Much has been written about the significant changes taking place in the legal industry and the impact all of this is having on law firms and law schools. Clients want more for less. They need seamless global service delivery by legal service providers who combine efficiency with added value and facilitate access to information through the use of technology. This is the “new normal.” These new parameters for legal service delivery have spawned new jobs for lawyers, defined and launched new roles for a plethora of legal professionals, and created the need for a new set of enhanced skills for everyone. And all of this is taking place against a background of a changed workforce profile and changing employee expectations. Employees are demanding increased diversity in law firm leadership. They want more flexibility in how they work, where they work, and when they work. Employees are searching for a deeper connection to their workplace. Workplace culture is increasingly driving employee recruitment, retention, engagement, and productivity. Employees are also demanding change and understanding the importance of their contribution to organizational innovation, disruption, and competitive advantage. And clients of law firms, more diverse and vocal than ever before, are championing these changes too.
Amidst all this change, a critical question has emerged for consideration by professional development (PD)/talent management (TM) professionals: How has my role changed? And a lot more questions follow immediately after that, such as: What skills do I need now? What do I need to do differently? Where should I focus my energies in my role? What should my role look like now? This article will provide some answers to these questions by taking a quick peek at how PD professionals in the US, UK, and Australia have seen their roles change in the not so new normal.
A Common Beginning
In times of change, it is always helpful to reflect on the bends in the road — those things that created the perfect storm for change and hung on long enough to drive it. What also inevitably occurs after a trip down memory lane is the opportunity to identify, ahead of time, when change is upon us and to map out a way to manage it with the benefit of hindsight. Put simply, history allows us to learn and develop — this is, after all, the reason PD professionals incorporate story-telling and experience sharing into learning programs. So what does the history of PD in law firms offer up in the new normal?
First, PD has emerged in all countries from a similar starting point. At some time in all places, the governing professional association for the lawyers (law societies or bar associations) introduced mandatory continuing practical development (CPD) or continuing legal education (CLE) as a requirement for lawyers to be permitted to continue to practice. It is also common ground that this was introduced mostly as a quality and risk management based initiative by these associations. Lawyers were (and still are) required to keep their legal knowledge up to date so they can continue to provide contemporary and accurate legal advice. While CPD/CLE used to be restricted to “technical” knowledge acquisition, it has changed in all countries to now include business of law topics. While different countries have varied in the extent to which they guide and regulate the mandatory aspect of CPD/CLE, 1 the need for lawyers to constantly acquire and refine legal knowledge and business acumen has remained constant.
Second, the mandatory nature of CPD/CLE was a significant driving force behind the establishment of the internal PD function and, to a significant extent, also shaped the role and expertise of early PD professionals in all countries. The founders of in-house law firm PD mostly had some connection with the law. These professionals were former practicing lawyers or law school academics. As mandatory CPD/CLE took hold, more internal courses were run, and the need for administrative skills in course organization, recording keeping, and compliance emerged. In larger firms then and now, a new team member with these skills has been added. In smaller firms then and now, these administrative skills dominate the PD role, with the “learning and development” (“L&D”) aspects of a course being undertaken by lawyers.
As learning and development pedagogy evolved, so too did PD roles in firms. PD professionals added to their skills portfolio an understanding of, and ability to apply, adult and experiential learning concepts and principles. This positioned them, then and now, as the firm’s internal specialist on “learning and development.” PD roles consequently changed to include, in addition to the administrative responsibilities, collaborating with the firm’s lawyers on the development and implementation of more sophisticated technical (substantive law) internal courses. In many cases, PD professionals also became the lead developer (in partnership with firm leadership, other support professionals, and external consultants) on business of law courses. The outcome of all of this is that today, in all countries, there has been a change in law firm courses from learning by lecture to learning by doing, and from “training” to “learning and capability or competency development.”
In the UK and Australia, while the depth and breadth of the PD role has changed, it has mostly (but not exclusively) continued to focus on L&D for attorneys. While some firms extend PD support to non-lawyer professional training, this tends to be limited to the C-level (Chief) or equivalent roles. These senior non-lawyer professionals attend leadership and management programs organized for the lawyer leaders and are invited to participate as members of the firm’s leadership and management team. There are, of course, exceptions and these can be found mostly in the larger firms. In the US, things are similar and different. The PD role continues to be mostly focused on attorneys and senior non-lawyer professionals, but it has expanded and, at the same time, become more refined, with specializations emerging in any one or more of such areas as recruitment (graduates, laterals, and orientation) and retention, career development (career planning, work assignment, mentorship, coaching, and sponsorship), performance evaluation (performance reviews, compensation, and promotion), and organizational development. 2 While these roles have emerged in Australia and the US, they have not necessarily been housed in PD. As will be discussed later, the difference in the way PD has evolved between countries has impacted the development of the PD governance structures, its value proposition, and the PD role as trusted advisor.
