|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2007|
The state of professional development for lawyers
By Paul Burton
Professional development is the process of converting legal scholars into legal practitioners. Just as it took time and planning to educate the scholar, it takes time and planning to produce the practitioner.
In the Beginning
Historically, young scholars developed into young practitioners via trial and error. Though many foundered in this sink-or-swim model, their prospects were better then for several reasons. First, firms were smaller, allowing greater collegiality and personal attention. One-on-one mentoring was the order of the day and associates received access to advanced matters and client interaction earlier in their careers.
Second, practicing law was focused on developing good technical skills. Specialization had yet to truly infiltrate the practice, allowing lawyers to be more things to their clients. Moreover, the prohibition on advertising required attorneys to develop a good reputation to gain referrals.
Finally, legal practices were geographically focused. The landscape of opportunity was clearly defined. Some practices reached across the state, but few crossed that boundary.
Agents of Change
The last 30 years have seen myriad events and factors wield enormous influence over the practice of law.
Marketing. The advent of advertising changed the nature of the practice forever. Originally manifesting as late-night television ads, legal services marketing is now a sophisticated, competitive vehicle ubiquitously employed. Providing excellent legal work and great client service is the cost of admission today. Every lawyer and law firm must distinguish themselves to increase their presence and their client base.
Technology. Moore’s Law states that computing power doubles every 24 months, at roughly one-half the cost. Made in 1965, this statement holds true 40 years later. Modern law practices are hugely affected by this tenet. Imagine practicing today without email or voicemail or a fax machine, never mind the Blackberry. And these are only the communication technologies that affect us!
Growth. Our ranks have swollen to one million plus. Firms have seen similar growth. The once rare 100-lawyer firm is now commonplace. The largest firms have thousands of attorneys scattered in offices across the country and around the world. How easy it is for a lawyer to simply get lost in the halls!
Globalization. The legal landscape is now global. Firms
are multi-state and multi-national, as are their clients. Cross-border practices
are in vogue. And this is just the beginning, according to Thomas Friedman’s The
is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, with the two largest population centers, China and India, coming into their own.
Business Orientation. The business of law evolved through the ’90s, gaining speed into this century. The focus is heavily weighted on financial metrics. Lawyers at all levels are rewarded to bill time and build client base.
The net result of these change agents is young lawyers are faced
with a more competitive, less supportive, crowded industry across a larger
geographic landscape that is more focused on financial results than developmental
Maybe. Hopeless? Never!
The Millennial Generation, the current object of angst for many older lawyers, may be the law’s professional development savior. For these young lawyers are products of their upbringing. These Millennials are the most doted upon, protected generation ever. They were raised in a matured socio-economic system that accounted for two working parents.
Consequently, they are accustomed to group/team environments and guidance along the way. Who orchestrated this upbringing? Their parents — the Boomers — the very cohort currently deriding their values and work ethic! Ironic? Yes. Irreconcilable? No.
Before diving into specifics, it’s important to note that development programs are only new to the legal industry. Other industries have long recognized the need to manage the human resource development process. Consider the decades-old "management training" programs in the banking, technology and retail industries. Consider that the most coveted position by Harvard MBA graduates is at McKinzie & Company…due to its world-class development programs. Consider the underpinnings of these programs:
Committed. Businesses renowned for training are fully committed to the concept and the process. From the top down, the organizational culture embraces the process through which its people mature into contributory assets. Law firms must understand that it is a commitment.
Considered. Poorly conceived programs will return marginal results. Questions to answer include: What are the program’s goals? What resources is the firm willing to commit? Who’s in charge and with how much authority? A tome to the program is unnecessary, but a well considered plan will deliver significant rewards.
Consistent. Another failing of lawyers is impatience. Human development takes time — 9 months in the womb, decades in the world, years in a profession. To be successful, a professional development program must be consistently delivered and consistently updated and improved.
Human resource development programs are not novel. They have a proven track record throughout the business world and are gaining increased approval in the legal industry. To retain and make most productive the top talent, firms must construct programs to ensure the associate’s satisfaction, as well as the firm’s investment.’
