A Quick Peek at the Evolving Role of PD Professionals Around the World — US, UK, and Australia Compared

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:

  1. Should lawyer PD be separated from non-lawyer PD in law firms?
  2. What does non-lawyer PD look like in law firms?
  3. 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!


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. See discussion by Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, (OUP: 2013), p. 43.
  4. 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.
  5. For some great resources and references on sponsorship see Ida Abbott’s website.
  6. See for example the Practice Management Courses in Queensland, Australia and in New South Wales, Australia.
  7. See discussion about this in Jordon Furlong, “The Secretarial Canary in the Law Firm Coal Mine,” Law21, July 5, 2013.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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).
  11. 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.
  12. See for example the LMS offered by viDesktop and the LMS offered by Micron Systems.
  13. 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).
  14. See NALP’s website for more information.
  15. See ALI-CLE’s website for more information.
  16. See ACLEA’s website for more information.
  17. 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.
  18. For an example of web-based professional association support for lawyer resilience and well-being see the Queensland Law Society, Australia’s website.
  19. 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.

First Publication

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.

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Lawyers, Law Firms and Innovation

Innovation, learning to be innovative and knowing how to create an innovative culture, have become THE focus of keynote addresses and training courses for law firms in the “new normal”. These are important. Based on any form of business life cycle analysis, the legal industry is a mature industry in decline. The important thing to note here is that decline need not mean extinction provided the industry changes. And changing it is. Fueled by globalization, technology and client demands for cost certainty, legal services are no longer being delivered in the same way, by the same people or at the same price (Susskind, 2013). In just a handful of years, legal services have become more accessible, cheaper and, in some areas, offered by non-lawyers. So, just how important is innovation to lawyers and law firms? Does it really matter?

Innovation and Governance
The answer to these questions should be at the top of every law firm managing partner’s agenda right now. Leading a law firm has never been easy and, leading one during a time of unprecedented change requires more than any one person’s vision; it needs a critical mass of influential partners and others who dare to be different. In the best-case scenario, these champions of innovation can be found within current leadership ranks but, if your firm is like many others, that is unlikely. The absence of “new normal” leadership knowledge, skills and competencies, those rooted in emotional intelligence (Goleman, 2004), is not a criticism of current leaders, it is simply an acknowledgement that every leader has his or her time, and times are changing! Today, part-time, in between practice law firm leadership, is giving way to full-time, fully engaged leadership and management with a difference.

In the US, a new, renewed or enhanced focus on “the business of law” in addition to “the practice of law” in law firms has come about mostly due to the global financial crisis and the changing expectations and demands of corporate counsel. The US Association of Corporate Counsel articulated its views on the critical skills for outside counsel in its 2008 Value Challenge initiative. These skills included capabilities in: “aligning relationships, value-based fee structures – i.e. not based on the ‘billable hour’, staffing and training practices, budgeting, project management, process Improvement, use of technology, data management, knowledge management, and change management”. Overseas, the emphasis on these skills or what is sometimes referred to as the “corporatization” of law firms, has led to significant change. In 2007, Slater and Gordon became the first law firm to float on the Australian stock exchange. In the UK and as a result of newly permitted alternative business structures (ABS) from 2012, non-lawyer investment and ownership in law firms became possible. These changes have led to different business and staffing models for the delivery of legal services.

