I have long wondered why there are two different teams in law firms doing similar functions. I am referring to the professional development and technology training teams. Both perform learning and development functions, and yet they are usually in two different departments that work alone, except in rare instances. They frequently even have two different systems that contain learning resources and perform analysis of its use. It is a great example of silos of information that should be combined. With their knowledge, skills, and resources kept segregated, it is doing a disservice to their customers, the attorneys and staff in law firms.
I have been pondering this for some time, but a series of events compelled me to finally organize my thoughts and publish them. You see, until a reduction in force at my former firm, I spent many years on the technology training side of law firms. It made sense to me when I saw reductions during the economic downturn a few years ago. Now, it is just baffling. Reductions in already lean technology training teams and their budgets are continuing at a time when the topic of increasing attorney tech skills is all over the news and social media. Just Google Casey Flaherty and Legal Tech Audit, if you haven’t already seen the press. To me, the two things have not added up for a while now. How can tech skills for lawyers be seen as so important out in the light of day, even to the American Bar Association, but be given less and less resources and emphasis inside law firms?
Of course, I have known that technology is a missing piece in skills training for attorneys for many years. Why is that? Several reasons, the first of which is that the technology training team has never been involved in the discussions over in professional development about what skills the attorneys need. Those long-term career development plans devised for new lawyers – how many of them include clearly defined technology components? I suspect very few. I heard recently of enterprise search and Excel analysis skills being added within one firm’s attorney development curriculum. That’s a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go to meet in the middle.
Until recently, most attorneys have not seen technology as being an important competitive advantage or tool in their practice. Usually, we technology trainers spend a few hours with new attorneys when they arrive, and then they are off to perform billable tasks. Even worse, if the new arrival is a lateral partner, it is unlikely that you get more than a few uninterrupted minutes of their time. Then, you field a steady stream of help desk calls from the attorney or their assistant. Technology trainers and IT have talked about this problem for years. I have to say thank you to Casey Flaherty and Andy Perlman for taking up this challenge, because if it was not coming from attorneys (and, more importantly, a client), then I doubt the message would have spread as far and wide as it finally has. Unfortunately, auditing technology skills is not going to remedy the problem. It only increases awareness of the problem.
I had a real epiphany at the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) conference in Chicago a few weeks ago. NALP is where the other side of the house, the law firm recruiting and professional development people, gather. I was there speaking about what law schools and firms need to do to prepare law students and new attorneys to utilize technology efficiently in the law firm environment. The somewhat small group who attended our session was visibly engaged in the three day in the life stories we told about attorneys working (and struggling) with technology and asked a lot of questions. The next day I attended a session on training given by people in professional development at their firms, and it was packed! One of the presenters displayed professionally printed brochures detailing the curriculum for one of their training programs and even mentioned offering significant cash awards for attorneys who taught in their attorney professional development program. AHA! That’s it! The professional development folks are devoted specifically to the development of attorney skills, so that is where the bulk of money and support for training is going! I couldn’t wait to hear the wisdom they were going to share, but alas even they struggle to get attorney buy-in for their training initiatives. The folks with more money and support have the same issues as us technology trainers. The problem is bigger than I even imagined it to be.
We have long known that we are competing with huge demands on lawyers’ time and training is seen as less important than other priorities, but I think the technology training and professional development teams both need to look at what we are offering attorneys as well. Most tech training is still the same lengthy instructor-led, “click here” type of training and that contributes to the problem. Even worse, because of reduced training resources, many firms have taken that same training and gone virtual with it or created page-turner e-learning modules, thereby guaranteeing that attorneys are not paying attention. We need to be providing easy to find (and access), short learning bites that incorporate the entire workflow and not just the steps inside the software. Based on what I heard at the NALP conference, professional development training has its own similar issues. It is still largely lecture-based when it should be much more team-oriented and experiential in nature. Have attorneys actually work through a challenge, instead of watching another text-laden presentation and lecture, and watch how much more engaged they are. It’s where they excel.
Clearly, learning and development in law firms needs to be shaken up, overhauled and joined as one team, but it is going to take money, time and additional training for both the technology and professional development trainers to be able to incorporate new, more engaging and effective training methods. There will also need to be creation tools and a platform to support the quick and easily searchable, pull methods of learning that most people prefer. Last, but certainly not least, it is going to take management support of a continuous learning model within the firm. I doubt there are many firms who are willing to put the time and money toward such an important endeavor, but there are some outliers led by forward-thinking individuals who will take up this challenge and get a jump on the rest. For the remainder, I hope that sharing my thoughts will at least get some conversations started between the two training factions, so some of those walls can start to come down and benefit you and your firm.
My initial challenges to law firms are:
- Combine your learning and development resources, and give them a place of importance in the development of talent within your firm.
- Spend the money and time to overhaul the existing training programs in your firm. You will reap the benefits many times over in what it will bring to your attorneys, staff and clients.
Previously published on LinkedIn here.