Third, the evolution of human resources (HR) as a profession and a support function in law firms is an important element in this discussion. In Australia and the smaller firms in the UK and US, HR was one of the first non-lawyer professional support functions in law firms and, being people focused, extended to learning and development. L&D roles beyond CPD management, where they have expanded, seem to have gone hand in hand with a firm’s increase in lawyer headcount and the consequent demand for more training programs. The L&D role has emerged more as a matter of management efficiency and cost savings than as a focus on a comprehensive investment in employee development and deployment. Consequently, these roles often started as part-time positions and later expanded to full-time roles as lawyer numbers increased but remained housed in HR.
In the US and the larger firms in Australia and the UK, the PD role seems to have evolved first, faster, more broadly, and become specialized — often independent of the HR role. Because the US has, on balance, more of the largest law firms of the three countries, there are comparatively more specialist roles that have, until recently, developed out of the PD function. As noted earlier, these include specialist roles in recruitment, retention, career development, performance evaluation, and organizational development. In the US, as the role of Chief HR Officer has started to emerge in law firms in the last five to ten years, PD functions and all related people management specializations have increasingly fallen under the umbrella of HR.
An interesting conundrum has presented itself for the governance and role of the HR and PD functions in law firms. Despite the historical differences and similarities noted above between the countries, there are three overriding common questions which remain unresolved for all:
- Should lawyer PD be separated from non-lawyer PD in law firms?
- What does non-lawyer PD look like in law firms?
- Should PD or HR assume the strategic or trusted advisor role in the firm on lawyer/people management?
In all countries, the answers to these questions influence reporting lines, compatibility, and collaboration between PD and HR. Where and how these functions work together – and the senior advisory role they assume — seems right now to be driven more by individual work background (for example, many PD professionals now are not lawyers, senior HR professionals in law firms are often not lawyers, and some senior HR personnel in law firms come from a corporate work environment), agendas, and personalities than industry norms. In short, there is no typical people management governance structure or distribution of people management specializations for law firms in any country.
Defining and Providing Value
As firms are under scrutiny to add value for clients, so too are PD functions for their firms. PD key performance indicators are no longer about numbers. The total number of days spent in training or the number of courses run is not relevant. Now it is all about using data to focus resources on building the people capabilities that the firm needs. This definition of PD value add has given rise to a number of distinct themes against which PD functions are being measured:
On demand, self-directed learning: Given the preceding discussion, the depth of change in lawyer learning has resulted in some of the most significant changes to the PD role in law firms. Chalk and talk is giving way to watch and touch — people are increasingly learning from programs they watch and interact with on their smartphones and tablets; they have neither the time nor inclination to sit for hours watching some- one talk at them. “Just in case” learning is giving way to “just in time.”3 Text is giving way to digitally supported vignettes (vodcasts, podcasts, etc.). In-person class time is giving way to virtual, facilitated discussions. Learning takes place everywhere and whenever it is most convenient to the learner. When people come together — and they should and still do — it now has to be for a reason well beyond information download. It has to be to network, to share experience, and to receive feedback that cannot be given by some other means. Everything about learning has changed everywhere 4 and the programming aspect (content, delivery, and demonstrable outcomes) of the PD role has consequently been disrupted.
Facilitation versus organization: As a consequence of the move to self-directed, virtual learning noted above, the PD role is now also less about organizing speakers and more about facilitating individual learning. In Australia and the UK, this change is evident in the expansion and closer connection of the PD role to career development. In the US, where mentorship and coaching programs were already well developed, it has supported an expansion into more customized and individually focused sponsorship programs. 5 In all countries and in all of these cases, technology is again in focus and has provided the opportunity for people to connect all over the world via Skype, FaceTime, or firm-based video technologies. Face-to-face communication with a mentor, coach, or sponsor is no longer confined to one time zone, one office, one city, or one country.
