Train and gain

Throughout 2007 in-house legal departments look set to remain busier than ever as the fight for talent becomes more entrenched. As many companies’ expansion plans could be hampered by the failure to attract the right calibre of candidates, it is increasingly important that in-house legal departments exploit the tools available to them to entice skilled talent.

Training is one such tool that, if used effectively, can not only help to attract and retain good lawyers but also benefit the business in the long term.

Training is topical for the legal profession in general. The Law Society has just ended its consultation period on the future shape of education and training. This exercise encompasses undergraduate and postgraduate studies, vocational training and continuing professional development (CPD), including continuing fitness to practise. Research has already shown that mentoring and career development are valued highly by lawyers, as is the removal of the stigma attached to flexible working. More specifically, the Law Society’s commerce and industry group has found in-house lawyers have recently been calling for more ‘soft skills’ training so that they can progress quickly while retaining their status as solicitors. This call can only get louder this year.

Retention is key
As future career prospects are a key concern for lawyers considering the transition to in-house, soft skills training is an area that in-house departments should prioritise.

The Legal Trendwatch 2006 survey, based on feedback from more than 2,500 respondents, showed that quality in-house candidates are becoming harder to find in the critical two to seven year-PQE bracket. These findings demonstrate the need to reassure prospective in-house candidates with the knowledge that an in-house department can provide the soft skills training to support them as they make the transition from private practice to the client side.

Some in-house training modules specifically assist new in-house lawyers with the often difficult move from private practice, helping them to negotiate a very different lawyer-client relationship in a more risk-focused environment, where tasks and roles are not always as clear-cut.

The commerce and industry group’s CPD seminar, ‘The Essential Skills to Succeed as an In-house Lawyer’, coaches employees on the soft skills needed to communicate with clients in a language you understand and on how to become an integral and valued member of a corporate team. Bringing together different groups within the company for shared training will help make legal counsel feel more a part of the business and also provide the chance to glean information from other experienced heads within the business.

Lawyer guidance
Further evidence of the need for soft skills training is the nationwide popularity of ‘life coaching’ sessions, with in-house lawyers choosing to attend them at the end of the working day. As flexible working hours are still quite rare, lawyers are seeking guidance in managing their time and dealing with stress.

To further entice and attract candidates within the two to seven year-PQE bracket, heads of departments will need to communicate clearly the types of training options available and incorporate soft skills coaching into programmes. Essential business and personal skills will provide lawyers with opportunities that will take them to the heart of a business and provide the ability to respond promptly to the legal needs of the organisation.

Modules of training that are considered particularly useful include: the difference between management and leadership; how key decisions are made; managing other colleagues’ stress; how to use and get the best value from external law firms; and how to respond to cost-cutting measures across the business.

In-house lawyers are also able to take advantage of the CPD seminars offered by private practice on core commercial topics and changes in legislation.

The commerce and industry group in the London region had a huge response to its voluntary external mentoring initiative last September. The group found that lawyers value the confidential element of having a mentor outside work and that this significantly motivated both newly qualified and experienced lawyers.

The best training does not have to be overly formal. Providing junior members of staff with a legal and business mentor as part of the employment package will ensure that they are closer to the business. If a company assimilates staff into commercial processes while providing a nurturing environment, it will incentivise potential employees, who will see their career paths as a top priority. Mentoring also motivates senior personnel: giving longstanding employees responsibility for coaching can liven up the daily routine.

Increasing productivity
While lawyers are now assuming responsibility for 25 per cent of their own professional development, in-house departments are making innovative use of the 75 per cent of remaining time during the CPD ‘year’ to produce productive and loyal counsel.

Examples of this could include CPD hours spent undertaking legal research to benefit the department, attending sector working parties and reporting back on them, or building a portfolio of work for an NVQ in management.

Changes to compliance and regulation have also caused a significant change in the role of the in-house lawyer, meaning department heads should integrate in-house counsel into each of the business units. Devising a structured CPD programme to reflect changes in the business environment, and including legal counsel at the earliest stages of a deal, will give them the business acumen they crave.

Many companies are also offering a variety of alternative training arrangements. Training schemes that offer international secondments so lawyers obtain overseas experience and satisfy their desire to travel can increase retention rates and morale. Similarly, vocational courses such as language programmes can inject excitement back into the learning process and also offer the department a competitive advantage.
•Steve Hockey is managing director of Michael Page Legal