Living and learning
In a tough market where budgets are tight and clients are demanding more for less, lawyers are having to broaden their skill set to stay in the game. Black letter law is not enough - practitioners need to be able to relate it to clients’ practical problems, deal with risk issues, manage projects effectively and make better use of IT.
So how innovative are law firms and in-house legal teams in developing their lawyers so they can deliver on their promises to be more client- and business-focused? Two templates for the lawyer of today were laid out at the recent Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) symposium in Manchester. Professor Julia Black, from the London School of Economics, identified six skills lawyers need: critical reasoning, analytical and rhetorical skills; substantive knowledge of the law; technical legal skills; commercial awareness and client sensitivity; practical ‘office’ and management skills; and ethical awareness.
Karl Chapman, chief executive of Riverview Law, the new-look, fixed-price legal services venture launched earlier this year, described his ideal as the ‘fantastic’ lawyer, (see box, below) who is ‘as comfortable at our pool table as [they] are in customer meetings’. While the full effects of the Legal Services Act have still to be felt, big brand names and new business structures are starting to shake up the market, seeking top talent, and creating new roles and career paths different from the traditional partnership model.
Riverview, with 60 solicitors and barristers among a total staff of 100, is a case in point. Chapman says he would not employ many of the lawyers currently on the market because they would not fit into the firm’s business model, which has done away with hourly billing and ripped up timesheets. On the business side, the firm is creating a host of new roles, which need some legal knowledge; some of Riverview’s best people, he says, are senior lawyers doing legal workflow and process analysis. Predictions that alternative business structures will change career opportunities by employing and training people for specific elements, such as client interaction and service delivery, go to the heart of the LETR’s brief - what are we training lawyers for?
The market is clearly changing, says Tony King, chair of the Law Society’s training and education committee. He highlights figures that estimate there are 330,000 people working directly in the legal services market, providing some kind of legal service, of whom about 150,000 are solicitors.
‘On those figures, there are a huge number of people providing legal services in the broadest sense who aren’t solicitors,’ King says. ‘Will that have an effect on the number of solicitors? That is an open question to be answered as time goes on. ‘What is fair comment is that there will be different ways of delivering legal services, offering different opportunities for people wanting to work in that market. So whoever you are, whether you are a solicitor, barrister, legal executive or a will-writer, you will need to be very targeted on what service and expertise you are selling.’
And that brings the discussion neatly back to training. To be successful, one needs to have the right people with the right skills for the job they are doing. In terms of talent management, the role of human resources is now in the spotlight, with an increasing focus on using development programmes to nurture new talent and attract and retain top fee-earners. The starkly contrasting experiences of two young lawyers exemplify the importance of training in motivating and retaining good staff. Five-year-qualified Claire Dyer, an associate solicitor with Thames Valley full service law firm Blandy & Blandy, has attended courses that focus on advocacy and negotiating skills, as well as training on marketing, networking skills and client retention.
‘When your firm is willing to invest in your training and development, it makes you feel appreciated and encourages loyalty because you can see your career progressing,’ Dyer says. Encouraged by her firm, she has also learnt much from her involvement with her local Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) committee. ‘I know other members of the committee whose firms don’t back them and I see how demotivating this can be.’ A lack of support has left one young in-house lawyer disillusioned: ‘I hope my experience is rare but we are seen as a support function and therefore very little is invested in us other than the bare minimum. We are valued for our advice but not valued enough to allow us to go on proper training courses, have access to legal research/precedent databases, or low-value software that would help us to do our jobs quicker.’
Some companies forget about their legal teams, says Natalie Jobling, chair of the Commerce & Industry Group’s training committee and head of legal services commercial at Network Rail Infrastructure Limited. ‘Talent pools and training will be run across the company. Legal is often very small - at Network Rail, we are a team of 30, not all lawyers, in a workforce of 36,000 - so you have to make a good case for what you need.’
There are also businesses that only go to the legal department if they have to, and joke that legal is the ‘business prevention unit’, she says. ‘I would be mortified if any team I was in was seen as that. In-house counsel need to think strategically and have a broad vision beyond the legal question. Most can’t do that straight off after they move in-house from private practice, so training and coaching are crucial in developing those skills.’
The purse strings appear to be loosening slightly for in-house training, as long as the business case is well made. The C&I Group courses have held up well, with waiting lists for some events, despite more and more law firms offering free training as part of their marketing tactics.
Good in-house lawyers need to bring far more to the table than just legal knowledge. Mark Smith, LexisNexis director of in-house legal, highlights ‘stakeholder management skills, deep commercial understanding of their business and industry, financial literacy, communication and influencing skills, a completely different way of thinking about risk, and the ability to think and advise in real time’. It has not been unusual, Smith says, to see in-house budgets down by 30-35% since 2008. ‘In-house headcounts were often trimmed but they are now stable or growing as general counsel realise they can get more "bang for their buck" than with externals.’ This has led to a trend towards reassessing what work is done by the legal team, and empowering the business to conduct low-value, low-risk work.
