Unsure of what to expect, Howrey associate Melinda Lackey looked around the room nervously and wondered, not for the first time, why her firm had brought her and 19 other first-year lawyers to Washington, D.C., for a two-and-a-half day academy on how to take depositions from witnesses. An hour later, she was in front of her peers, taking the deposition of a hostile witness played by a professional actor. "It was," remembers Lackey, "an eye-opening experience.
I learned more in those two-and-a-half days than in my entire depositions course in law school."
The firm's partners knew they wanted their young associates to acquire the right skills for today's fast-changing legal environment and to have training experiences like Melinda Lackey described. But how? We were hired by Howrey - a recognized leader in antitrust, global litigation, and intellectual property law - seven years ago to create a learning culture in an industry whose understanding of training hasn't gone much beyond ad hoc seminars on practical legal issues.
Training for competencies
Our first step was to work with the firm's partners to develop a competency model that defines the technical and interpersonal skills required by the firm's associates at each stage of their progression toward partner. This competency model created our training road map. It also improved the firm's business strategy by focusing on the skills its lawyers needed to succeed in an increasingly competitive environment. We developed resources to help associates hone all of the competencies they - and the firm - needed to be successful.
At the heart of Howrey's training program is a series of multiday academies. Early in their careers, associates attend academies devoted to more technical skills, such as the one on depositions that Melinda attended. As they demonstrate mastery of these skills, they move on to academies that address interpersonal skills, such as effective team work, managing others, working with clients, and business development. None are part of the typical law school curriculum, but each is important to success in the courtroom and with clients.
Attending our programs takes away from billable client time, vacation time, and pro bono work. So, for the associates (participants), who are under pressure to produce billable hours, the training has to have a clear return on the time they invest in it. And we have to hold their interest and provide a safe learning environment where they feel free to take risks, try new approaches, and make mistakes. For our partners (firm owners), creating an effective learning culture relies on their involvement. The training isn't something our department can develop and hand over to the firm; it has to be their program, not ours. We are there to facilitate and contribute technical expertise, but the firm has to buy in.
Howrey's curriculum draws from the latest research in adult learning and our previous work in the professional services industry. Instructional design is foundational to the learning programs we've built.
The instructional design we use includes case studies, team sessions, interactive theater, action learning, movie-making, and videotape review, to name a few. We draw from learning techniques outside the industry norm. For example, we improve the key skill of oral advocacy by partnering with the Shakespeare Theater. They help our associates practice voice and diction and understand the language of gestures, then put it all into practice by performing a scene from a Shakespearean play. To improve the associates' creative thinking skills, we ask them to produce a 30-second video around topics such as "The World's -----est Lawyer." Our writing instruction also draws from disciplines outside of the legal arena. Our in-house writing instructor holds a Great Writing Series, which discusses selections from classic authors and how attorneys can apply their style and persuasive techniques to their own writing.
In addition to the in-person training sessions, Howrey associates access online learning resources through Howrey U, the firm's virtual university. And, associates receive one-on-one assistance through the firm's supervising partner program whereby partners provide coaching and help associates manage their careers.
Team, peer, and action learning
In response to the needs of the changing legal industry, Howrey pioneered a curriculum last year with more than 300 hours of training for new associates during their first year with the firm. One of the more innovative components of this curriculum - designed to give new associates an extra push - was the introduction of action learning teams.
Each action-learning team includes five to seven first-year associates, as well as a partner who sponsors the project and a senior associate who advises the associates. Teams are assigned a project related to an important firmwide issue. Associates are able to contribute in areas to which they typically would not be exposed. For example, because most of Howrey's clients are multinational firms, a recent team assignment revolved around the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The team was tasked with developing a way to share guidelines and best practices with Howrey attorneys and clients in other countries to make sure clients comply with the act. Another team analyzed the business implications on different industries for a critical patent case ruling; its analysis was also shared with clients.
These action-learning teams built cohesion learning about the law, but also learning how to work together. Each team had 90 days to understand its sponsoring partner's needs, research the issue, and create a deliverable that met those needs. During this process, they also received feedback on their interpersonal, communication, organization, meeting management, leadership, and client relationship skills.
Most of what we've implemented is not revolutionary when measured against the learning techniques of progressive corporations, but it is revolutionary in the legal sector.
One area of innovation was our use of films to foster interpersonal skills among members of a trial team. Law students may be exposed to the basics of trial work in school, but they don't learn key interpersonal skills, such as teamwork, communication, and empathy needed to function as a team member. Howrey Ghost Stories explored how the dynamics among the members of a typical client team can affect a case.
Success from different perspectives
We check periodically with the firm's partners to make sure that they understand the benefits of such an extensive training curriculum. Beth McCallum, a Washington, D.C., partner, says, "The return on involvement among both associates and partners is, in my opinion, very well understood. If you want to talk about associate acceptance, we have waitlists for every academy and other programs Heather's department puts on. If you want to talk about partner acceptance, I know my partners understand the benefit - the time they invest in the training is returned to them in the ability to delegate higher-level tasks to associates who've been through the program. So it frees up partners' time for other duties, provides clients with better service, makes recruiting easier, and further polishes the firm's already bright reputation. We are truly proud of having a learning culture. I'd say, yes, it's a
success by any measure."
The training is a success from Lackey's perspective, too, as she told us, "There aren't many law firms that would allow a second- or third-year associate to actually argue a case or question a witness. I've been through those experiences thanks to the academies. And it's made me a better lawyer. I spend most of my time writing motions for partners. So when I learn what you need to effectively argue a case or a motion, I'm better able to write with an effective oral argument in mind.
"My arguments used to make a lot of sense on paper with their complex, long sentences. But when I try to argue that kind of writing out loud, I realize it's full of fluff, takes too long, and isn't effective for the judge. The only way I could learn that is by having to make oral arguments in the academies. Once I understood what makes a good oral argument, I became better at writing them. I learned to cut to the chase. In turn, the partner I'm writing for has a better chance of convincing the judge of our viewpoint. Everyone wins - me, the firm, the client."
Howrey's learning culture: lessons learned
A learning culture is a work in progress; but after seven years, we're on solid footing. We hope that what we're doing at Howrey - which has made a difference in the firm's service to its clients and its ability to recruit outstanding associates - can be a model for other large law firms. But there are important lessons here for any learning professional tasked with implementing a training program for professional employees in an environment where a learning culture has not been introduced and where training has been conducted in a hit-or-miss fashion.
What we learned at Howrey confirms what we already knew about the process. Start with defining the skills of your professionals that will enhance the firm's competitive stance. Which ones are necessary for your firm's success in the marketplace? Then map your curriculum to the firm's strategy for each stage of its professionals' career ladder. Align the talent management processes - recruiting, training and development, advancement, and compensation - so they are mutually reinforcing. For example, when recruiting, some competencies are more cost effective to select for than train for. Finally, focus as much on instructional design as on content. The training has to be engaging, or learning won't take place. Our most innovative instructional design ideas - such as Ghost Stories and action learning - have come from brainstorming how can we get associates to learn, not what they need to learn.
We're at the point now in our development of a learning culture at Howrey to be able to identify the most important elements for creating a learning culture, even if you're starting with a blank sheet of paper. In our opinion, the four key steps are
- defining the skills, competencies, and behaviors your firm needs for continued success
- developing a curriculum that spans the professional's career so they learn the skills everyone agrees are appropriate to their level in the firm
- focusing on instructional design techniques that engage the learner, especially by embedding the learning in relevant firm issues
- involving every level of the business in creating and sustaining a learning culture.