Professional Development: A Key Element of Law Firm Culture

March 21, 2016

Professional Development: A Key Element of Law Firm Culture
New York Law Journal
Alan Tarter
March 21, 2016

The legal industry is a competitive job market. From compensation and practice management to culture and work/life balance, law firms are challenged with creating incentives to attract and retain top talent. Now more than ever, law firm leaders must create an engaging environment that promotes learning and creates growth opportunities at every level.

In the Society for Human Resources Management's 2015 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey, 42 percent of employees rated professional development as very important to their job satisfaction and 47 percent of employees noted the importance of career advancement.

Law firms also have to adjust their strategies to keep up with a changing workforce. According to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 millennials became the majority representation of the workforce. In a recent PwC Millennials at Work survey, personal learning and development was their first choice benefit. This makes professional development an increasingly important aspect of succession planning. By investing in its future leaders, law firms will ensure that employees have the right skills to match the firm's growing needs and empower them to drive their own career advancements.

In many law firms, attorneys and staff quickly hit a ceiling in their personal and professional growth. At our firm, we consider that to be highly demotivating and have developed a culture focused on helping all of our attorneys and staff to reach their personal and professional goals.

By budgeting for professional development programs and dedicating sufficient firm resources to manage them, firms show employees that they are personally invested in their careers. By implementing a professional development program, firms can better retain the skilled employees and attorneys essential to its long-term success.

Development-Retention Connection
A high employee turnover rate in any industry is damaging to business operations. From an operations perspective, the loss of an employee impacts productivity and ultimately client service. The time spent replacing, training and integrating new talent can be substantial. From a culture standpoint, turnover can have a negative impact on overall morale.

The cost of employee turnover versus the benefits of retaining well-trained employees versed in company policies and procedures make employee retention a top priority. Providing employees numerous opportunities to develop and apply new skills keeps them engaged and motivated.

These facts have caught the attention of leadership across industries where, according to Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends 2015 survey, culture and engagement, building leadership and the need to transform and accelerate corporate learning and development are the top three issues facing businesses today.

Challenges in Developing a Program
A comprehensive professional development program can be challenging to implement from both a cost and operations standpoint. A solid program should include: integrating professional development during the onboarding process; ongoing assessment and management; developing a culture of learning including providing adequate time to learn; and creating opportunities to apply new skills.

Additionally, while law firm structure or staffing may not always lend itself to formal promotions, the firm can develop an atmosphere of both formal and informal mobility. Employees must feel that they can advance by taking on new responsibilities and offering ideas in their current roles.

Law firms should also demonstrate top-down support in which leadership should encourage and reward development.

Add Professional Development to Culture
A commitment to professional development should be embraced by your management team and partners. Firm leadership should not only encourage their direct reports to participate, but support their participation, even if it requires time away from their desks. This means creating room for their team members to take courses and promoting time for the "white space" needed to put those new skills to use. Law firm management should also participate in workshops, CLE courses and other programs that are offered. Leading by example creates greater buy-in across the firm.

At Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, professional development is one of the firm's core purposes and it is ingrained in everything that we do. Our firm established the Professional and Individual Goal Program (P&I) to offer all attorneys and staff the opportunity to complete a goal within a year that the firm will help support. Our support has included sponsoring employees in continuing education, certification courses, professional memberships and conferences.

Supported goals have included an associate publishing a book on law firm internships, several of our attorneys and paralegals receiving certificates as Certified Fraud Examiners, an attorney improving foreign language skills through personal tutoring, an associate further developing leadership skills and executive presence through professional coaching, and supporting our managers and their team members in obtaining various certifications and becoming involved in industry associations.

Our annual Professional Enrichment Week is dedicated to providing employees with best practices in productivity, stress and time management, technology, fitness, nutrition and financial health that could be implemented in the workplace and at home. Speakers include stress management coaches, financial advisors, personal trainers, nutritionists, technology professionals and efficiency experts.