Smith says they are seeing an increasing demand for business skills, which has driven the development of an 11-month executive in-house development course with Cranfield Business School, which launches in October. When it comes to management training, firms are drawn towards top business schools, such as Cranfield, Cass and Henley, because their brand is like a ‘safety blanket’, says Colin Davey, director of business development with the College of Law. ‘I would like to develop a more integrated approach but we are not there yet.’
Interest in the college’s associates management development programme, aimed at lawyers with three to seven years’ post-qualification experience, covering strategy, finance, people management, business development and marketing, fell away during the recession, he says. So far it has not come back. However, take-up among the college’s consortia of firms for programmes for newly qualified to two years’ PQE is good. ‘In commercial property for instance, we provide 12 days of training over two/three years, which takes junior people through all the potential transactions they may face. Nothing gives the same experience as real life, but it helps build confidence in junior lawyers who may be feeling scared but don’t want to admit it to their firm. If they can learn to cope with a broader range of transactions, it makes the investment not just a good training argument but also a good business argument.’
For Chris Carroll, senior partner of City law firm Travers Smith, real-life experiences are central to developing the best lawyers. At any time, the firm has 10% of its people on secondment with clients. ‘There are generic training issues,’ Carroll says, ‘such as Solicitors Regulation Authority regulations, rules on conflict and confidentiality, the Bribery Act and money laundering, which go to the heart of your reputation if you get them wrong, so we make damn sure everyone stays abreast of those.’
But, while some practice areas are legally intensive, the law can be a remarkably small component of the work the lawyer is called on to do, he says. ‘We are trusted advisers and that is hard to train - you only get that by experience, not in some dummy exercise. Our associates sit in the same room as a partner and that is a very high proportion of how they learn to project-manage and liaise with clients - by observation and osmosis.’
What skills do lawyers need today?
For Karl Chapman (pictured), chief executive of Riverview Law, lawyers need to be ‘fantastic’.
FIT: you are highly professional but know how and when to have fun.
ANTENNAE: you have good judgement and know what questions to ask.
NUMERATE: you are not a mathematician but you understand relevant management information.
TECHNOLOGY SKILLS: you are computer-literate and recognise the power of social media.
AMBIGUITY: you are happy in a fast-moving environment and can tolerate ambiguity.
SOCIAL SKILLS: you are as comfortable at our pool table as you are in customer meetings.
TEAM: you value the contribution of colleagues and understand the value of team work.
INQUISITIVE: you ask questions, challenge things and are happy to suggest improvements.
COMMUNICATE: you are just as good writing succinct case notes as you are at speaking with clients.
There are things you can teach round the edges, such as negotiating, presentation and drafting skills, but Carroll says: ‘Young lawyers don’t come out of a CPD seminar saying "that has marched my career forward a notch", I’m afraid.’ Nicola Duke, head of client care at national law firm Mills & Reeve, agrees. ‘On-the-job training is as important as formal training. One of the roles we have introduced is the client manager - a junior lawyer who works alongside the client partner, so they can learn about client care at first hand. They go along to relationship meetings - we don’t charge for that - and take notes, organise meetings and ensure the whole team is kept informed as we might have 50 lawyers working in different offices and sectors for a big client.’
For some firms, the key to getting the exact training they want has been to set up their own academies. Merseyside volume conveyancer Goldsmith Williams set up its learning and development academy Osmosis in 2008. Setting up the academy was a commercial decision - not only does it train and develop every member of staff, which enhances the services offered to clients, it also offers clients the same training facilities. Director John Jones says direct conveyancing firms rarely meet their clients face to face, so ‘it is probably even more important that staff learn how to identify compliance issues and pick up if one file is riskier than another’.
The academy has three full-time staff and makes use of 10 of the firm’s lawyers who have trained as trainers. With 250 employees, Jones estimates it averages out at about £750 training a year for each member of staff, from postroom to partners. The firm also supports solicitors who want to specialise - for instance, in getting their Land Registry diploma - as well as offering enough CPD courses to fulfil their SRA requirements. Staff also go on external courses and seminars.
‘We have created a reward system linked to learning and development,’ he says. ‘We have very good retention figures and part of the feedback from our lawyers is that they welcome the opportunities to develop their careers.’ This is important as there are no partnership prospects at the firm. ‘What you can do is get to director level and we will bring in the Chartered Management Institute to provide courses on leadership and management,’ he explains.
The firm’s head of HR sits on the academy and together they form a ‘people management’ department, he says. ‘If there is a gap in someone’s performance, perhaps because they have been brought in at the wrong level, and a training need is identified, that will be fed to me.’ Talent management is key, agrees Dee Caporali, human capital management director of Access, which provides HR software solutions to law firms, including Hill Dickinson, Cripps Harries Hall, Boodle Hatfield and Dundas & Wilson.
‘Firms need to align training to the goals of the firm,’ she says. ‘You want to take a holistic view rather than see training as separate. You need to be able to see how much it costs to bring someone in; what development programmes you have put them through; how their reward compares to others in the firm, baselined against salaries at other firms; who is leaving and why.’
