Developing an edge

Competitive advantage is just one of the benefits of getting your learning and development programme right

Carolann Edwards

By Carolann Edwards, director of learning and development, Norton Rose Fulbright

A group of newly appointed partners is making its way noisily along the red carpet leading to the glass-fronted offices on London’s South Bank riverside.

The lawyers, who come from as far afield as Abu Dhabi, Austin, Beijing, Brisbane, Caracas, Calgary, Johannesburg and Warsaw, are joining the celebrations for Norton Rose Fulbright’s launch party, as part of their three-day orientation event.

Above them hang two giant flags, the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, symbolising not only the union of Norton Rose and Fulbright & Jaworski, but also the nature of change underway in the legal sector.

As these lawyers’ professional careers move up a gear, the sector they work in is consolidating globally. These lawyers are part of an organisation that now has 3,800 lawyers and 7,500 people worldwide. Norton Rose Fulbright has hung its hat on being one of about 25 global legal practices in the next decade.

Behind the scenes

But behind the celebrations and the strategy, the hard work of combining two substantial corporate entities is already underway. Having integrated four legal practices in less than three and a half years, we are familiar with the challenges involved.

History shows that most mergers fail. High on the list of reasons for this are sub-par cultural due diligence, and poor merger integration planning and execution. This often happens because those involved fail to take account of the significant part that people play in any merger; they need to understand the strategic reasons and benefits of the merger, as well as learn how to work and operate effectively as one team.

Our strategy of growth by combination was a highly ambitious one. Integrating five different firms with different histories, systems and procedures was never going to be easy. We knew that it would require a huge amount of organisational change.

We also took the view that learning and development implemented at a truly global level would be key to the success of the combinations. This strategy has played a significant role in driving and supporting change at individual, team and organisational levels over the past three years.

We have used training and research-based interventions as tools for knowledge sharing, cultural change and skills development. All our member firms actively participate in all aspects of the programmes, which develop partners, associates, business services staff and secretaries.

This is no mean achievement. At the beginning, there were some who questioned our global approach to learning and development on the basis that it is at odds with normal practice in the professional services sector.

There was a perception in some quarters that it represented a throwback to colonial days – a kind of cultural imperialism.

As one person said sarcastically to me as they departed, “good luck with your global strategy”.

The implication was that it was bound to fail. The fact that it has not is, in part, down to real belief in our vision of a one-firm culture where, irrespective of location, clients receive the same quality of service because everyone is trained in the same way to deliver a level of service commensurate with our brand.

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The logistics of such an ambitious programme are complex, especially since the approach was not mandated. We may be a large legal practice but we still hold true to principles such as collegiality on which the practice was founded. So our approach has been persuasion to get buy-in and acceptance. We then deliver high-quality training and learning interventions which get people coming back for more. We have, in a nutshell, created an ‘I want some too’ mentality.

All the firms who combined with us pre-2013 now run our learning and development programmes, and we are now looking at how we roll these out in the US.

Our global learning and development includes our International Academies. These programmes are designed to help lawyers globally to acquire the knowledge and skills to provide a consistently high quality of service to clients in all of our locations. Our academies are tailored for each principal region and role level and cover topics including networking, team working, business development, leadership and ethics. In 2012, we ran 28 International Academies from our six regional hubs.

The feedback this global approach to learning and development has received over the past three years is telling.

Our managing director in South Africa, Rob Otty, told me this month that, after brand, learning and development was the most important thing to come out
of the combination there, with Deneys Reitz (now Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa) incorporated in June 2011.

Richard Fogl, one of our Australian partners, cited the single most tangible benefit of combining in 2010 as “the instant and profound transformation of learning and development”. His belief is that Australia could not have made such changes organically.

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In Canada, our global co-chair Norman Steinberg said that the availability of our global learning and development programmes has given our lawyers a distinct advantage over Canadian competitors in recruiting both from universities and laterally.

Our lawyers’ enthusiasm for the training they have had led to clients asking our team to train their own lawyers and other professionals. In the past month alone, we have delivered training for Bombardier in Berlin, a financial institution in Toronto, and an accountancy firm in London.

The new partners’ orientation typifies our approach: it will help the new partners to get to know our management, including global chief executive Peter Martyr, and our chairmen, as well as each other, and the way we do things around here.

They are the future of Norton Rose Fulbright. The orientation programme is a small but important step in ensuring that the hard work being done now results in a well-oiled machine that meets our clients’ requirements.

To quote Jack Welch, former chairman and chief executive officer of GE: “An organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.”