Focused partner development, alternative careers, and more rigorous partner selection: As discussed earlier, while PD in all countries has tended to be lawyer focused, it has not necessarily extended to partner learning and development or partnership selection. In all countries, with some exceptions, this has been tightly held by other, senior partners. While the logic of this is understandable — that partners want to be involved with the development and selection of their peers — the logic has become less compelling as firms have developed competencies. Competencies have articulated and provided a more transparent path to partnership. They have also tipped the logic in favor of PD involvement so that partnership becomes one career path of many possibilities, and that all paths are supported, managed, and monitored consistently from the day the lawyer joins the firm. In the larger firms in Australia, the UK, and US, this argument has prevailed and PD is involved in partner development. This change has often succeeded as part of a move towards a more rigorous partnership selection procedure. In some cases, this begins for a lawyer immediately upon moving into a senior associate role where he/she is provided with a dedicated mentor, check-in points, and feedback over a number of years. In the UK, some firms also require partner candidates to undertake additional training and assessment as part of a “firm-wide partnership selection school.” In some jurisdictions in Australia, state law societies (the US equivalent of a state bar association) require lawyers to undertake a compulsory law firm practice management course before they can become partners. 6
The other professions in law firms: As mentioned earlier, new roles within law firms are emerging to support changes in the way legal services are being delivered. People filling these roles have a broad range of skills and experiences. There is an opportunity, not yet pursued, for PD functions in all countries to proactively anticipate the needs of these employees and provide support for them. A snapshot of some of the emerging approaches to new, reengineered, or expanded roles in firms and the consequent changing skills sets includes:
- Taking secretarial roles in the firm and, rather than eliminating these in favor of outsourcing the work, refocusing the role on tasks like work management and work flow. 7 This may require the person to retrain or upskill and the firm to invest in this for them. In these situations, the firm retains the institutional knowledge of the employee and at the same time realizes the efficiency and effectiveness goals inherent in the new normal law firm business model.
- Law students are now undertaking work experiences with legal process outsourcers (LPOs). 8
- Others with legal training are working in LPOs that have been set up by law firms. The work undertaken by LPOs and the definition of that term has now moved beyond lower risk legal services provided at a lower cost, to legal support services provided at a lower cost location and more efficiently.
- Practice Managers and Alternative Fee Analysts are now a critical part of many firms or practice groups.
- Lean Six Sigma continuous improvement specialists are becoming more commonplace, with some firms building their service delivery model and client engagement process around these principles. 9
- Limited License Practitioners are undertaking work that was once done exclusively by lawyers. 10
- New roles are emerging to support the Alternative Business Structures that are alive and well in the UK and are now slowly making their way to the US. 11
- Operations, HR, Marketing and Business Development, Pro Bono, and Diversity & Inclusion specialists are looking for career paths that track their acquired niche skills from their work in law firms.
Interpreting data: The evolution of Learning Management Systems (LMS’s) — from CPD databanks to the gathering, collating, analyzing, and reporting on data — has been a driving force in changing the parameters for defining PD value add. These systems are increasingly moving towards anticipating learning needs much like social media sites and online search engines capture purchasing preferences. The “must have” functionality from these systems that supports PD value add is data collation and interpretation. This will become increasingly important as the number of other professionals in law firms (discussed above) increase and, as will be inevitable, they fall under a similar CPD/CLE regulatory requirement as lawyers. In all countries, the ability to make use of LMS functionalities so that individual performance data is connected to organizational needs is what has elevated the PD or HR role from operational to strategic and from business contributor to business partner/trusted advisor. The LMS developed in the US and used by US PD professionals comes closest to providing the more sophisticated functionalities that hit this mark. 12
Connecting individuals to organizational development and success: In all countries, there is an increasing awareness of the need for PD to manage talent so that individual and collective knowledge, skills, and competencies support the firm in meeting business performance goals (strategic talent management). There is also an increasing awareness that PD needs to think outside the box and leverage what it does to support closer relationships with clients. The example often identified here is making firm- generated digital products available to clients via a firm-based or shared technology platform. Many PD professionals in firms in all the countries are doing this and doing it well. But, for PD to continue to add value, there is a need to think about what’s next. This will likely involve PD professionals in engaging in and leading discussions on innovative L&D including:
- Thinking about ways learning programs can generate an income stream for the firm through solo efforts by the firm or in partnership with higher education institutions as part of their executive education offerings;
- Supporting enhanced communication with and on-boarding of laterals;
- Supporting enhanced communication with and on-boarding of women returning to the firm;
- Creating opportunities for ongoing communication with law students to whom the firm has made offers years ahead of graduation; or
- Creating opportunities to partner with law schools and create learning programs that support a student’s transition from law school to practice and improve the student’s ability to “hit the ground running.”