While U.S. lawyers, law firms and the ABA are still debating the extent to which they will embrace these changes, they have nevertheless been impacted by them. Given the role and position of U.S. firms in the global legal services market place, this was to be expected. To take one example, while US law firms generally cannot share profits with non-lawyers (except in limited circumstances in Washington, DC), most US law firms do share at least some aspects of leadership and management between their partners and a combination of C-(Chief) and D (Director)-suite professionals. This group of multi-disciplinary, non-lawyer specialists in areas like IT, HR, professional development/talent management, marketing & business development, finance, risk and compliance, bring to their firms a rich source of tried and tested best practices in how to manage and operate successful businesses across many different industries. These professionals understand what corporate clients want and, may even have been corporate clients themselves. As a group and individually, they are a source of current market intelligence and data every bit as important as that obtained by practising attorneys in the firm and those undertaking client secondments outside it. So, whether or not ABSs prove to be the best way forward for U.S. firms, their future success would seem to hinge on finding more ways to bring their attorneys and specialists together and engage them in developing new ideas and different solutions to old problems. Training in how to facilitate communication, collaborate effectively, problem-solve and build relationships as well as lead, build and contribute to highly effective multi-disciplinary teams, needs to be a priority for every law firm leader and manager right now.

Innovation, Environment and Culture
Creating and leveraging opportunities for innovation is essential for the growth of every business and profession. Law firms are no different but, they do have some unique challenges. Change never comes easily and that is especially true where the industry, like the legal industry, is founded on precedent, conservatism, law, rules and regulations. Innovation and change are much less about “who did it before us” and more about “let’s be the first to do it”. Law firms do not have research and development departments. They do not invest in ventures that might fail. Yet, every other industry that pushes the boundaries, pushes forward, and innovates, invests with priority in these initiatives. While it is true that law firms do not make widgets and that it is more difficult to innovate in a mature industry, it is equally true that this creates the “perfect storm” for innovation. Just think diversity and inclusion and innovation will follow!

Much has been written about the several- generation law firm and the many and varied differences between Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y (Ursula Furi-Perry, 2012). Similarly much has been written about the absence of diversity and inclusion in law firm leadership (NALP Bulletin, April 2014). Innovation evolves from diversity – diversity of view, diversity of background, diversity of approach and diversity of opinion. Innovation cannot happen if the same voices are heard on the same topics wherever leadership is performed or decisions are made in a firm. Different people, with different ideas and approaches are a critical part of this equation. People innovate, organizations do not!

Innovation will happen in any place where there is an opportunity for different opinions to be heard. Listening is critical here. Listening is not telling, fixing or critiquing. Training people how to listen well and be open to constructive feedback is the key. Innovation will thrive in any place where it is encouraged and acted on. There are many different ways to encourage thoughtful input starting with something as easy as a virtual (social media supported) suggestion box and it moves on from there. Others include holding monthly key client or practice area matter debriefings; converting monthly firm-wide meetings to town halls or open fora that encourage new ideas from everyone; roundtables between firm leadership and senior professional staff to collaborate on solving the big challenges for the firm; roundtables with clients so you really understand their problems and their market/where your next job will come from; asking Gen Ys to sit on a board or committee; creating time and space for brainstorming at meetings; or making a firm-wide decision to break the glass ceiling for women and minorities rather than watching them chip away at it year after year. It is these things, simple but significant, and through these actions, that innovation happens, work environments change, and a culture of creative excellence is borne.

Innovation and Recruitment
Innovation comes from talent within and outside. It probably won’t be found in an academic transcript but it might be uncovered in almost everything else an applicant has done. Recruit for adaptability, flexibility, resilience, sociability, collaboration, calculated risk taking, independent thinking, creative problem solving, instigators of process or system improvements (Boyd and Goldenberg, 2011) and yes, for your attorneys, legal writing, legal knowledge and research skills too. Use behavioural interviewing and, if you need to, undertake training so you can be sure you do it well. Psychometric testing – emerging as a tool in partnership selection schools – is worth investigating so you can identify key personality characteristics, behavioral styles, abilities or aptitudes most likely to support the qualities noted earlier.

