Law Firm Professional Training and Development Programs

 

The approach that was traditionally been taken by law firms with respect to training and development was generally been limited to lectures on substantive legal areas delivered to be a small group of lawyers—typically junior associates. Law firms failed to approve significant investments in training and for senior lawyers there was a generally presumption that they already knew what they needed to know simply because they had been out practicing for a number of years following law school. While some law firms supported in-house classes for junior associates most of the training occurred by providing financial support for participation in events planned and conducted by outside vendors. While lawyers did have to deal with mandatory Continuing Legal Education (“CLE”) requirements imposed at the state level this did not necessarily lead firms to upgrade their in-house training programs.

Since the late 1990s, however, several changes in the market environment have caused law firms to reevaluate their positions with regard to training and professional development. First of all, the explosive growth in size of the largest law firms made it increasingly difficult for them to continue their ad hoc approach to training and development. Larger numbers of new associates, coupled with more rapid turnover rates for both partners and associates, created challenges for simply relying on on-the-job training and informal mentoring to improve the skills of attorneys. Second, the market confronting law firms became increasingly segmented and competitive meaning that lawyers at all levels required not only stronger specialized legal skills but also an ability to deploy client development and client service skills. As an aside, clients became increasingly reluctant to fund many of the on-the-job training activities that firms had previously deployed such as having multiple associates observe depositions and bill their time or have throwing large numbers of inexperienced transactional attorneys on to a due diligence team in order to learn about “deals”. Third, for several years leading up to the beginning of the recession of 2007–2009 law firms were actually facing a “seller’s market” as they went out to acquire the human resources necessary to staff the growth that they were experiencing and many of these new lawyers appeared to be less interested than previous generations in simply working hard for a chance to become partner as opposed to selecting a firm at which they could obtain the training and experience necessary to prepare them for whatever they chose to do next in their careers.

Each of the factors described above caused law firms to begin to reevaluate their investments in training and professional development.  While much of the activity in this area was among larger firms with more resources, training and professional development is an important issue for firms of all sizes and for in-house legal departments.  A new chapter (§§ 6:1 et seq.) added to Business Transactions Solution this month discusses the design and implementation of professional training and development programs for attorneys practicing in law firms. Training includes a wide range of organized activities designed to change and improve the practice-related skills, knowledge, or attitudes of attorneys in order to achieve the goals and objectives of the law firm. In order for training and development to be an effective management tool and strategy, law firms must be prepared to make a full commitment of necessary funds and other resources and allocate the necessary time for partners, associates and non-lawyer personnel to actively participate in training programs. Training programs can serve a number of different objectives and each program should include a specific statement of the goals that the law firm is looking to achieve. For example, training can focus on improving the ability of an attorney to perform the job that he or she is presently doing or is being to do. Alternatively, training can be used to prepare senior associates and junior partners to assume other duties and responsibilities at higher levels in the organizational structure of the law firm. In any event, the trainers and trainees must always make an effort to carefully and clearly define the skills that are to be learned and the knowledge that is to be acquired. Other byproducts of successful training programs, such as improvements in attitudes and work habits, are harder to define; however, they should certainly be among the goals for the program.  While many parts of this chapter focus on law firm training the materials in this chapter are also easily adaptable to in-house training and development programs.  The specialty forms library in this chapter includes an association evaluation form, partnership admission criteria and an associate self-assessment form. The chapter also includes a slide deck presentation on creating and implementing a professional training and development program.  Related issues are covered in chapters on law firm (§§ 4:1 et seq.) and law department (§§ 5:1 et seq.) and building and managing client relationships (§§ 3:1 et seq.).

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