Lawyer Management: Reed Smith

Nigel Spencer, global director of learning and development

Nigel Spencer is global director of learning and development (L&D) at Reed Smith. He joined the firm in 2011 from Simmons & Simmons, where he worked in a similar role for more than seven years. 


How do you decide what is important for staff to learn?

For me, this flows from the firm’s strategy. For example, if we’re trying to support our clients in their respective industry sectors across our network, one of the key priorities in our L&D offering must be to inculcate this commercial mind-set right from the time people are junior lawyers in the firm. I want them to be curious about our clients’ businesses and understand what drives their industry sectors. 

This has made me passionate about developing MBAs and MAs for junior lawyers in the past four or five years and, in particular, in not just including classroom learning in these programmes, but also getting graduates to go out to clients on placements. This encourages them to work as a team of mini-consultants, grappling with a client’s real business problems, not their legal ones.

If you weren’t doing this what else would like to be doing?

Continuing my anthropological and archaeological research into cultural change, hierarchy, power and group dynamics, which I did for the first 10 years of my career and enjoyed immensely, running projects in the Aegean and Western Anatolia. 

Interestingly, when I moved on to work in leadership development roles in the City I found similar themes and issues: how are groups effective?; what drives cultural change; how do you create sustainable, long-term leadership and competitive advantage over other groups; and how do hierarchies affect decision-making? 

What has been your biggest career lesson and why?

Listening to people from other cultures with a different worldview is probably the most important thing we can do. This comes from two years living in Athens in my early 20s, carrying out my research and then directing projects around the Mediterranean – a region where the focus is on ‘relationship’ over ‘task’ – and seeing how that plays out in daily life and work, building relationships, influencing and getting things done. In case I ever forget those lessons, daily calls with my Athenian in-laws and visits there give me regular reminders.

Why is this position important for the legal profession?

I know it’s a cliché, but, given that we work in a people business the L&D function needs to work closely with those developing the strategy. Our people are critical to the success of our business and we work hard to develop talent and engender a high-performance culture.

What is the biggest preconception about L&D?

That we just run courses. For me, L&D is about many other things, ranging from creating a culture where there’s regular feedback to effective mentoring and coaching. It’s all about driving sustained change, aligned with our strategic direction.

What are the biggest challenges facing the legal sector, from an L&D perspective? 

A key one is how we can be creative in our delivery of learning, given the pressure teams are under. In other words, helping people to find effective ways to access development in an increasingly time-poor environment.

What’s the best part of your job?

Supporting people in their learning, seeing them create their career paths, change and develop, and become the next generation of leaders. Also, it’s rewarding when some people reach senior roles and then come to us and say ‘Let me help the next generation too’.

Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with?

Well, you’ve asked a classicist, so it has to be Alexander the Great, one of my heroes. Someone who expanded the worldview of his time and literally pushed back boundaries.

Firm facts

London partners: 106

Global partners: 693

Global headcount: 3,207

Offices: 25


Turnover: (2012) $1.013bn (£630m)

Profit per equity partner: (2012) $1.08m

Net profit: (2012, compensation to equity partners) $324m

On the job

“I’ve always found that on-the-job learning is a particularly effective method,” explains Spencer. “Therefore, it is something I strongly advocate. In other words, it’s good for everyone to understand that the learning element of their job is about much more than simply going on courses.” 

IT systems

Practice management system: Elite

Client relationship management: Microsoft Dynamics

Business intelligence system: Data Magic