This post is both a response to Ken Grady’s two-part Seytlines series on looking to Navy SEAL training for ideas on how best to train lawyers and also a follow up to my post on L&D silos in law firms.
Based on the original Navy SEAL training article, Grady presents four principles for “implementing elite training for lawyers.” I agree wholeheartedly with most of his approach and will discuss how to build a training program to get there. First, training must be “continuous, not haphazard” in order to produce excellence. Getting attorneys to recognize that learning is a continuous process is a big part of the issue, but another is the demands on their time. Attorneys will not see the value of spending time on training activities until firms include it in development and compensation plans. To build excellent training, firm leaders need to start by working with L&D and high performers to identify the skills critical to success in the various areas of practice within their firms. Then, build a framework around them that rewards development of the critical skills and not just years of practice and hours billed. This is the framework for long-term excellence and success within law firms.
The next part of the process must be identifying behaviors illustrating the different levels of development of those critical skills – Basic, Experienced, and Expert. Specific behaviors need to be stated in order to understand exactly what is required at each level. For example, effective communication can mean different things to different people, but “writes clearly and concisely” is specific. This specificity is also necessary for judging the success of any training initiative. Only after you have identified what behaviors constitute excellence using a systematic approach, can you ever begin to develop training programs to teach them and quantify the results.
Additionally, training programs need to focus on all skill areas to achieve excellence, not just one or two. This is why professional development and technology training teams within firms must be combined and, in some cases, augmented with outside assistance or content. There are five skill categories that should be covered:
- Conceptual will cover skills such as decision-making, ethical judgment, strategic thinking, and planning.
- Personal encompasses things like motivation, innovation, and communication.
- Interpersonal items are leadership, negotiation, and consensus building.
- Business skills are things like accounting, compliance, HR, security, and marketing. Use administrative departments in the firm as a starting point.
- Technical skills include project management, maintaining healthy documents, secure electronic data practices, and electronic filing.
This approach matches up to Grady’s third principle that the business model is up for transformation. I couldn’t agree more with his statement that “…training must be dynamic, open and innovative.” It is an intense time of change in both law firms and corporate L&D. I will be the first to agree that most law firm training has been neither dynamic nor innovative, but neither has training in most of the corporate world. In my most recent post on LinkedIn, I discuss how corporate L&D as a whole is shifting to a new model, which should be much more effective and engaging for participants. There is much more support for social and experiential learning versus traditional formal learning based solely on training events. The benefit to the firm is that L&D is now thinking more like the business leaders in order to align their initiatives with the business strategy. Building out the framework described above will accomplish such alignment, but firm leaders must first share their business goals and strategies with L&D.
Grady’s second principle discusses the need for rewards and consequences. I fear that this will entail much more of the latter versus the former, which will not accomplish his goal to “incentivize excellence not competence.” Additionally, most law firms have a very narrow view of what constitutes “rewards.” While everyone needs raises and appreciates year-end bonuses, things other than money motivate people more effectively. The most powerful motivators are intrinsic and social, not financial. It is much more important to activate these types of motivators and generally less costly.
In his fourth principle, Grady discusses the role of firm leaders, who must lead by example. Training is a waste, if it is never applied. In order for people to apply what they have learned, motivation must be present and their environment must also support it. The single biggest indicator of an employee’s engagement and success is their relationship with their direct supervisor. Plus, the most meaningful reward is easy and inexpensive – recognition by an immediate supervisor. There are many supervisors in law firms. Think of what a difference it would make if they each took time on a regular basis to recognize the individual contributions of their team and supported their skills development. Taking an active and ongoing role in the process, as opposed to only formalized annual feedback, would lead to even greater engagement and improved performance. Now that would be a transformation!
According to the Temkin Group’s 2015 Employee Engagement Benchmark Study, highly engaged employees are more than twice as likely to help someone at work and three times as likely to do something good for the company that is not expected of them. That’s significant! People who are motivated and engaged have an enterprise view, make sacrifices for the team or other people, and exercise their discretionary effort to benefit the organization. Gallup research has shown for years that the organization reaps huge financial benefits when this approach is taken and employees are engaged. At a time when firms are under intense pressure to perform more efficiently, don’t you want all of your people fully engaged and performing at their peak?
Finally, I must take issue with part of Grady’s first principle, which asserts that, “World-class organizations that value training bring in world-class trainers: top-tier academics and practitioners, not professional trainers without skills and experience in the discipline.” Continuing legal education has long been a series of information dumps from a PowerPoint deck with very little actual learning taking place. Top-tier academics and the Socratic method of teaching are what brought law firms to this point. Law schools everywhere are changing their programs to accommodate more experiential learning and make the education fit the challenges of real life in a law firm. Who better to help craft these types of programs than trainers who work in law firms and know the workflows, pain points, and struggles of the attorneys? Wouldn’t a well-designed problem-solving challenge and debrief be much more fitting for a group of attorneys than yet another slide deck? Attorneys should participate as subject matter experts to impart the needed knowledge or skills, but let trainers design the learning components.
There are many law firm trainers with both the skills and experience in the discipline, so start listening when they make suggestions about how to develop attorney training. Just as lawyers have taken the time to understand the nuances of effective lawyering, L&D professionals have taken the time and effort to learn the science of imparting knowledge and developing skills using various tools and methods. Respect their abilities and work with them to create a winning solution. Invest in building the infrastructure to support it, instead of throwing money at expensive outsiders who do not understand your culture or needs as well as your current employees do. If your training team does not possess all of the skills required in this new modern learning environment and you value them as employees, either get them some professional development or bolster the team with strategic hires to fill the gaps. With a strategic training plan in place, you will reap excellent returns on these investments.
In this post, my challenges to law firms are to:
- Use a systematic approach to identify the crucial skills and specific behaviors that lead to excellence.
- Incorporate training initiatives as a component of attorney development and compensation plans at all levels.
- Change your firm’s culture by developing meaningful recognition that does not always revolve around compensation.
- Work with your training team and respect their ability to build excellent training programs for your environment.
NOTE: I did not use the term “core competencies” even though that is clearly what I mean. More on how that relates to excellence in my next post.
This post was previously published on LinkedIn here.