The importance of continuous learning

Law firms need to deliver learning and development opportunities that grow and motivate their people, support the business and help provide the best service for clients. My role at Clifford Chance is to help create that solution throughout the firm’s network.

But what does that mean in practice? The firm’s global business skills curriculum offers a programme of technical and skills training courses and a range of e-learning modules, while the development centres help individuals to benchmark their skills and progress at key points in their careers.

These elements were already in place when I took on the role earlier this year. So my challenge is more about continuous improvement than radical reform.

The approach I have decided to take is to focus on keeping the global curriculum as closely aligned as possible to the needs of the firm’s business and clients around the world. This means maintaining an ongoing dialogue with the firm’s partners to ensure that the training and development opportunities on offer help them to deliver the level of service that clients demand. And it goes without saying that clients are demanding more from their chosen law firms: just having great technical skills is not good enough – market knowledge, commercial awareness and client-care skills are an essential part of the mix.

It follows that learning and development needs to be seen as part of what law firms are about as businesses – as a core enabling process rather than as an ancillary requirement. This sounds straightforward, but even in a knowledge profession such as law training is often viewed in isolation. Even with the most robust curriculum, there is always room for improvement in linking training to what is happening at the coalface.

Lawyers and business services professionals have chosen to work in an environment that demands continuous learning. So it is the job of the firm’s HR and training functions to ensure that each individual is given the opportunity to meet their ambitions for personal and professional development through access to the full range of learning opportunities.

Law firms need their lawyers and business services people to be flexible, creative and mobile enough to operate internationally, to be able to coach and manage others effectively and to make connections beyond their core areas of specialisation.

Learning and development structures have a key role to play in bringing people together across the world. Learning events provide forums for sharing best practice and deepening understanding of varied cultural, business and client issues. One of my goals at Clifford Chance is to increase the extent to which people come together globally for events, bringing together people from London, the Middle East, Continental Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Staff and fee-earners need to feel that they will get the help they need to make the most of their careers.

Of course a system of appraisals and development centres ensures that individual objectives are set and reviewed. The next step is to take this from being part of a formal review system and make it part of the everyday working culture. People need to identify the skills they want to develop and ask themselves: “What have I done to develop that skill? What have I done to seek out the right opportunities?” By the same token, they will be asking themselves: “Have I been given the opportunity to develop? Is it clear what I am expected to do?” And firms must have a consistently positive answer.

Ultimately, learning happens in real time, not to a timetabled curriculum. In most large law firms there is no shortage of opportunities. But it is up to the individual and the firm to make the most of them.