Let’s Talk Competencies
Constructing a professional development model offers insight into one of the legal industry’s most interesting dichotomies. Firms expend great effort securing the best talent possible, provide them guidance in substantive legal skills, then essentially stand back and see who exhibits the traits of "partner material." It’s like getting a new house closed in, safe from the elements, then waiting for the finish work to finish itself! The solution to this conundrum is to overlay the firm’s professional development program with a competency model.
Competencies are simply skill sets. Skill sets are measured through behaviors. Behaviors can be modeled, defined as a series of components. Activities and exercises can be constructed to teach behavioral components. These are not benchmarks, which are numerically measured milestones (X depositions conducted, Y stock purchase agreements drafted). Competencies are subjectively measured (On a scale of one to 10, how well did Susan conduct the mock client interview? Did she improve after doing the related exercises?).
Overlaying a competency model adds value to a professional development program. First, it begins to define (and maybe succeeds at defining) what "partner material" is, both for the associates and the firm. This is good for the associates. They get an identified pathway, rugged as it may be, towards partnership. It’s good for the firm because the financial and time investment in the younger lawyers will return a higher pay off in greater retention and increased productivity throughout the process.
Second, and even more compelling, competencies fundamentally define what makes a particular organization great and seek to replicate that greatness across the entire organization. Once built, the model can be overlaid onto virtually every aspect of the human element inside the firm — associates, staff and partners. It IS the map to excellence.
A detailed discussion of competency models is not the focus of this article, but here are some shorthand thoughts on building and introducing one into your firm:
Building the Model. Simply start by asking the partners, one-on-one, to define what "partner material" is to them, drilling down on the phrases they use to get concrete examples. The patterns that emerge are the raw materials you need. You’ve identified the "competencies" that are expressed in "behaviors." Now you need to construct roadmaps for associates (and partners!) to follow to learn those behaviors and, thereby, become competent to be a partner.
Introducing the Model. Executive management buy-in is critically important to the successful introduction of the competency model in a firm. This is a substantive change in thinking about lawyer development, bringing with it the attendant difficulties of change. Keeping the introductory scope small greatly assists the implementation. For example, introduce it first into the associate review process. Once instituted and adapted to the feedback received, it can be rolled out across other human resource areas.
The parting advice on this subject is: Learn about it and consider its value to your organization. (See the author’s article on competency models titled at www.visionmechanix.com/sub/articles .)
Like any industry, professional development programs in the legal industry vary greatly both in form and scope. They run the gambit from appearing on a wish list to an expanded job description for the firm’s recruiting coordinator to entire departments populated by people dedicated solely to this function. Most programs focus on associates, many on young
associates, and only a few reach into the partner ranks.
There are several common components to these programs, listed here in a loosely chronological order:
The Welcome Wagon. The firm has an identified integration process for making new lawyers feel at home. This is the historical component, what amounts to the escorted walk to the deep end of the pool accompanied by the ceremonial push in. It may have expanded to assigning them a "mentor" and to extending the social events historically reserved for summer associate programs to promote integration and camaraderie.
Substantive Skills. This is again a historical component. Molding the legal scholar into a practitioner is the goal. Identifying the specific skills required to effectively and satisfactorily practice an area of law is the first order of business. Next, the young lawyer must develop those skills — by doing, under supervision. The industry is replete with assistance in this area. Every imaginable continuing education opportunity is available to lawyers at all levels. Coupled with in-house training, seminars and mentoring, firms generally do a terrific job of investing the requisite skills in their young lawyers.
Leadership/Management. Management results when leadership fails. And in law firms, very little time is given over for either. This is not surprising as lawyers are individualists in virtually every imaginable way and law firms have developed as silo practices over the decades with minimal organizational strategy. The result is the managerial sins of the father are passed along generation after generation. Increased focus is now occurring on these skills.
Client Development. Once marketing came to the legal industry, it came with a vengeance. Virtually every firm has identified a person responsible for marketing, with many firms employing full time professionals. In our frenzy, we almost forgot the most important element of client development: People hire people. Thus, the current trend of driving business development awareness throughout the firm. This can be seen in the recent retention of directors of business development, whose charge is to work with individual attorneys and groups of lawyers to secure targeted clients.
These are the core factors in any successful professional development program. Numerous additional elements can be added, but when viewing the profession as both a set of substantive and business skills, the above list covers nicely.
