Talk to any training provider and they will tell you that the legal training environment has changed dramatically over the past 18 months. Numbers attending courses and conferences have reduced dramatically and firms, quite rightly, are more demanding with their requirements.
The economic downturn has prompted firms to put training under close scrutiny. Everything has come under review – budgets, requirements, providers and the delivery mechanism. This is no bad thing. The popular consensus is that this departure from the norm may actually make firms more efficient in their approach to the training of their staff, and providers more radical in how they meet firms’ evolving needs.
It would be fair to say that in times of economic uncertainty, law firms can no longer justify sending their staff on external courses, seminars and conferences. The delegate fees along with the costs for travel have made this training option prohibitive.
Where once a firm may have sent two or three representatives, now it will send one and it will be the single event that they really must attend. In response, training providers have put together ’packages’ of training, a type of season ticket approach where a set fee enables access to a number of events or CPD hours.
Some of these deals are available on an individual basis, some firm-wide. Despite the attractiveness of these offers, some firms still do not buy their training this way. Reasons vary but some of it is due to a reluctance to have staff spend time out of the office. Where numbers have been reduced, legal staff have to think carefully about the benefits of attending an event against the reality that their work will still be there when they return.
So how do firms ensure that staff continue to meet their professional training needs within the confines of a reduced budget and pressures on time? Part of the answer involves training undertaken in-house.
In-house was traditionally limited to a training provider coming to a firm and training a small group of individuals on a particular issue. Now it involves much more. Advances in technology have resulted in the emergence of the ’webinar’ or online seminar. This highly accessible means of training enables individuals to watch an hour or so-long training session, delivered live over the internet, direct to their desktop.
Firms have recognised that incorporating webinars into their training programme can really help them get the most from their staff. Taken one step further, a firm can arrange for many employees to participate in a webinar where, post-broadcast, a discussion can ensue that reinforces understanding and aids retention.
While there is interaction available with professional webinar providers, it is no replacement for the networking and sharing of opinion that takes place during a face-to-face session. By organising an in-house webinar broadcast, firms can recapture some of that benefit.
By appointing a legal member of staff to undertake such an exercise, firms can develop that member of staff further, stretching their skills into the realms of effective knowledge transfer.
Some providers understand that firms need to conduct their own in-house training and are offering to give training to individual employees on how to train. This all benefits the legal staff of the firm.
Another development in in-house training post-economic crisis involves the delivery of professional qualifications, in particular for paralegal staff. By putting paralegals through a professional qualification delivered in-house, they are increasing skills and knowledge. They are aiding staff retention. They are maximising their fee-earning capacity and can demonstrate that they are getting the most from their legal staff. Because such training is delivered in-house it becomes much more affordable, again making that training budget work harder.
Local training for local people
Regional in-house training has also emerged as a good alternative to sending individuals to public programmes. This is external training, but delivered locally at in-house rates.
Firms within a certain catchment area form a consortium. They then buy training from a provider on key topics to which they send one or two representatives. Such an approach is proving highly successful.
Travel costs to the event are kept to a bare minimum because it is delivered locally. The topics on which the training is delivered are chosen by the participants themselves so it delivers exactly what they want. Attendees also benefit from networking with their local peers. As it is a consortium arrangement, the event is guaranteed so there are no cancellations and because the provider has set numbers, it can keep the price low.
The requirement for the training and education of staff has not changed. It could be argued that it has increased as individuals take on responsibilities that their departing colleagues once held. Where in-house training adds value is its accessibility and its affordability. In-house demands creativity that benefits the learning experience. It meets the professional training needs of firms today and by undertaking any or all of the initiatives described above, law firms can continue to invest in their staff, which, by itself, will help them get the most from their teams.
Helen Langton is director of Central Law Training