Look at, analyze and understand all that data you have collected about who, what, how and why attorneys and professional staff succeed at your firm. Use the data to inform recruitment processes and guide you in how to make better matches between your firm and the people who will bring your business priorities, mission, vision and values to fruition (Deloitte Consulting LLP and Bersin By Deloitte, Global Human Capital Trends 2014 Engaging the 21st century workforce, March 2014). Do not recruit the same way, from the same law schools/universities, based on the same qualities and expect your new recruits, clones of all others who have gone before them, to be innovative where their predecessors were not. Do recruit the same way where that has produced your entrepreneurs, visionaries, thought leaders and champions of change. Finally, if you employ someone, make sure you have an environment where those “entrepreneurship” and “innovation” core competencies you have developed, can actually flourish (Manch, 2010). Also be sure that your learning programs, career development activities, performance evaluations, compensation and promotion initiatives consistently enhance, reinforce, entrench and reward these competencies.

Where to from here?
For as much as it can be said that the lawyer personality is hard-wired for conservatism and left-brain solutions, just as much can be said to the contrary. Lawyers already have the right stuff to innovate and, in the last few years, some outstanding innovations have emerged to prove it: from the ABSs in the UK mentioned earlier, to very different technology based operational platforms in the U.S. (Clearspire and Axiom Law), and a host of new business ventures (Riverview Law and Legal Force Bookflip), law firm offshoots and thought provoking public fora (ReInvent Law Laboratory and Re-Think Law) in between. Lawyers involved in these initiatives have all been visionary leaders, deep thinkers, critical thinkers, idea generators, creative problem-solvers, great researchers, trend-spotters, trend-setters, creators of deep analytics and intelligent risk takers (Boyd and Goldenberg, 2011). This is their time, their place and their “new normal” to lead – is this your time too?

This article was first published in Law Journal Newsletters, Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report, ALM, Volume 20, Number 5, July 2014, pp. 5- 6 and is republished with consent.

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Why Cultural Competency Should Matter To Law Firms?

I have lived as an expatriate on four different continents and for more than 20 years.  I have seen my fair share of intolerance and bias. Most of it has been unintentional. I have also made my own mistakes. I draw on this background – the good, the bad and the ugly – in my cultural competency training  and coaching work with lawyers and law firms. What I say there and what I write here is what I have seen, what I have done and what I wish I had not seen or done!

It has been suggested that most US law firms are currently providing services to multinational clients. With law firms in the US merging in record numbers in 2011 (Altman Weil, April 2012) and probably in 2012, as well as the expansion of the global reach of many, many US firms in Asia in 2011 (The Asian Lawyer 2011, 2012) and Europe (Legal Week 2011, 2012), it seems this statement will continue to be true. Likewise within law firms, international secondments from the US to a firm or client’s overseas office and from that office to the US are increasingly common.

Working in another country is different. Work practices, policies and laws are different. Attitudes towards work and play are different. When and what people eat and drink is different. How, when and where business meetings are conducted is different. Pop culture references and colloquialisms are different.  English words are spelt differently. Religion and politics are different. Humor is different. Negotiations are different. How a deal is done and what it really means regardless of how it is recorded, is different. When and how people socialize is different.  How people dress for work is different.  How you present yourself and your business card is different.  What gifts to give, what color they should be and when to give them (or not), is different.  It is all different but, much is also the same. It is the obvious and but also very often the subtle differences that can make or break a situation.

Overwhelming? Too much to worry about? Not that important anyway? People expect you to make mistakes so what’s the big deal? Wrong! Cultural competency matters!  People will forgive much if it is a genuine mistake but keep making it, and it quickly turns into intolerance and insensitivity.

Cultural competency is good business. There are plenty of lawyers who are technical equals, what makes the difference, why I choose you and not someone else, is because of the personal and professional relationship I build with you. The relationship is built on trust and confidence based on the legal advice you give me but, also, because your get me, get my industry and have an interest in me and commitment to me, your client – you are my trusted advisor.  These sort of relationships, the ones that last over time,  are built meeting by meeting, matter by matter and in these meetings and in these matters identifying, understanding and incorporating cultural differences is key to building and sustaining the lawyer-client relationship and…relationships between colleagues too!