Climbing back up to the survey level of professional development programs, there are several methods firms have used to build and implement them:
Build Your Own. Like all things custom, building your own program produces exactly what you want, with a price tag to match. Custom programs come in all forms, from university-style models where lawyers literally enroll and commit enormous effort to "graduate," to more ad hoc, almost practice-group level efforts where lawyers are provided varying degrees of structured opportunity. The very nature of building your own is to define and execute exactly the vision the firm wishes to create.
Internal + External. The vast majority of firms combine their internal efforts with external experts. Utilizing people inside the firm to deliver firm-specific messages with outside people to deliver more generalized information is a terrific way to maximize the knowledge transfer at an affordable price. Forums that mix senior people with new people build confidence among the participants, while outside experts introduce a wider perspective that broadens the students’ horizon lines.
On Your Own. Firms with no identified program leave younger (and older!) attorneys to fend for themselves. This is a hit and miss model at best. Larger markets offer a fair number of resources, while smaller markets are devoid of everything but basic CLE training. Needless to say, only the intrepid will develop many non-substantive skills using this method.
The key questions to ask in this analysis are: What do we want to achieve with professional development, and how are we going to ensure success of that goal? Those questions will drive the type of model you build and how you will populate its content.
‘Round the Corner
That’s where we’re at, but where are we headed? As this segment of our industry continues to mature, several trends are emerging:
Resurrection of Traditional Mentoring. For numerous reasons, closely paralleling the Agents of Change listed above, one-on-one mentoring has virtually disappeared from our industry. Its impact is increased associate alienation and attrition. Firms are looking back to the "good ole days" and identifying traditional mentoring as a critical-path development tool for younger lawyers. Efforts to reinvigorate the practice are underway in firms of all sizes. Because one-on-mentoring cannot, by definition, be mandated, firms must find proper incentive for partners and associates to create these relationships. (See the author’s article on mentoring titled "What Money Can’t Buy" at www.visionmechanix.com/sub/articles.html)
The Business of Practice of Law. Lawyers just want to practice law. Unfortunately there’s more to it than that. The business of practicing law must also be tended. And that business has gotten bigger and more complex. Developing clients, managing staff and increasing productivity are just some of the business aspects every lawyer must address on a day-to-day basis. Professional development programs are broadening their scope in recognition of this fact, providing lawyers (at all levels) instruction and guidance. Whether it is training programs, individual coaching or retreat seminars, more and more of the business aspects of practicing law are creeping into the educational curriculum.
Coaching. An offshoot of both the mentoring and the
business of law trends, firms are turning to professional coaches for help.
Coaches work with specific attorneys on specific skills development for specific
time periods. This model is often found in remedial environments — "fixing" a
particular lawyer’s problems. More recently, firms are engaging coaches
to work with their star performers to maximize their
Productivity Technology. The impact on technology has
been huge in the legal industry. A mere 25 years ago, desktop computers were
newborns. Today, lawyers are talking to their laptops while replying to client
emails on their Blackberry devices. Cries of "Work/Life Balance" rise
up from below as attorneys at all levels struggle to integrate these advances
into their professional and personal lives. This phenomenon will continue as
the rate of technological advance is not showing signs
The Internet. On the brighter side, the Internet has provided firms an efficient mechanism through which to provide professional development resources. Whether it’s internally produced or purchased from a third-party content provider, getting development materials to every lawyer in the firm quickly and efficiently is made easier by the Internet. Similarly, using conferencing applications or third-party technology platforms, the cost of establishing and maintaining your firm’s professional development program is very effective and affordable.
Undoubtedly, a review of this article in five year’s time will uncover numerous other changes that took place in our near-term horizon. Isn’t that the nature of change? The obvious is only so after the fact?
In the End
You’ve suffered through 2,600 words on the subject, so how to best conclude concisely? How’s this:
Attracting and retaining lawyers is getting more competitive. A strong professional development program not only markets well, it builds better lawyers faster, engendering loyalty along the way.
What’s your firm’s doing about it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Burton is a former corporate finance attorney with an extensive background in professional and organizational development. His firm, Vision Mechanix, works exclusively with lawyers and law firms, providing consulting, training and coaching in the areas of business development, management and productivity. He can be reached at email@example.com. © 2007 Vision Mechanix, LLC.