Foster Leadership, Promote From Within
Internal talent development is a key factor in succession planning. Hiring internally has significant advantages. Existing employees are already well-versed in firm procedures and business priorities, have established relationships with key stakeholders and have a deep understanding of the firm's clients.

Firms can also provide leadership opportunities by creating dual roles. For example, attorneys might be encouraged to serve as dedicated practice group leaders, supervisors and mentors or serve on committees. A secretary might serve a dual role supporting aspects of a departmental practice management initiative.

We encourage employees interested in assuming leadership roles to take on discrete projects that enhance their ability to lead teams and initiatives.

Support Entrepreneurship
It is also important to foster entrepreneurship. At our firm, we believe a dynamic exchange of ideas ultimately makes us better. If an employee has feedback on how best to improve a firm process or implement a new initiative and is willing to commit to and execute that idea, we support it. Implement a system to solicit this type of feedback on a consistent basis. If an employee puts forward a suggestion that the firm adopts, recognize them for it. Focusing on the development of great leadership across the firm promotes employee engagement.

Create New Career Paths
In any position, it is important to feel challenged. According to the Society for Human Resources Management's 2015 Job Satisfaction and Engagement Survey, 58 percent of employees rated opportunities to use their skills and abilities at work as important to their job satisfaction. Employees need the opportunity to not only learn new skills, but then be given the opportunity to apply them in real work scenarios.

One way to achieve this is to train employees in multiple departments outside of their own. This enhances their knowledge of the firm and increases their skills so that they can assume new responsibilities when opportunities arise. As a standard practice, look for opportunities to put employees on special assignment and initiatives.

By implementing cross- training and continuously increasing its employees' skills, companies can be more nimble, quickly adapting to clients' evolving business needs. This ultimately translates into greater client value.

Professional Development at Every Level

Management Team and Staff.
Senior management should encourage their direct reports to shadow them during new implementations and take on new projects that enhance their growth. Often as a firm implements new initiatives, it can lead to the creation of new job opportunities that can be filled internally.

At our firm, our management team conducts weekly team meetings for department leaders and their direct reports. This creates transparency, encourages the promotion of new ideas, and allows team members to trade approaches in managing challenging projects and offer thoughtful feedback on programming.

Partners and Counsel.
Partners and counsel can also benefit from professional development training. For example, managing the work of others in their department requires its own skill set. Professional development programs at the partner and counsel level might include training on delegation, supervision and how to motivate other employees. Practice group leaders might benefit from workshops on practice management including matter suitability, work assignments, budget management and business development.

Associate Development.
According to the Deloitte Millennial Survey in 2014, 50 percent of millennials believe their organizations could do more to develop future leaders. Law firms need to focus on not only immediate success, but also create a foundation for years to come and that includes training future leaders.

Associates are often the attorneys working on the day-to-day aspects of a matter or transaction. They are often on the front lines dealing with other members of a clients' team. It is important to create a challenging and rewarding experience for associates so that they feel invested and more likely to stay and grow.

Require Accountability
Firm leadership should make supporting the career development of their staff a priority in the organization. If employees do attend new courses or CLE programs, complete certifications or participate in other trainings, they should demonstrate what they have learned and how they plan to implement it.

Solicit Feedback
A key part of any professional development program is measuring success. It is important for firms to create opportunities to gather employee feedback on a regular basis. This can include making this discussion a part of the annual review process, creating planning meetings and check-ins with employees who are embarking on a new professional development initiative and conducting surveys to gain feedback on program effectiveness. This can help firm leadership shape future programs.

Employee development and engagement are an integral part of maintaining a strong firm culture. By providing ongoing opportunities for professional development, employees feel invested in their own growth as well as in the larger mission of the firm. A well-developed professional development program can create ongoing growth opportunities, a more nimble staffing structure and ultimately better client service.

Reprinted with permission from the “March 2016” edition of the “New York Law Journal”© 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.

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