Corporate America understands the importance of cultural competency. Some law firms do too.  Many multinational companies require employees and senior management/leadership to demonstrate a high level of cultural competency as part of their day-to-day work performance and/or before they can be elevated to a senior role. Some companies go so far as to require a successful international posting (international being relative to where you are in the world!) or a “home office” posting (likewise relative) as a pre-requisite to promotion to senior management.  Increasingly few multinational companies would send someone overseas without:

  • A comprehensive briefing on differences (cultural, employment terms, housing, schools and tax advice to name a few);
  • International/host country language training;
  • A mentor in the host office to settle the person in;
  • A detailed business plan to enhance business ties with key clients while there; and
  • A comprehensive repatriation plan for when the person returns to their home office.

After all, an international secondment is supposed to be a career enhancer not an example of the set-up-to-fail syndrome, right? (Manzoni and Barsoux, HBR, 1998)

Most law firms have much to do if they are to catch up to their corporate counterparts….and in many cases, their counterparts will also be their clients. Cultural competency should matter to law firms because it makes good business sense. It makes good business sense because it builds long-lasting relationships that celebrate difference and result in the sort of partnerships that are GFC resistant.  If cultural competency is not one of your law firm’s strategic and talent management/development priorities, the time has come to include it right now!

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Are Law Firms Global In Name But Not By Nature?

I have been working in the cultural competency space recently. My place in this space has been forged over more than 20 years living and/or working in five different continents. I have certainly made my share of mistakes; I know the feeling of learning the hard lessons by experience and growing up in international business at a time when preparing someone for an international secondment was not considered essential. Times have changed but, I wonder, if they have changed enough. How “global” is “global”?
Being global, a global anything, be it a law firm, organization, government agency or whatever, is much more than placing the word “global” or “international” in front of a title or a name. It is a different way of thinking. It fosters a different culture. It demands an unwavering ability to lead, manage and navigate change. It is much more than tolerating differences, it means celebrating them. And, this stuff really does matter – it can make or break all kinds of relationships!
My consultancy practice and research suggests many law firms still have a long way to go before they can truly call themselves global. Here is a quick checklist (not exhaustive) that may prompt you to determine whether your firm is global in name AND by nature:
1. Values and Culture:
a. Do global initiatives reflect core values or are they really driven by one country, reflect the values of that country, and are rolled out with a few tweaks here and there in all other countries?
b. If you ask any one in your firm if it is “global” will they respond positively AND….are they able to give you examples?
2. Structure:
a. Does your firm have a global business strategy and plan AND…have you implemented global initiatives?
b. Does your firm have a global and local talent strategy?
c. How many global leadership/management positions does your firm support?
d. Are global boards, committees etc. dominated by one country or does membership track, proportionally, the multi-country make up of your firm?
e. How often do your global leaders meet?
3. Business:
a. Is doing business with your firm seamless across countries from the client’s point of view?
b. Do you have a globally recognizable and consistent approach to business?
c. Do you have a globally recognizable product?
d. Are global work projects managed globally and locally?
e. Does your firm pitch for global business as a global team?
f. Does your firm represent clients in all countries or does it only follow clients to different countries?
4. People:
a. Do your employees know their global counterparts?
b. Does your firm have global core competencies for staff?
c. Does your firm also have local competencies to reflect local differences?
d. Are your global core competencies part of your recruitment outreach in every country?
e. Does your firm encourage international secondments?
f. Does your firm prepare its employees for international secondments?
g. How successfully has your firm repatriated its international secondees?
h. Is an assessment of cultural competency part of your performance review process?
i. Is spending time AND being successful in an international office a pre-requisite for promotion in your firm?
j. Do you have a comprehensive database of multi-lingual colleagues AND…does everyone know about it?
There is no magic score, no threshold, no judgment attached to these questions. However, if your firm has positioned itself as a global firm but has not considered most of these questions or responded “No” to most of them then, I am probably not going out on a limb when I suggest you may be global in name but NOT by nature. Where you go from here is all about recognizing where your firm is placed on the continuum of local to regional to global, making a decision about where you want to be, and then aligning all that you are and all that you do behind that decision.