Organisations are also building in wider questions, she says, which assess future career development opportunities - what other roles could that person move into, do they have high potential, are they happy? With equity partnerships no longer the golden egg, you need to put people into talent pools, identify who you want to nurture and who you might be at risk of losing.’ Identifying key skills in a changing market is critical. With so much going out of the scope of legal aid next year, many firms are having to rethink their business model.
Elspeth Thomson is managing partner of Newcastle firm David Gray, which specialises in legal aid, family and property. ‘How do you sell services to people who won’t qualify for legal aid and can’t afford to pay for legal services?’ she asks. ‘We are looking at unbundling services and offering a one-stop shop to small businesses. It is about taking the skills we have but selling them in a different way to attract a wider net of people. Legal aid gives you very good transferable skills in doing highly stressed low-value work - what’s not to love in those skills?’
Her grip on the training budget purse strings is inevitably tighter than it used to be: ‘I am stricter - actually "meaner" is more accurate! - about how the money is spent. Going on courses has to meet a business need. You have to keep up to date with the law but I am not going to pay for someone to go on a course when they could do it by subscribing to a free email service.’ The firm does a lot of training internally, for instance on advocacy. ‘I give training externally for Resolution’s children’s update and I give that in-house as well. There is no way I am paying for someone to go on an external course when I have put hours into preparing a course myself. We are also introducing a new case management system and everyone is being trained on that - you can’t be a profitable lawyer and not have IT skills.’
Training is important in letting staff know you think they are worth investing in, she says. ‘What would worry me is if we got to a situation where you were having to control budgets so tightly there was a danger the message being sent out was "we don’t value you". It is a fine line to walk.’ With firms facing a tough market with huge downward pressure on fees, time will tell what long-term influence the new ABSs will have. But, while they may prove to be a lightning rod for change, the real driver remains the client who cares more about service and price than business structure.
‘The dam has now burst over hourly billing,’ says Chapman. ‘Our model is predicated on long-term contracts with clients rather than short-term transactional pieces of work, so if a lawyer goes, the customer stays with us. It also goes to the heart of our investment in technology and training because we have visibility of earnings. We know how many contracts we have and what revenues they will bring in over the next one, two, three years.’ With their corporate structure, there are no partnerships to aim for. ‘But our development programme means you can progress either vertically through developing your particular area of expertise or horizontally into business development or client management,’ he says.
At Co-operative Legal Services (CLS), it all starts with training, says principal solicitor Bob Laberdie. ‘We have invested heavily to cope during a period of fast growth because we have to make sure we uphold the reputation of a very important brand. Everyone joining CLS at whatever level goes through our core induction programme which includes training on the Co-op’s ethical stance and what is and isn’t acceptable to a co-operative movement.’ CLS has 500 members of staff, 86 of them solicitors. It has a corporate structure, with a board and executive at the top, then heads of departments. ‘Ambitious lawyers can work their way up through the pay bands,’ he says. ‘We have promoted a significant number of people internally - you can’t do that unless you have given them the skills to move up.’
With so much focus on firms’ own development programmes, what part does compulsory CPD play? The SRA commissioned Nottingham Law School (NLS) in April to undertake a research programme into CPD, with the findings fed into the LETR review. NLS project leader Pamela Henderson says CPD activity is often not integrated into formal appraisal systems, so the important link between individual career planning and development activity is not established. However, others have sophisticated career development schemes which are genuinely developmental and focus on enhancement, rather than mere compliance.
One idea that has emerged during NLS’s discussions with focus groups is that those employers or organisations that can show they have an effective CPD system of their own should be allowed to continue, even if it does not precisely match the requirements of the formal SRA framework. JLD committee member Alexia Binns is leading the JLD’s responses to the LETR. With nearly two years’ PQE, she works in-house for an insurance company in Grantham, and is encouraged to go on relevant courses. Having a compulsory requirement, she says, gives important leverage to young lawyers, whose firms may not be keen to pay for training.
Some argue that compulsory CPD should be dispensed with entirely because those who are incompetent will end up losing their practising certificate. But that means a client has to suffer. There are counter-arguments that the number of hours should be raised significantly with more required elements. But bombarding firms with demands to spend more and more money would not be welcomed.
So how does one convey the message that CPD is about business - about winning and keeping clients, and beating the competition - not training? For Davey, one option could be some form of accreditation, with mandatory practical on-the-job study. That could be controversial, he admits. The controversial quality assurance scheme for advocates requires people to submit periodically to reaccreditation. ‘Some in the profession look at that approach with utter horror,’ he says. ‘Others say if you are good at your job, what is the problem? What I don’t think you can do is rely on a competitive market to assure quality.’
At Mills & Reeve, ‘quirky’ is good. The aim, says Duke, is to achieve a consistency of service delivery, while allowing partners the freedom to be themselves with their clients. ‘People think law is a book job or an intellectual job. It isn’t. It’s a people job and those who are good at that are rarer than the technical breed. That’s what we try to encourage in our junior lawyers because, if you don’t like people, don’t be a lawyer.’
Grania Langdon-Down is a freelance journalist