Discerning learning

Measuring training’s efficacy, how it influences culture and whether it can tackle unconscious bias are some of the issues tackled by this week’s panel

Kevin Hogarth
Kevin Hogarth

How do you measure and realise the business benefit of training?

Carol Ashton, HR director, DLA Piper: We have long begun to move away from measuring via numbers in the classroom to measuring the ­impact of training on client review feedback, quality reviews, audits and compliance.

Having said all that, often you can’t beat the immediate reaction of training course attendees. After several years, what do participants remember having learnt from the programme and what have they applied? What do they do differently after all those years? Do managers observe any performance improvement?

Graham De Guise, HR director, TLT: You can measure this both quantitatively and qualitatively. We always try to point to hard measures such as retention rates or accelerated promotion timelines, but we have to accept that there can be many other factors at play that influence retention, promotion or performance.

Often it’s the quality of the relationship that people hold with their line manager that influences more readily motivation, speed of development and performance.


Martin Blackburn, HR director, Baker & McKenzie: You can spend a lot of time and energy trying to work out an ROI [return on investment] – and actually that’s an investment of time that’s not going to give you a great deal of return.

So where can you do this?­Typically in those areas of training that have a close link to financial performance. For example, we measure the effectiveness of our business ­development coaching programme (which we call our consultative selling skills programme) by comparing the practice growth of those partners who attend the programme compared with those who don’t.

Simon Nash, HR director, Carey Olsen: For there to be any benefit at all in training it needs to correlate positively to at least one of the key business metrics of margin, rate, ­utilisation or leverage.

The task therefore is to identify and implement training solutions that either enable the firm to recover higher unit prices for billable work through top-quality work and excellent client service, or to operate larger teams for each profit centre through superior leadership and engagement.

Kevin Hogarth, HR director, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer: Often the exercise of trying to measure the ROI yields useful insights and learning and brings to the attention of senior leaders the contribution of training to the achievement of their goals.


Can training genuinely influence firm culture if it is provided by an external source?

Ashton: I don’t think anyone would advocate just outsourcing training without strong due diligence. I think externally provided training can ­certainly reinforce the culture of a firm, but I’m sceptical that it can strongly influence or make great ­cultural change because there are so many other day-to-day factors with stronger influences.

DeGuise: I’ve seen very effective ­externally facilitated courses where the objective has been to develop a set of firm values or behaviours and then these behaviours being rolled out to the rest of a partner group or the firm.

However, culture isn’t determined by training – it can provide the ­catalyst, and sometimes the tools, for change, but the culture emanates from the people within a firm and often comes from the top.

Blackburn: It can, so long as you partner with those organisations genuinely, just as we would with clients.

We use a small, close-knit group of external trainers who understand our strategy and feel a part of it. To give an example of an externally provided programme that’s genuinely influencing our culture, we have a global partner leadership programme that’s run out of Colorado. Each office ­selects a few partners each year

to ­attend this programme, which ­combines psychometrics and 360° feedback together with leadership skills development. It’s followed up with one-to-one coaching, and our partners who attend describe it as the most effective L&D [learning and ­development] they’ve experienced in their lives.

Nash: Training isn’t a good influencer of firm culture. Culture’s ­influenced primarily by the observed ­behaviours of influential leaders. These aren’t always the same as those of the holders of the high offices of law firm management.

Culture is also strongly influenced by the systemic factors at play, such as architecture, furniture, technology, processes and working practices.

Against the raging noises of leader behaviours and the loud music of systemic habits, the impact of ­training on culture can be something of a drowned voice.

Hogarth: Definitely. But external providers work best in partnership with internal resources. They need that support to ensure they understand the local context and adapt what they’re doing accordingly.

We use external resources extensively – they bring particular expertise that we don’t have and allow us to run with a very small internal team.


Is a competency-based approach to development restricting or liberating?

De Guise: It’s understandable that most firms will look to forge a very strong link between a training ­programme and a competency ­matrix so that demonstrable results can be seen back in the workplace to ‘justify time away from the desk’. Push this point too hard and it can be viewed with cynicism by the learner: a syllabus can be too focused on the current job and the ‘here and now’ and lose sight of longer-term development, and therefore investment in the individual.

Nash: In most firms, and across many skill areas, a competency-based approach to development is a waste of time and resources. The competency movement supposed that competitive advantage was based on a differentiated client ­experience through the adoption of unique organisational competences. In the legal sector firms in general simply aren’t striving for difference, they’re largely seeking to be pretty similar to each other.

Hogarth: Generally I see competency based training to be useful. The career milestones that we’ve introduced allow us to focus recruitment, training and performance management on the key skills we believe make for successful lawyers.

This ­integration is much more difficult to achieve if a competency-based ­approach isn’t being used.


Can training on unconscious bias create change in behaviours? And how do you gather evidence on this?

