On-the-job training: the key to meeting client needs
by David Farquharson, Ignition Law
January 4 2017 - Technology in the 21st century means delivering solutions: it is the raison d'être of the digital economy. Among start-up and scale-up
communities, the self-employed and entrepreneurial businesses, the demand for legal services is similarly focused on achieving solutions. In practical terms, this means getting
advice from lawyers who not only know how to guide them through the pitfalls, but who are also proactive rather than reactive in offering advice to overcome obstacles.
However, the training of young lawyers is still wedded to 20th or even 19th century thinking: they are taught how to look for and identify problems, not how to solve
them. From law school, through their training contract, and post qualification, the focus remains on minimising risk rather than dealing with the commercial demands of new economy.
As a consequence, young lawyers are increasingly out of sync with a critical core of their client base.
So, from an HR perspective, should they develop the necessary skills as part of their training to provide commercial advice at a much earlier stage? Ideally, yes. But
the problem lies in the structure of most traditional law firms, where partners depend on the routine drafting, proofreading and administrative skills of many young lawyers. In
profit terms, when everything turns on maximising the magic billable hour, commercial skills training on the job is not often encouraged throughout the early years. Quite simply,
it is seen as unnecessary.
In the Best Employers Report 2016, published by Legal Week Intelligence, Dominic Carman wrote: "Young lawyers need to build up their abilities to be leaders from day
one, so by the time they become a partner, they will have that natural skillset, rather than having to acquire it once they've been promoted." But unlike the US or Germany,
for example, where associates regularly deal with clients from the outset without a partner being present, the vast majority of English law firms do not entrust their junior
lawyers with such responsibility.
Instead, young lawyers are largely there to highlight problems while more senior lawyers deliver solutions. And when they do attend client meetings, partners do the
talking while associates stay silent. This might limit any potential negligence by the firm, but it does little for the training of junior lawyers in helping them to learn, gain
confidence or develop commercial judgment. While it is true to say that two of the biggest risk areas, detailed drafting and providing commercial advice, require strong knowledge
and experience, more should be done to fast track the learning process.
Defensive thinking may, of course, play a part. Perhaps if the junior lawyer is seen as being very capable, then the client might believe that they can get the
same work done at a lower cost and form the relationship with that junior lawyer instead. Alternatively, if the junior lawyer builds relationships and expertise, they may leave
and set up on their own, possibly taking clients with them. On both counts, if they can do too much too young, they are a threat.
But this approach cannot be in the long term best interests of either the client or the firm. From an HR and a business perspective, it is not good use of human
capital. As many HR professionals in law firms already know, the evidence of damage being done is already there: young lawyers are increasingly mobile in the market as more and
more of them leave the bigger firms - and even the profession - because of limited training, restricted access to clients and mundane work.
The enormous amount of money invested in recruitment and early stage technical training by HR is consequently wasted when firms do not follow-up with sufficient
post-qualification training on the job and effective career development. Furthermore, because of the resulting shortfall in decent young lawyers with experience coming through
from the ranks to fill the higher levels, huge additional sums then need to be spent on lateral hires in terms of recruitment fees and guaranteed minimum drawings.
This defensive, risk averse strategy - limiting on the job training and development - fails to deliver what the market needs and does not save on cost. What it
delivers instead is a group of risk-averse, under confident, frustrated junior lawyers without a commercial skillset: this only serves to perpetuate the risk culture that firms
are supposedly seeking to avoid.
To remedy the situation, a longer term, strategic HR approach is needed. Senior lawyers must be appropriately incentivised for spending time on training junior
lawyers as they develop while firms must be confident enough to take a bet on retention. This approach is not new. In the last global recession, the most robust companies were
often the family-focused German businesses, the Mittelstand, which focused on solid training and long term investment.
Currently, our big law firms focus too much on short term profit rather than long term structure and prosperity. Ongoing training for lawyers and other professional
advisers should be more than a nice added extra. It is a critical part of the successful development of the services profession, wrestling with how best to survive and prosper in
the high growth new economy. Problem solvers are very small in number because, paradoxically, the risk of creating them, is perceived as being too great. HR professionals need to
play their part in managing that risk, insofar as it is real, and in maximising the potential of young lawyers at the earliest possible stage.