Why on-the-job training is key to meeting client needs

In this piece, David Farquharson looks at the law sector as an example of how more junior staff should learn key skills earlier.

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 to training contract and finally post qualification, the focus of learning is on minimising risk rather than dealing with the commercial demands of the new economy. As a consequence, young lawyers are increasingly out of sync with a critical core of their client base.

So should the necessary skills to provide commercial advice be developed 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.

Being a leader from the start

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, leaving it to more senior lawyers to 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 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 the 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. The evidence of the damage 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.

Neglecting career development

The enormous amount of money invested in recruitment and early stage technical training 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 are then 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 more colleagiate 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. However, ongoing training for lawyers and other professional advisers should be more than a nice 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.

David Farquharson is co-founder of Ignition Law

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Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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