Working with Global Counterparts
One of the recent PD related examples that illustrates these differences is the roll-out of firm-wide competencies that originate in one country and are implemented without modification across the world. Competencies focus on behaviors. Behaviors are influenced by cultural norms and these are often different and specific not just to countries but sometimes to groups within a city or country. Where firms roll out their competencies internationally, they will very often need to be localized for international offices so they make sense and are relevant in other countries. Localization of firm-wide competencies needs to strike a balance between avoiding inconsistency and inequity across the firm or limiting career advancement through inter-office secondments on the one hand, and recognizing and celebrating the diversity inherent in local career development on the other.
Understanding the differences in PD roles around the world can be helpful when working within or outside your firm globally. It is not uncommon for a firm to invest more in PD in the country where the firm was first established than in its fledgling or smaller international offices. While this is understandable, it is also potentially divisive and can, in the extreme, lead to international offices feeling neglected and isolated. Managed well, PD can be the bridge between offices and support the development of a common firm culture where differences are viewed as positive, key contributors to local business development. The key to building the bridge is understanding that knowledge and experience always flows two ways. It should not be assumed that the career aspirations of the lawyers in the country where the firm was first established are the same for the firm’s lawyers in other countries.
It is essential to always work with the local PD person or a PD point person in your international offices. Join or make contact with the local PD professional association if there is one. All of these people on the ground can act as your sounding board. And those in your firm will guide and shape a firm-wide initiative with and for you so it incorporates local employment law requirements, knowledge, practice, and know-how. Local buy-in is always critical for the local success of any firm-wide initiative. Finally, and as discussed next, it is also worth bearing in mind that not all PD professionals have access to the same PD information in their jurisdiction. It is important to ask about this and provide support, where appropriate, by sharing resources and experience if gaps are identified.
Where to from Here?
With so much happening in the PD world, where does one go to keep up to date? In all of the countries noted, PD professionals have created their own associations to support opportunities for learning and experience sharing. 13 In the US and Australia, these organizations have a broader membership than the UK. In the US, the Professional Development Consortium (PDC) membership is individual and includes “law firm, government and in-house professionals devoting the majority of their time to developing and managing various professional development functions” as well as practical legal educators, practicing attorneys, and other senior personnel with significant oversight responsibilities for PD functions, and PDC alumni. In Australia, the Continuing Legal Education Association of Australasia (CLEAA) membership is individual or corporate and open to anyone from a law, education, and training background who is involved with CPD/CLE. In the UK, membership in the Legal Education and Training Group (LETG) is open to corporate members only and these organizations nominate professionals who must be working in a learning and development role in law firms, in-house legal departments, or government legal departments to be eligible. Of all these countries, the US has the largest number of additional organizations that provide a comprehensive program offering for PD professionals. For example, NALP, 14 especially through its Professional Development Institute (offered jointly with American Lawyer Institute – Continuing Legal Education 15 and in collaboration with the PDC ) and the Association for Continuing Legal Education (ACLEA). 16 The move towards online programming by these US organizations will provide additional support for PD professionals around the world as they continue to work on developing their own programs.
It is worth noting at this juncture the importance of us all remembering from time to time to pause and be sure we are “fixing our own oxygen masks first before helping others”! We all know we are living in a time of fast-paced, constant, and challenging change. It’s why we have prioritized mindfulness, 17 resilience, and well-being programs 18 in our firms. The PD world has also changed, and it is going to continue to change. For most PD professionals, this is what we strive for and is at the core of what we do — new skills, new knowledge, and new opportunities to support the success of others. But you can’t do any of that unless your own skills, knowledge, and competencies are cutting edge too.
In the craziness that is our workplace, we need to take a little time out and follow our own advice — we need to think about our careers and plan. The recently developed PDC competencies 19 provide welcome, long overdue guidance and career support for US PD professionals. These competencies highlight the need for PD professionals to understand and apply their knowledge of PD locally, nationally, and globally, and they encourage the development of skills and competencies in other areas too. PD professionals today need to understand their world in the context of their firm. They need to know how their law firm operates. They need to know what the firm’s clients need. And they need to anticipate where they can add value — add it, measure it, report on its effectiveness and efficiency, and focus on continuous improvement too. If this quick peek into the emerging role of PD professionals in law firms points to only one thing, it is that we are not all the same but we can all benefit from the knowledge and experience of colleagues near and far — go work that LinkedIn network, you never know how or when it will change your world for the better!
