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BUILDING A BETTER TALENT GAME PLAN: Best Practices for Training and Developing Lawyers

When making decisions about lawyer development and training programs, many firms appear to focus mainly on how it will affect the short-term bottom line. But beware: Giving the short shrift to professional development today can have a long-lasting negative impact on your firm’s ability to serve its clients—which means you may be jeopardizing the firm’s future success. Viewing lawyer training and development as an integral part of a firm’s long-term strategy is much more consistent with a vision of lasting growth and profitability.

M uch like the rest of the business world, the legal industry has been hard hit by the economy these past two years. While many see signs of recovery, budgetary and client pressures still abound—and those pressures aren’t likely to disappear even after the economy bounces back in full. Clients of all types now expect their law firms to provide excellent service at reduced costs and through alternative billing arrangements when possible. And to do that, firms must have skilled lawyers who can service their clients cost-effectively and with a results-driven attitude. Putting a strong focus on professional development can provide the edge you need to compete. With this in mind, consider these current “best practices” and what they could mean to your firm’s future.

Creating Individual Development Plans

Individual development plans (IDPs) are great tools for formulating and achieving professional development goals. A best practice with IDPs is to match each individual lawyer’s career goals with the firm’s (or practice group’s) strategic plan to help reach the results desired by both the lawyer and the firm. In other words, a lawyer works with his or her practice group leader or mentor, or a professional development staff member if the firm has one, to create specific goals for the coming year, including targeting the substantive experience and skills needed to move to the next level.

To ensure that lawyers stay on course with the IDPs, it’s essential to assign specific action steps to each goal and, where appropriate, completion dates, too. In this way, the lawyer and others within the firm who are responsible for professional development can work together to create the necessary opportunities to achieve the stated goals, including identifying appropriate assignments, mentors and individual training resources.

Providing Expanded Training for New Lawyers

Giving junior associates structured and expanded training fills the gap between law school and law practice at a much faster rate. This helps jump-start their success because they become effective and efficient sooner, which in turn means they can contribute to the firm’s profits sooner. And with clients telling their law firms that they are unwilling to pay for the training of junior lawyers—i.e., they don’t want to pay to have inexperienced people working on their matters—law firms will find that the return on time and financial investment can more than pay for itself.

A number of firms have instituted training programs for their junior lawyers that allow for more hands-on experience and one-on-one training. While the curricula of these programs vary, they mainly focus on core skills and often have experiential learning components. The so-called “apprenticeship model,” designed for first- and second-year associates, goes so far as to reduce the usual billable-hours requirements for participants so they can dedicate more time to professional development efforts. (See the January/February 2010 Law Practice for coverage of how firms like Frost Brown Todd, Drinker Biddle & Reath and Howrey are putting this model to use.)

Following the Competency Model for Development and Training

Competency models are slowly but surely replacing the lock-step model of lawyer advancement, wherein associates move up together in groups based on the year they entered the firm. In the competency model, in contrast, the firm identifies specific skills and knowledge needed to advance through three or four levels, one by one, within the associate ranks. Thus, for associates to advance to the next level, they must achieve observable benchmarks within their present level. The core competencies required at each level will vary from firm to firm, and even from practice group to practice group, and may include personal qualities as well as substantive knowledge and practice skills. It depends on the given firm’s needs and strategy.

Even for firms that don’t choose to give up the lock-step model (at least not yet), it’s still an excellent idea to identify certain knowledge, skills and abilities that each lawyer should acquire to advance in his or her chosen practice area and career. Training and evaluations can then be tied to these as standards of performance. Plus, identifying specific performance measurements for your lawyers and then providing them with appropriate training not only assists them in achieving success in their practice, it also acts as a retention tool (but more on that in a bit).

Rethinking Mentoring Based on Advancement Level

Mentoring is an invaluable form of lawyer development—when it’s approached properly. A best practice is to tailor these relationships to the lawyer’s level in the firm, assigning all associates a mentor who can meet their current needs and help guide them to the next level, while also serving as a role model for the professional behaviors needed to succeed.

For example, junior lawyers will do best with mentors who can help them learn to navigate the transition from law student to professional; gain the basic substantive skills necessary to perform good-quality, cost-effective legal work; and understand the politics of the workplace. Midlevel associates will develop at a greater speed with a mentor who can focus their skills development on people and project management. Senior associates should have mentors who have successfully moved to the partnership ranks and have not only proven expertise and business-building skills, but have acquired effective supervisory skills as well. These types of partners can play an enormously important role in helping their mentees develop into stellar future partners.

Incorporating Soft Skills Training

Clearly, an ongoing theme in today’s provision of legal services is that clients want more value-driven services. While this is something that clients have always desired, the difference is that today’s clients define “value” in a new way. They want lawyers who can work with them as a team, who understand their business needs as well as their legal needs, and who bring problem-solving skills to the table. In this type of climate, legal knowledge and substantive skills are not alone enough to keep your lawyers competitive.

That’s why it’s wise to offer lawyers at all levels opportunities for “soft skills” training and individual coaching in areas such as teamwork and collaboration, leadership techniques, effective communication skills, time management and personal business development effectiveness. This type of value-add training can provide the tools necessary to thoroughly compete in today’s marketplace. (See Ryan Sullivan’s article in this issue for more on coaching options.)

Don’t Forget to Factor Retention into the Game Plan

It should go without saying that retaining good talent is key to providing valuable services at a cost-effective rate. And remember, if your lawyers aren’t getting the kind of experience and training necessary to grow in their careers, they are much more likely to look elsewhere, even in challenging times. As the lateral job market begins to show signs of recovery, you will start to lose those you want to keep if your firm hasn’t sufficiently focused on training and development—and the resulting cost can be steep indeed.

Turnover of a midlevel associate, for example, can cost a firm over six figures in terms of lost investment and recruiting costs. And that doesn’t include the cost of client dissatisfaction when another lawyer must be brought in to replace the one who has left. Clients are frustrated with having to establish new working relationships with additional lawyers—and with the extra time and money needed to bring the new lawyers up to speed on their matters.

The simple fact is that law firms looking to survive and thrive in today’s climate will want to make professional development and training a top priority in their strategy.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She writes the regular Managing column for Law Practice magazine.

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