The professional development function has been slowly but surely developing in firms over the past couple of decades. However, a clear watershed came in 1990, when a group of about 20 individuals, along with the ABA, ALI-ABA and the Practising Law Institute, established the Professional Development Consortium, or PDC. The founding members realized they were doing similar things in their respective law firms and would benefit from sharing experiences. This represented an initial step in helping to organize professional development programs in law firms.
Move to Formalization: Five Drivers
In the beginning, there was shadowing, an informal practice in which new lawyers basically followed around more senior ones—and that was the extent of what most firms offered in terms of passing on skills to their younger lawyers. This changed dramatically when state supreme courts across the country began imposing MCLE requirements. (Today there are only seven non-CLE states and one voluntary CLE state remaining.) “This was a call to action to more formally train lawyers after law school,” explains Fulbright & Jaworski’s Fried-Fiori.
Another driver behind professional development’s formalization was the explosive growth in size that law firms experienced in recent decades, making firms realize they needed to offer consistent training programs across geographies and practice areas. Also, because mergers fueled part of the growth, it became necessary to establish programs that would help bridge cultural differences.
The third driver was partner time. As law firms began to operate more like other businesses, the things expected of partners changed. New demands around client and business development and firm profitability reduced the amount of time partners had to train young lawyers.
Another, more recent driver has been the rise in associate salaries, causing firms to ask themselves, “How do we shorten the time between the hiring of new attorneys and when they become profitable?” This has led to more specific job training (going well beyond CLE requirements) to help new associates get up to speed faster. “Associate training is,” according to author and consultant Ida O. Abbott, “the one almost universal activity run by professional development specialists.”
A final set of drivers focuses on retention statistics and lawyer expectations. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reports that 78 percent of new lawyers leave large firms by the time they are in their fifth year. Since it costs between $250,000 and $500,000 to replace an associate, this quickly becomes a multimillion-dollar problem. Today’s young lawyers do not expect to work at the same firm (or even necessarily remain lawyers) for the rest of their lives. “Attorneys have so many choices about where they can work now,” confirms Fried-Fiori. “We have to acknowledge that we are competing for talented lawyers and design programs to attract and retain them, rather than ignore that the marketplace has changed.”
In combination, these drivers have propelled a significant evolution in professional development positions. Early on, most PDC members focused on building curriculum for CLE courses. (The group’s original 20 has grown to more than 360 members today.) Then the function started to include mentoring, new lawyer orientation and business development training. And in the past four years, there has been another shift, with increased emphasis on identifying core competencies, establishing performance benchmarks, talent management and leadership training.
To learn how the programs vary between firms, I talked to several professional development directors. Here is what they revealed about the scope, goals and deliverables of their programs.
Assignments and Skills Building
At O’Melveny & Myers, which has more than 1,000 lawyers in 13 offices worldwide, the program is carefully aligned to the career stage of each associate. Summer associates are assigned mentors with similar outside interests (which extends to things like surfing). First-years gain an additional mentor from their specific practice area. Also, as part of the firm’s New Associate Mentor Program, first-years have monthly “lunch and learns” covering all the basics—billing procedures, client relationships, working with support staff, work-life issues, time management techniques and so on—to teach them how to be efficient and productive in the law firm environment.
As associates advance in their careers, they are taught how to get new work and how to turn down assignments when their workloads are too heavy. According to Danielle Fredericks, O’Melveny’s Director of Professional Development, the firm also has a work coordination system that matches assignments to each lawyer’s interests and skills: “This is a top priority at the firm. With our work coordination system, associates have access to a wider variety of projects and work experiences and we are able to provide a more equitable distribution of work. This helps them become better and more productive lawyers, which in turn makes them more likely to want to stay at the firm.”
O’Melveny also focuses significant resources on skills training, which is overseen by Rochelle Karr, Director of Attorney Training & Mentoring. In creating the curriculum, Karr works with department heads and practice group leaders and then she finds the best people (either O’Melveny partners or outside experts) to teach the courses. The curriculum includes training in hard and soft skills based on the lawyer’s experience level and the particular practice area. At least one skills training course is being offered somewhere in the firm almost every day. According to Karr, most of the training courses offered at O’Melveny qualify for CLE credit. The firm uses a software program called “Reqwired” that automatically tracks attendance and produces monthly reports for the lawyers regarding their credits.
At Proskauer Rose, according to Recruiting and Associate Development Manager Lisa VanderVeen, the professional development department evaluates CLE course proposals, monitors what other firms are offering and coordinates the presentations. The department is also responsible for inputting each lawyer’s attendance information, tracking compliance and issuing certificates of completion. Proskauer has 750 lawyers worldwide.
In addition to the usual practice-oriented subjects, CLE courses at 350-lawyer Stroock & Stroock & Lavan cover ethics, budgets, legal and business writing, time management, substance abuse and document management, says Samantha S. McNulty, Manager of -Recruiting & Professional Development. She uses both inside and outside experts to develop the curriculum. In addition, the firm’s IT department holds regular presentations on new technologies. As in most firms, courses are offered both in live formats—in person, on the phone or via video—and in recorded formats (with tapes stored in the firm’s library and on its intranet).
And many professional development departments now also have to ensure that their firms’ lawyers keep up with e-filing regulations. “We have to make sure all our attorneys receive the mandatory e-filing training with the district court,” says McNulty. “In addition to their CLE, e-filing and court requirements, we also make sure that they keep their bar licenses up-to-date and paid for.”