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The Changing Role of Professional Development (or Is It Talent Management?) in Law Firms

Mottershead Changing PD Role (PD Quarterly May 2011)

With the legal industry undergoing so much change, it is not surprising that the management of attorney talent is evolving as a key area of focus. For too long the legal industry has adopted a “hit and miss” rather than a planned, monitored, and integrated approach to identifying, engaging, leveraging, developing, evaluating, compensating and promoting attorney talent. It has cost time, money and careers. Talent management has now finally emerged as a pivotal strategic focus in the more progressive law firms. These firms have “connected the dots” between the pipeline of client work and a pipeline of talent ready, willing and able to service the work and thereby support the firm in achieving its business performance goals. In the attached article, bearing the same title as this Blog, I have discussed the connection between talent strategies, talent strategy metrics, competency-based development models, and the new and emerging role of Chief Talent Officer (CTO). The article highlights the critical importance of the CTO role and how it differs from professional development and human resource roles in law firms. My thanks to Gaye Mara and PD Quarterly (May 2011 at profdev.com) for the kind permission to re-print this article here.

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Law School Curricula Under Scrutiny Around the World

In an industry undergoing so much change, it is not surprising that the microscope law firms have found themselves under has resulted in a knock on effect in law schools. Many law school Deans have formed, revived or changed the agenda for their curriculum committees. Some of these committees have progressed beyond talking. Much of the talk and outcomes have centered around infusing existing curricula with skills training and beefing up clinical legal education programs. Broad-based competencies have often acted as the guide or blueprint for the changes in what to teach, where to teach and who should teach. What we have yet to see in the US is the sort of comprehensive and collaborative review of legal education that is taking place in other parts of the world or a governance structure with the authority to implement the changes. By comprehensive I mean the bringing together of all relevant stakeholders in legal education – practicing lawyers, law firm professional development/talent management specialists, CLE providers and regulators, law schools and law students. By authority I mean stakeholders who have the gravitas to insist that outcomes are embraced.

The most recent and closest thing to achieving this has been the Critical Issues Summit -Equipping Our Lawyers: Law School Education, Continuing Legal Education, and Legal Practice in the 21st Century co-sponsored by ALI-ABA and ACLEA (October 2009). There have been subsequent examples and iterations of this sort of collaboration like the events held by The Southern California Innovation Project Building Better Lawyers Conference (May 2010) and Harvard and New York Law Schools Future Ed: New Business Models for U.S. and Global Legal Education (April and October 2010). There is also the current review of the standards for approval of law schools by the ABA through the Standards Review Committee (a committee of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar). While laudable and important, the sort of wholesale change that law schools like law firms are currently confronting needs more, it needs a wholesale discourse, debate and eventually commitment to nation-wide reform. The good news for law schools is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel; they can draw on international experience when customizing their own best practices.

To take one example, Legalweek.com reported today (November 19) that in the UK, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Bar Standards Board and the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards announced that a “full-scale review of legal education and training” would begin in February 2011.The impetus for the review was noted as being in response to “mounting criticism of the disparity between the number of students entering the profession and the number of available positions – both with law firms and at the Bar”. The objective of the review was reported as “to ensure the ethical standards and levels of competence of those delivering legal services in regulated law firms are sufficient”. Not dissimilar initiatives are currently underway in Australia.

As I reflect on this and also the fact that with an increasing number of large law firm global mergers, multi-law firm alliances, international secondments, ABA approval being sought for law schools located outside the US, and generally the increasing globalization of the legal profession, I wonder if this is not the right time for the profession to think a little further out of the box and hold the first global summit for the reform of legal education. Could this be a job for the International Bar Association or perhaps, given the critical importance of the rule of law, the United Nations?

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