Study partners

Building a consortium of likeminded firms can open up a world of training opportunities, says Colin Davey

The dictionary definition of a consortium is: “An association or grouping of institutions, businesses or financial organisations, usually set up for a common purpose that would be beyond the capabilities of a single member of the group.” But, while not a word usually associated with law firms, there is an increasing argument for them coming together to share training.

Asking the right questions
In some contexts the case for a consortium approach can be made through little more than establishing the dual benefits of economy of scale and increased commercial muscle.

For example, two or three firms might amalgamate to run the core elements of the professional skills course. They can combine their respective trainees and create a group size that would encourage external providers into competitive bids for the work.

However, once we start looking at postqualification training, choosing the right path for fulfilling your lawyers’ learning needs becomes more complex. Even just focusing on face-to-face training, and leaving e-learning aside, a number of questions are raised:

• Do you focus mainly on in-house training, or do you rely on external providers?
• What content will you select?
• What investment will you commit to managing training?
• How do you define the training needs of your lawyers?
• How do you cope with training needs across the spectrum of newly-qualified to partner?

Perhaps more important still is where does training your lawyers sit within the core values and beliefs of your firm? Hopefully the answer is “at the centre”. It is a sad and unintended irony that the compliance approach of continuing professional development (CPD) can yield exactly the wrong attitude of simply putting the hours in.

Finding the right method
Interviewees for post-qualification positions care about the quality of training. Sometimes it can make the difference as to which job offer they accept.

Equally, for many firms the organising of decent training is a matter of pride. It is embedded in their culture, or, put another way, it forms part of their brand values.

But resource for internally provided training is scarce, so most firms will have to consider external providers. In the latter case they will want some assurance of quality; this might just be the training having defined learning outcomes that need to be met.

What type of training is suitable depends on the context. For example, a one-off requirement is likely best to be served by an external public course or conference.

But what do you do if, for example, you have a group of junior lawyers in a practice area who need a structured training programme to underpin their on-the-job work to ensure that competence gaps do not appear?

Unhurried supervision time with no concern for the supervisor’s timesheet is, in this day and age, in short supply. The best way to make money out of junior lawyers is to give them repetitive tasks on work with a reasonable in-built profit margin, but this is not beneficial for their development – for which, read also morale and commitment – and can leave them, and the firm, exposed when they have to be deployed on a new type of client matter – metaphors of sinking or swimming become uncomfortable when pursued.

The in-house option
Sourcing delivery internally is problematic. Client commitment may prevent a senior lawyer turning up, and delivering training is not the fee-earning lawyers’ day job; indeed some may neither enjoy it nor be very good at it.

The firm could therefore look at external providers, but the situation is not straightforward. For the type of programme outlined above:

• the firm needs a large enough group to warrant an external provider’s fees;
• setting up and administering the programme will absorb training staff resource; and
• not all of the target audience may attend. Holidays, illness and client commitments may conspire to turn that healthy-looking group of 10 into a sadder group of four. Or the session, assuming it is run in the office in order to control costs, may end up resembling a drop-in centre, with attendees ducking in and out as they seek to keep clients happy while fulfilling their commitment to be present.

The external option
An alternative is to find a provider that can set up a structured programme for a consortium in an area of interest.

The provider will design materials in accordance with an agreed specification, source specialist trainers, provide the venue and administer the programme. Subject to viable numbers, the courses can be run as often as the consortium wants – thus if a lawyer misses out on one, there should be another running within a reasonable period of time.

Other benefits include:
• Even if a firm has only one or two potential attendees, it can still take part.

• Recruitment patterns fluctuate. From year to year a firm will not necessarily have the same number for each level of experience. Economies of scale through a consortium should enable consistent availability of courses.

• Even if a firm has enough numbers to merit its own established programme, consortium membership can provide a back-up, not just to cover the factors mentioned above, but also to provide suitable courses for lateral hires who arrive between in-house programmes and who have an gap in their experience.

• The provider and the consortium can create an ongoing dialogue – including formal review meetings – to enable delivery of feedback on courses and also to enable ideas to be generated for course development and for new courses.

• Once a consortium is established, a firm can promote its consortium membership to its current lawyers and to potential recruits. Because consortium membership offers real engagement and involvement, there will be substance behind the promotion.

Working together
Is there something not quite right about letting your lawyers train alongside your competitors?

Not at all. At the early levels of experience – and possibly a little further on if one admits it – the subject matter is not rocket science, also the attendees are well capable of respecting client and matter confidentiality.

Indeed the argument should be dealt with more positively. There is undeniable benefit for lawyers in sharing issues and experience with their peers from other firms, or even to admit areas of uncertainty, which can be done when a neutral external is running the course.

Moreover, this concept of knowledge-sharing ought to appeal to the many clients who still feel that lawyers should spend less time arguing over the irrelevant detail and more time on the points that really matter.

Colin Davey is director of post-qualification programmes at The College of Law