Business Development Programs
Another common task for today’s professional development teams is to help younger lawyers learn how to procure new business. “Many firms have developed training programs covering a wide range of topics,” explains Fried-Fiori, “including contact management, building a network, pitching, RFPs, gathering business intelligence, delivering excellent client service and managing client relations, identifying opportunities within the context of delivering services, and cross-selling.” These types of courses are usually taught by members of the professional development and marketing departments, outside marketing consultants and sometimes firm partners. These days, most firms require every lawyer to produce a business development plan. Such plans help the lawyers clarify their objectives, identify marketing targets, focus and prioritize their activities, and establish road maps to success.
“The number one complaint of associates at most law firms is that they don’t get the marketing support they need to help them develop a book of business until it is too late, if at all,” says Kelvin Chin, Chief Client Development Officer at 50-lawyer Theodora Oringher Miller & Richman. “We include associates in our pitches to both existing and potential clients, so they can see how it is done.” To expand their network, associates are encouraged to join and become active in numerous professional organizations.
Proskauer is supplementing its lawyers’ business development basket with seminars on networking (with clients, colleagues, former college and law school classmates and the like), while also encouraging associates to take advantage of speaking opportunities, helping them to write articles, and giving them a stipend to take former classmates or potential clients to lunch.
In addition, the firm offers sales and media training to help increase the lawyers’ visibility as professionals. This includes panel discussions for junior and midlevel associates, with panels comprised of alumni who are now GCs, or presentations by clients or third-party experts on a variety of topics. The firm also arranges one-on-one coaching for partners, upon request, in the areas of public speaking, speech writing and pitches.
Stroock takes this a step further and attempts to impart social graces, too, offering etiquette classes—including how to hold a glass during a cocktail party and how to politely slip someone a business card. The firm periodically brings in outside expertise (from Mary Crane & Associates) to offer workshops on communication skills, business development, and gender and generational issues, as well as handling social situations (such as how to break into conversations and turn small talk into business).
“Sometimes we focus on business development skills specifically for women,” adds Stroock’s McNulty. “We help our women attorneys plan events, develop presentation skills and learn how to ‘bridge the gap’ in the workplace.”
Evaluations and Career Counseling
All of these programs illustrate the fact that firms now recognize it is in their best interest to keep people longer, and to do that, they need to facilitate the professional development of each lawyer. Toward that end, firms are finding new ways to monitor, rank and evaluate performance. For instance, many firms now conduct upward evaluations, 360-degree performance reviews and formalized exit interviews—all to help learn more about each lawyer, identify particular proficiencies and needs, and ensure that the person’s professional path is clearly understood by both the firm and the individual.
This can also contribute immensely to a firm’s ability to handle succession planning, given how it helps identify strengths and weaknesses among the lawyers who may advance to leadership positions. Essentially, it helps firms answer the core question of: Do we have the bench strength we need for the future leadership of the firm? If not, where are the gaps?
At O’Melveny, associates are given access to confidential career counseling through outside consultants. In addition, O’Melveny offers a “Path to Partnership” program. Meetings are held in each office with all interested associates and counsel, including summer associates. The chair of the partnership committee and Director of Professional Development Danielle Fredericks host the meetings to explain the partnership process. They identify who is on the partner committee, map out the timeline and discuss the criteria for making partner, explain the sponsorship memo and distinguish equity versus income partners.
“It is designed to create a climate of transparency,” explains Fredericks. “We ask all associates to submit questions prior to our visits (they remain anonymous), so we address everyone’s concerns. We want them to understand how the process works firmwide and what it takes to get to the partner consideration point in their careers.”
To develop these future leaders of the firm, O’Melveny also provides management and leadership training. Many firms use their own senior attorneys and managers for this kind of specialized coaching, while some partner with universities to help develop the curriculum. O’Melveny does both: Partners and counsel provide management skills training annually for first-years and laterals, third-years and sixth-years at multiday offsite training retreats. In addition, the firm collaborates with the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University for higher-level leadership training.
Occasionally, career counseling may identify lawyers who are no longer interested in working in a law firm. What’s a professional development team’s responsibility then?
For those who are not suited for or interested in partnership, O’Melveny, like other large firms today, posts in-house job openings (many with firm clients) on its intranet. Fredericks explains it this way: “Once you have associates in your firm, you need to help them develop professionally, and part of that is recognizing their unique career needs, even if the lawyer isn’t sure he wants to stay at the firm.”
Helping a firm’s lawyers find new jobs outside the firm can make some partners’ hair stand on end. But Fried-Fiori believes it is easy to defend: “Our focus should be on the retention of relationships within and beyond the walls of the firm. If we help one of our attorneys get an in-house position with one of our clients, it is a win-win-win (for that attorney, for Fulbright and for the client). We want to make sure their experience at Fulbright was positive, and that we helped them realize their dreams and fulfill their potential. We want to help them be all that they can be. That’s what it’s all about.”
So while the actual deliverables of the professional development staff can sound overwhelming, it all boils down to ensuring that the firm’s lawyers have the best possible experience they can while they are with the firm—from their summer associate days to their retirement party. And since it doesn’t look like the competition for talented lawyers is slowing down, the professional development position is likely to play an even bigger role in the future.