Ashton: In many instances people don’t consciously know they’re exercising bias. How many times have we heard a leader say, “I understand and agree in principle; however, I think we should continue with the ­approach we have”, or when the ­results are measured six months down the track nothing’s changed.

But before we beat our leaders up, let’s remember that we’re all creatures of habit and one of the major reasons change in organisations fails is that people simply get bored – change requires sustained focus and takes time. Only managers and leaders with different mindsets, ie with the ability to challenge themselves and to challenge others on decisions being made (through asking questions) will really generate change in behaviours.

De Guise: People’s behaviours are influenced more readily by those around them, those who they work with day in, day out; therefore, ­having a truly inclusive culture where everyone’s recognised for the contribution they bring is arguably a bigger weapon in the armoury against unconscious bias than a training programme itself.

Blackburn: If you have unconscious bias then you have no choice ­because, by definition, you’re not aware of it. Training should therefore raise awareness of the bias so that you become conscious of it.

Nash: Yes, absolutely. It’s tricky though, as it involves the voluntary suspension of one’s previously trusted self-confidence when it comes to first impressions, which even the most progressive partners find incredibly difficult.

Partners don’t tend to achieve this perceptual shift simply by being ­informed of the prevalence of unconscious bias. Training programmes need to be psychologically sophisticated, but rewards for achieving a post-critical awareness in interpersonal settings can be immense in terms of competitive advantage.

Hogarth: It does make a difference. Research shows that simply telling people not to be biased helps reduce the bias in the decisions that they make.

Where could firms collaborate, and where should they not?

De Guise: Given that a law firm’s competitive advantage rests on its people, I think there’s a general ­reluctance to share training with ­another firm, despite the cost ­advantages it can bring.

Where collaboration could work extremely well are with the ­mandated or best-practice courses that everyone in the profession has to go through, such as equality and ­diversity.

Blackburn: When it comes to training and development you need to have a safe environment, which usually means having training ­internally. For instance, you probably wouldn’t want your people to go to a course on presentation and pitching skills with their competitors. That wouldn’t be a safe or comfortable ­environment where you could ­genuinely practise your skills and be honest about your development needs.

Nash: In some areas of the learning and development cycle firms collaborate without even considering the choice – LPC and the PSC [Professional Skills Course] provisions at the start of a legal career are a good ­example. Masterclass seminars delivered by an eminent QC and ­eagerly attended by a selection of partners from different firms are ­another.

I think as a buyer of L&D services one should be somewhat suspicious of the motives of L&D providers who prefer to offer bespoke or customised products, when in many case a generic one, and one in which multiple buyers can achieve economies of scale in consortiums, will be a much more efficient solution.

The areas that should be reserved from collaboration are few and probably limited to very leading-edge product and service development, and also the creation and adoption of organisational strategy. Practically everything else can be done more ­efficiently on a shared basis.

Hogarth: Beyond initial professional training, such as through the LPC consortium, I’m not greatly in favour of lots of collaboration between firms in this area because I believe there’s real competitive advantage for those firms that get this right and I’m not especially keen to share that with others.

There is a case for collaboration in the areas of inclusiveness and diversity, where there’s a general problem for the profession.


Should there be more opportunities for clients and professionals to learn together?

Ashton: There are lots of examples where clients and professionals should work and learn together, but in all too many cases you see teams working independently of one ­another, coming together only at the very end of the process to present back what they think the client needs based on what they think the client said some weeks back.

The trick is to ensure all parties input to create the right solution; this also makes the process more of a meaningful learning opportunity for all concerned too. We can often be guilty of getting caught up in the ­intellectual sight of the goal.

Blackburn: This happens to some extent with technical training, not least because lawyers have to attain CPD points and seminars are a way of doing that.

The problem with doing something that goes beyond this is that you’d have to sanitise it so much to avoid using specific client or sensitive examples so that it would be quite restrictive.

Hogarth: I’m much more enthusiastic about this possibility. It’s a great relationship builder and is an area where firms can be seen to be adding additional value to their clients.

However, we wouldn’t wish to risk a client relationship because of ­dissatisfaction with the delivery of training. Therefore firms have to be very confident about their ability to be able to deliver a high-quality ­training experience. I think it’s most appropriate in the context of an ­established and mature client relationship.

Nash: Absolutely. A lot of firms have an implicit working model that ­characterises clients as ‘other’ and in some ways an opponent or enemy to be overcome. They’d never say this, but the rhetoric of ‘winning business’ and ‘overcoming client objections’ comes from this mindset.

A view of markets as conversations, not battlegrounds, and of clients as collaborative partners in success rather than objectified ­resources to be plundered, leads

to a refreshingly differ­­ent approach to business.

Train academy

Law firms are investing huge amounts into training their workforces, but how much of the effort is returned and how can this be measured? This week’s panel, drawn from winning firms in The Lawyer Workplace & Diversity Awards, debates issues such as collaboration with both other firms and with clients.