The world of knowledge

With law firms expanding throughout the world, the ongoing training of lawyers is vital. Dominic Egan reports.

The global law firm may have arrived, but the global lawyer is nothing more than a distant dream. Every country not only has its own legal code, it has its own legal culture. Consequently, the training departments of international law firms cannot afford to adopt a blanket approach.

"Just because we're global, it doesn't mean that the training is global," says Sophie Turner, Freshfields' training and development manager. "You can't be all things to all men… You have to focus on what the particular needs of teams and offices are."

"We gave up a long time ago on the idea that one size fits all," confirms her fellow manager Nicholas Jelf. "We have to accept that learning cultures are different whether we like it or not."

Cultural differences have been established even before law firms get their hands on their new recruits. For example, someone starting a career in the London office of an international firm will tend to be in their early twenties and will not qualify as a lawyer for another two years. On the other hand, someone starting a career in the Frankfurt office of the same firm will tend to be around 30 and will already be fully qualified. Not surprisingly, the two groups see themselves quite differently and expect to be treated differently.

In fact, some German lawyers do not expect to receive any training at all. Like a number of European governing bodies, the German bar does not impose any post-qualification training requirements on its members. Consequently, German lawyers do not always take kindly to being told that their school days are not over. "Because they spend so much time in their teaching institutions, when they come out, the last thing they want to know is that they're going to have to do more training," reveals a training officer with a leading City firm. "Sometimes they have to be convinced about the philosophy that learning is a lifelong thing. And it's not easy."

Persuading French lawyers of the virtues of additional training is not quite so difficult, he says. "The French are not in the same boat as the Germans. They don't spend so much time at university, so it's often an easier job. I've always found them closer to the English model."

He adds that US-qualified lawyers can also be a handful, albeit for a different reason to the Germans. "Their problem with training is that it cuts into billable hours, and anything that cuts into billable hours when you're trying to do 22,000 hours a year is not well accepted," he says.

"I would disagree with anyone who says that's specific to the US," counters Jelf. "In reality, you would expect that for most of our people, wherever they're operating, there would be a tension between the need to get their client work and the desire to go on a formal training course."

The benefits

The cost/benefit analysis proves that training is a good investment, says Bruce Macleod, director of training at Ashurst Morris Crisp. "Yes, this is costing firms time, this is costing them billable hours, but those costs are far outweighed by the benefits of training. You can make your people better, they can do their jobs quicker and therefore the jobs are more profitable.

"It is a long-term investment but it pays for itself. English law firms over the past 10 or 15 years have seen huge benefits from properly structured training, from trainees all the way up to partners. The investment of time in that sort of training is well worth it at the end of the day."

Putting together training seminars for lawyers from different countries can produce further gains, says Macleod. English lawyers, for example, "have got a huge amount to learn, especially when their practices are going pan-European. The more English lawyers know how the local civil code works, the better they can understand the problems that the continental lawyer is facing when negotiating agreements".

Multinational training sessions also provide opportunities for colleagues to get to know each other and to bond. "It has massive benefits in drawing the firm together," Macleod says. "I think people are cottoning on to this."

Clifford Chance's training programme aims to do more than just ensure the delivery of a consistently high standard of legal services, states the firm's director of European education, Gerard Tanja. The programme also seeks to motivate fee earners and help them manage their careers. "It's motivating for a professional to be a well trained and up-to-date lawyer who is able to deliver a high-quality service," he says. "Another thing that we lecture on is our career development and performance management system, so they have a better insight in their career development and the responsibility they have and what they can expect from the firm. It's a question of how to deal with your people and we feel that this whole education and training programme and the academy will contribute to more transparent career development. And we hope through that to improve retention."

Nevertheless, it is obvious that training departments within international firms face quite a battle when it comes to convincing partners and staff of the benefits of continuing education. "We spend a considerable amount of our time trying to persuade and cajole and barter in order to get people to come," admits a head of training at a top City firm. "There's a sense I get that we're trying to bring in cordon bleu restaurants and offer cordon bleu food and pay heaps of money to people who haven't really accepted that they want more than a hamburger."

The problem starts at the top. "Basically, at the end of the day, most partners pay just lip service to training and they're the people who are going to make the difference in what we're doing. It's no good having your fantastic academy if you've got only 20 per cent of the people turning up there and you're not getting any feedback when they get back to work." Partners in charge of foreign offices can be a particular problem. "Some of the partners still think that their office, wherever it is, is their office and their staff don't need to do any other training… What I believe personally is that we're not going to see any real difference in that until partners profit – the turnover, the morale and the absenteeism of their staff affects their bottom line."

Jelf believes that training departments can make a genuine contribution. However, he is mindful that they can only achieve so much. "I think people tend to forget the value of on-the-job training. There does seem to be this recent idea that the only way you're going to have the best lawyers is by spending an awful lot of money by training them in a classroom or some equivalent. Indeed, some people are pushing hard in the multi-media arena to have online training. But you can't ignore the reality that the best training is the on-the-job training – coaching basically, from someone who has more experience," he says.

At the end of the day, says Jelf, the prime responsibility for training lies with lawyers themselves. "It's an ongoing process of reminding partners and senior lawyers that they have a duty towards the firm, and you could say morally towards the profession, to make sure they bring on junior people."

The Clifford Chance academy

Based in Amsterdam, Clifford Chance's academy opens its doors on 1 June and will be fully operational by the end of the summer. By 1 January 2002, it will employ a staff of between

10 to 15 people, teaching fee earners both business and legal skills.

'Given the growing complexity of the global delivery of legal services, we needed, in order to be able to guarantee a constant quality, a Clifford Chance curriculum in the field of technical and non-technical skills,' says Gerard Tanja, Clifford Chance's director of European education. The academy is 'not just a concept or a philosophy, it's a physical reality. I think it shows that we are serious about continuing career development and introducing and stimulating a learning culture'. By showing this commitment, Clifford Chance hopes that it 'will become the employer of choice for our employees'.

The creation of the academy 'doesn't mean that I want to concentrate all continental training in Amsterdam', he explains. 'I think that would give the wrong signal to all our other offices. What we are aiming at is to have approximately 50 per cent of our training, so far as it relates to formal classroom training, in Amsterdam. Other training will be performed in other places where we have local offices. But the larger programmes will be operated from Amsterdam.'

With some 18 jurisdictions to look after, during its first two years the academy will concentrate on its European offices. It may then look further afield. It certainly has its work cut out. 'To be honest, most of the law firms are a little bit behind the accounting firms and certain strategic management consultancy firms,' says Tanja. 'Over the next five to 10 years, we want to bridge that gap.'