Learning from experience

In recent years the focus on non-legal learning and development has been growing and there is an increasing understanding that ‘behaviour’ is a critical issue. At the same time certain constants have remained: lawyers are pragmatic, ‘proof-hungry’ people and they measure the value of every minute of their time.

The question, therefore, is: what is the most effective environment for lawyers to learn about the behaviours that will help them and their firms to create sustainable success in the future?Experiential learning is not a new concept and has been used successfully in the corporate world for several decades. It is all too often characterised as ‘outdoor training’, in which groups of people in brightly coloured anoraks yomp across rain-swept hills and valleys in pursuit of the Holy Grail of highperformance teamwork.

In fact, experiential learning is exactly what it suggests: it involves the creation of an experience, whether that be real or metaphorical, and then, with expert review and facilitation, it provides individuals and teams the opportunity to understand and assess their behaviour, its impact on their own success and the success or results of others.

The participants could, for example, engage in a brief activity in which a certain task has to be achieved in a specific time period, and they are then challenged to improve their performances in subsequent attempts. The review might then focus on their ability to manage process improvement.

Or it could, as is often the case when using the outdoors, involve the team completing a major project in which different elements of the team have to complete specific tasks that are linked and interdependent – just like working for a client. Their abilities to communicate relevant information, use appropriate resources at the right time, gain commitment from others and meet an overall client need might then form the focus of the review.

But are these techniques of particular use for law firms, where effective communication, teamwork and appropriate leadership sometimes needs to be tackled?Experience suggests that it is still the case that technical excellence can excuse inappropriate behaviour and that the focus on doing the things that increase billable time and billable value have left a relative vacuum in the areas of leadership, teamwork and communication. The stories of partners who people avoid working with are frequent, as are the stories of individuals who are tolerated within teams because of their technical ability, but excluded wherever possible.

None of this is conducive to creating a sustainable firm that attracts and retains the best talent and is respected as client-friendly.

Of course, you could organise traditional, theory-based training programmes to address these topics, but talking about behaviour is as effective as thinking about exercise – nothing changes.

If you have seen negative feedback on existing training courses then you most certainly need to find new and innovative approaches. Experiential learning offers you one solution because the learning is based on what happens during the experience and its impact on results, relationships and the behaviour of others; it is not just dry theory that may or may not be appropriate to your situation.

Indeed, the very process of experiential learning provides people with opportunities to open the feedback channels about each other’s behaviour, which can then flow more freely after the event.

Experiential learning can, and indeed must, be designed to support your culture, the behaviours that you wish to create and, of course, your business strategy.

And finally, if you like brightly coloured anoraks, the experience can be created in the outdoors, allowing participants to break away from their desks.