Growth spurt

Herbert Smith has long been one of the leading firms in its approach to learning and development. John Lucy provides the lowdown

The past four years have seen significant changes in the way Herbert Smith approaches learning and development (L&D).

In addition to forging good working relationships with well-respected educational establishments (Harvard, London and Said Business Schools) and leading practitioners conducting research in the field of professional services firms, the firm is well advanced in making the transition from the provision of ‘one size fits all’ training programme delivery to embracing the concept of personal development planning.

At the centre of the model is a ‘spine’ that incorporates the key development points (a series of induction programmes and development centres). These are supplemented by a range of core skills programmes, which can form the basis of a personal development plan (PDP), tailored to the needs and ambitions of those individuals undergoing training.

This philosophy is now well established with the junior partners and those senior assistants on partner track. Over time the firm intends to cascade the concept further down the organisation.

So, what are the component parts and how do they all fit together? Let’s begin by exploring the spine.

Induction programmes

These are run for trainees, newly qualified solicitors and newly promoted partners. Their purpose is to clarify what is required of the participants as they make the transition from study to work, or to a new stage of their career. The first two induction programmes are run using internal resources. The new partner induction uses a mixture of internal and external resources to convey the key messages.

Development centres

The development centres (DCs) are run at the key stages of a solicitor’s career – namely, one year into their training contract, two to three years’ post-qualification experience (PQE) and, as they make the transition to senior assistant, at about four to five years’ PQE.
All these programmes are designed and run using external facilitation supported by internal expertise.

It is especially pleasing to note that a number of partners are actively involved in the design and delivery of these

For example, at the senior assistants development centre, partners involved in the partner admissions process are often involved. They are happy to talk openly to participants about the process for entry to the partnership, the skills they will be required to demonstrate and the support that will be available to help them achieve their ambition and maximise their potential.

At the end of each of the sessions the participants leave with the beginnings of a PDP.

Core skills

Built around the spine are the various core skills modules used to build confidence and capability. These can be broadly categorised as covering business development/ client relationship management, interpersonal effectiveness and practice management. With many of these programmes a combination of internal and external expertise to design, develop and deliver content is used, and virtually all the programmes are tailored to the needs of the firm.

For example, Herbert Smith is currently redesigning a number of business development programmes to make them more modular and accessible – that is, shorter and easier to deliver on a just-in-time basis to those who need them. These modules, along with others currently under construction, can last anything from two hours to two days. In time, they will be available in a variety of formats, such as classroom learning, one-to-one coaching, e-learning and so on.

Personal development planning

In addition to increasing the range and quality of the training programmes offered by the firm, the biggest change has been the increase in the number of assistants and partners who have opted to have a PDP. Development planning at Herbert Smith is much more than attending training courses, as each PDP is tailored to the needs of the individual.

For example, when working with senior assistants who are on partner track, the firm will review their portfolio, ie what type of work they are doing, which partners they have exposure to, what practice area they may wish to begin to specialise in and so on.

Furthermore, the firm will analyse their chargeable and non-chargeable hours so they understand what their ‘practice’ looks like; work with them to identify clients with which they should begin to nurture relationships outside the transaction; agree internal and external profile-raising initiatives and look to broaden their contribution to the firm as a whole via their involvement in internal projects or Herbert Smith’s community action programme.

This lengthy process, which can run over a two to three-year period, involves senior members of the HR team working closely with the assistant and their sponsor. It is both a highly confidential and extremely open and honest process.

A 360° appraisal

In addition to the normal appraisal process, in December 1999 Herbert Smith introduced a 360° appraisal methodology for partners as part of the firm’s management skills programme, which is run in conjunction with the London Business School (LBS).

This has proved to be both popular and beneficial and as a consequence Herbert Smith partners are required to have a 360° appraisal every three years. This process involves them completing a specific appraisal form and asking four or five of their fellow partners, and four or five non-partners (assistants, trainees, secretaries, support staff, for example) to complete the same form.

This data is processed by an external agency which generates the 360° report. This report is then sent to an independent coach who will analyse the data and meet with the partner concerned to feedback the results and discuss and agree a plan of action. The key messages are then fed into the normal partner appraisal process.
Over the past two years this concept has been introduced for senior assistants and senior support staff.

Executive coaching

Since the introduction of the management skills programme in 1999, the firm has seen an increase in the number of partners who have taken the opportunity to work with an external coach. This relationship is totally confidential and involves the partner and their coach meeting on a regular basis to discuss various issues.

As one partner recently described it: “The parallel is that of a sports coach, who works on a player’s skills, reinforcing strengths and helping them eliminate weaknesses, while my ‘business coach’ works with me on my commercial and managerial skills.”

Using experienced, external coaches who understand the conflicting demands upon partners, and who can provide both a fresh perspective and an independent viewpoint, has proved to be a popular and hugely beneficial part of the development planning process.

Overall, the response throughout the partnership to the various development initiatives has been very positive. Herbert Smith has made the investment in PDP not only in terms of money, but more importantly in terms of partner and fee-earner time, to enable the firm to bring to life one of its core values – individuality.

And this value is one that the firm defines as recognising and encouraging breadth and diversity and investing in individual capability.

John Lucy is head of HR at Herbert Smith