- See for example the most recent changes in the UK that come into full effect on November 1, 2016. The changes will abolish minimum hour CPD requirements for lawyers in favor of self-directed learning. Under the new CPD regime, lawyers will have to demonstrate the steps they have taken to maintain their competency to practice law: see UK Solicitors Regulation Authority website.
- See discussion of US, Canada, and UK PD roles in Ida Abbott and Gaye Mara, “Fall 2011 Survey Report: The PD Profession and Attorney Development in 2011,” PD Quarterly, November 2011, pp. 1-27.
- See discussion by Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, (OUP: 2013), p. 43.
- For a comprehensive discussion about these topics, please see Catherine Poole, “How Firms Are Making Creative Use of E-Learning,” PD Quarterly, May 2015, pp. 16-23, and Steve Gluckman, “The Changing Face of E-Learning in Law Firms (and Why That’s a Good Thing),” PD Quarterly, February 2014, pp. 16-21.
- For some great resources and references on sponsorship see Ida Abbott’s website.
- See for example the Practice Management Courses in Queensland, Australia and in New South Wales, Australia.
- See discussion about this in Jordon Furlong, “The Secretarial Canary in the Law Firm Coal Mine,” Law21, July 5, 2013.
- See discussion of the new residency program between LPO UnitedLex and four US law schools (Emory University School of Law, the University of Miami School of Law, the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, and Vanderbilt Law School): Emory Law News Center, “UnitedLex Launches Groundbreaking ‘Legal Residency’ Program with Emory Law,” May 27, 2015.
- See for example Seyfarth Shaw LLP’s “proprietary, value-driven client service model, which combines the core principles of Lean Six Sigma with process improvement, project management, and tailored technology solutions” which is called SeyfarthLean.
- See discussion about Limited License Practitioners in Report and Recommendations — American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, January 2014. See also the education scheme that has evolved for limited license legal technicians (including learning, tests, and supervised practical experience) in Washington State. These technicians will be permitted to “help litigants prepare legal documents and provide advice on legal procedures without a lawyer’s supervision” (Debra Cassens Weiss, “Seven People Pass Test to Become Nation’s First Legal Technicians,” ABA Journal — Careers, June 2, 2015).
- See discussion about the US District of Columbia and Washington State adoption of the ABS model by Monidipa Fouzder, “US State Adopts ABS Model,” The Law Society Gazette, May 29, 2015.
- See for example the LMS offered by viDesktop and the LMS offered by Micron Systems.
- In Australia, the Continuing Legal Education Association of Australasia (CLEAA — www. cleaa.asn.au); in the UK, the Legal Education & Training Group (LETG — www.letg.org.uk); and in the US, the Professional Development Consortium (PDC — www.pdclegal.org).
- See NALP’s website for more information.
- See ALI-CLE’s website for more information.
- See ACLEA’s website for more information.
- See the discussion on this topic by Judi Cohen, “Living (Happily) Surrounded by Conflict: Why the Mindfulness Revolution Is Essential for Lawyers”, PD Quarterly, February 2015, pp. 22-28.
- For an example of web-based professional association support for lawyer resilience and well-being see the Queensland Law Society, Australia’s website.
- These are available on the PDC website free of charge. See also the background to and discussion about the PDC competencies by Kathleen Dunn, “PDC Adopts First Competency Model Specifically for Legal Professional Development Practitioners,” PD Quarterly, February 2015, pp. 53-56.
I gratefully acknowledge the input from the following PD gurus via interviews undertaken in preparation for this article: Nicola Atkinson, Co-Head of Expertise, Ashurst—Australia; Jan Christie, President CLEAA and LD & Compliance Manager, Henry Davis York, Sydney; Angela Kurtz, L&D Coordinator Thynne + Macartney, Brisbane; and Tony King, Consultant with Clifford Chance and former Director of the Clifford Chance Academy, London. Any errors are mine alone.
This blog was first published as an article in PD Quarterly August 2015 edition. It is republished with the kind permission of the publisher, NALP – National Association for Law Placement, Inc.