to contribute at a high level on an ongoing basis. Whether you are aiming for partnership, special counsel, managing consultant or any other long-time career role, most solicitors must be able to demonstrate the skills set that goes beyond the ‘mere’ technical capabilities.
That involves a focus on skills which may not have been talked about – or even recognised – in the legal profession 10 or 15 years ago, and which in many cases may not be amply demonstrated by those who have gone before. They are, however, now an essential part of a successful lawyer’s vocabulary: whether it is leadership, mentoring, client management, business development, knowledge management or playing the Wurlitzer, more is being asked of the new generation of lawyers.
The need for any particular skill – and the gap between reality and aspiration – will vary enormously from individual to individual and, at a senior level, the idea that one training course fits all looks less adequate. So how do individuals develop themselves and does a firm develop its staff to ensure it has the best people performing at the optimum level?
The answer, I believe, is that individuals need to identify their own specific development plans and to work with their firm to identify how those development needs can be met. In our case at Taylor Wessing, that has resulted in the introduction of a new programme designed to address these issues head-on. Our aim, by the end of this year, is to have all associates of five years’ or more post-qualification experience having gone through this new ‘associate development programme’.
The first part of the programme involves a full explanation of our expectations of senior associates, the criteria that the partnership will take into account when considering potential candidates for partnership and the areas that individuals need to focus on if they are to take their share of responsibility for making it happen. We also look, at this stage, at our expectations of partners: asking individuals whether they are, in fact, interested in pushing themselves to make partnership at all.
The second part of the programme involves a combination of psychometric assessment and the compilation of feedback from partners who work with the associates. This enables individuals to look for themselves at how they are perceived both within the firm and by clients, and by reference to the capabilities framework that underpins the programme, to begin to reflect on areas for their own development.
The third stage is focused on assessment – but with an emphasis on assessment for development, not a pass/fail exercise. Associates attend an external residential assessment centre and, in a variety of written and role-play exercises, both as groups and as individuals, are assessed by external occupational psychologists against our capability matrices. The feedback from that centre is discussed with the candidates and the partners responsible for them.
This is followed by one-to-one sessions with our senior training and development team to create their own personalised development plan. Although any feedback from the assessment is shared with the partners, the development plan itself is confidential, enabling associates to be totally honest when working out what is best for them.
The final and ongoing stage is a monthly series of workshops and seminars which focus on some of the core ‘partner skills’ the firm is seeking to encourage. We utilise the skills of current partners, as well as external coaches and facilitators, and this rolling programme accompanies opportunities for individual coaching with senior training and development staff and partners or, if appropriate, with external coaches.
Does it work? Well, we will have to wait and see. There can be no doubt, however, that specific feedback and focused development tools are much more likely to result in the specific strengths and behaviours that make a lawyer – and through them a firm – perform at its optimum level.
Jonathan Croucher is director of HR at Taylor Wessing