Because female attorneys in law firms tend not to toot their own horns, often their professional achievements go unnoticed, unacknowledged and underappreciated, hampering their ability to work on career-making matters, attract mentors or plum assignments, or be offered opportunities to pitch new business or socialize with the client. Being overlooked harms not just the female attorney aspiring to rise in the firm, but the firm itself, through a mismatch of talent with work. One effective knowledge management tool that will benefit attorneys and firms alike is a system for tracking a law firm’s greatest assets-the professional knowledge, know-how and talents of its attorneys. I call this “talent tracking.”
When a law firm seeks new business, it is selling its ability to match the client’s legal needs with the firm’s collection of legal talent. But how carefully have most firms kept tabs on the development of each attorney’s talent since joining the firm? While one may have a good sense of who has first-chaired a trial, or gotten an LLM in tax law, most law firm colleagues are unaware of who may have written an article or blog post on a certain topic, or was a panelist at a CLE seminar. Many attorneys develop subspecialties as they practice, through exposure to new areas of the law while working on matters, or by pursuing personal interests not directly related to their everyday workload. These new knowledge bases may be the key to pairing the firm with a particular client’s need, or offer an avenue for pitching the firm’s business to new clients, and are well worth the effort to track.
In this age, where clients are increasingly looking for diverse teams to staff their matters and want to see women in leadership positions, tracking attorneys’ specialized knowledge is essential to staying competitive. These attorneys have a wealth of knowledge that may not be readily apparent to law firm management, but that could make the difference in how a matter should be staffed or who is best suited to make presentations at a client pitch. Talent tracking also lets firms identify special skills or recent accomplishments to boost as part of a firm’s marketing efforts.
What Should a Talent Tracker Look Like?
Talent tracking does not need to be complicated or expensive to be effective. It can be as simple as an Excel spreadsheet posted to a firm-wide server or intranet. The kind of information that should be tracked includes the attorney’s area(s) of expertise as well as specialized training (law school area of concentration, post-JD course work, trial advocacy certificates, CPA or other financial training, advanced degrees in non-legal areas such as economics or engineering), publications, CLE presentations and panels, and leadership positions in bar associations and other legal and professional organizations.
The tracker also could include non-legal specializations that may help connect attorneys to clients, such as active participation in sports, nonprofit boards or volunteering, or membership in social organizations. Another category of information worth tracking is lead assignments on matters that highlight or develop a particular area of expertise. Every attorney in the firm should be listed in the tracker, and every attorney should be encouraged to participate.
The first step to successful implementation is educating attorneys as to the value to both them and the firm of tracking talent. Many attorneys, especially in larger firms, have trouble understanding how important knowledge management tools are to their own professional development, as well as the firm’s financial success. After all, what is the point in developing expertise if few of your colleagues know of it? Starting with a single practice group or other subset of the firm and meeting to discuss the project not only spreads the word and generates practical suggestions, but also gains the buy-in essential for the project’s success.
Once attorneys understand the value of the tracker, they often need a nudge to participate and keep their information up to date. You can appeal to attorneys’ egos by publicizing their accomplishments both internally and externally. A monthly email to all staff lauding the accomplishments of those attorneys who contributed to the talent tracking system highlights those accomplishments, while serving as a subtle reminder to others to submit their own accomplishments to receive recognition. Discussing the tracker’s benefits and uses periodically at practice group meetings can also help it become part of the culture. Including review of the tracker results in each attorney’s annual evaluation process is a soft “stick” that encourages attorneys to develop specialty skills and emphasizes the value placed on those skills by the law firm.
Make Tracking Easy to Do
The easiest way to get attorneys to participate is to tie tracking to other tasks they are already required to do, such as timekeeping or expense reporting. For instance, a section can be added to expense reports that requires attorneys to indicate whether the expense is connected to a talent development event, such as a CLE presentation or chairing a trial. An administrative assistant can then be tasked with following up to get more details and adding the information to the talent tracker.
More sophisticated methods can be introduced as a firm’s knowledge management systems become more automated, such a window that pops up when the attorney is entering non-billable time, asking if the talent tracker should be updated. Every quarter, the assistant can send the talent tracker to all attorneys and require a response with changes or indicating that no changes are needed. Non-responding attorneys should receive a follow-up e-mail from a practice leader, leading to a visit if the e-mail is ignored. Quarterly updates remind attorneys of the importance the firm places on professional development, as well as providing attorneys the opportunity to delete any information that has become obsolete, such as dropped memberships or changes in subject-matter focus.
Make Sure the Database is Searchable
Whatever system is used for keeping and entering information into the tracker, the tracker is only useful if it is easily searchable. After all, the purpose of the tracker is to aid all firm professionals in matching attorneys with a particular subject-matter need, and therefore the tracker must be easily accessible to everyone. Burying it in an admin folder on a network drive that attorneys rarely access will defeat the purpose of collecting the data in the first place. Instead, post a link on a well-used intranet page in larger firms, or place a hyperlink on each attorney’s desktop in smaller ones. The form of database, whether a spreadsheet or something more complex, must have search capabilities that are easy for everyone in the firm to master.
Implementing a talent tracking system will require persistence to succeed. Yet it is an excellent step toward using institutional knowledge to make your firm more efficient, effective and competitive. It also benefits all your attorneys, including women and other under-recognized groups, by promoting more effective use of their expertise.
Reprinted with permission from Law Practice Today, March 14, 2016. © 2016 American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.