Challenging corporate counsel to continuously improve through every stage of their career

Susan Hackett
CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC

In Part 1 of this series, Susan explored the individual professional development challenges lawyers face; in this installment (Part 2), she discusses how law departments (and firms) are institutionalizing professional development practices to assure that their lawyers can meet client challenges and exceed service expectations by deploying new – often multidisciplinary – skills and expertise.

If you are a leading executive for a law department, you are likely thinking about a number of changes that your team must address in the coming years, especially as the legal landscape evolves and the needs of the business change. You know that your team needs re-tooling. In the back of your head, there's likely a sneaking suspicion that the hard part isn't going to be identifying best practices or writing the work-plan for implementation: the challenge is confronting and overcoming the ingrained behaviors of the very smart lawyers you work with who are used to (and have succeeded very nicely, thank you!) doing things their own way.

Law department and firm professional development initiatives

Legal executive leaders in companies are pioneering and advancing all kinds of interesting new ways to develop "new normal" skill sets for their legal teams. This development assures their continued success and satisfaction, as well as their ability to provide internal clients with improved service. This is especially meaningful for law departments; unlike law firms where there is a set trajectory for attorneys, in medium-size and large law departments, careers can be extremely flat. Notably, for many members of a corporate legal department, there are few new positions to rise to (unless you leave the company to work elsewhere), and a very small likelihood of substantial pay increases for doing what is basically the same legal work year over year.

By offering professional development options, general counsel can not only continue to grow the abilities of their team to better serve their internal clients, but meaningfully increase job satisfaction by finding feasible means to help these corporate counsel take on new responsibilities, lattice them into new areas of the company's work, or provide them with challenges they might otherwise miss within the business. Central to this type of professional development is succession planning, moving lawyers from each stage of their careers toward the next ones: from entry through departure or retirement.

In larger law firms, there are an increasing number of professionals (combining legal, HR, and educational backgrounds) who are dedicated to the firm's professional development function. Initially, these professionals trained entry level associates who'd graduated from law school with little to no practical experience. But over time, these professionals were tasked with pursuing the professional development of lawyers at every level throughout the firm. Most professional development leaders in firms, however, would tell you that they were more focused on substantive legal skill building than they were on non-legal education offerings. Most would also say that focus was not their first choice. But clients solely demanded subject matter expertise from their outside counsel, resulting in firms being uninterested in spending time or money on skills outside this scope and for which no client was demanding.

Times changed.

So in response, below is a checklist of suggested additions to the basic legal continuing education and skill building for all attorneys, corporate counsel included. For general counsel, this requires a commitment to provide access to high-quality multi-disciplinary training that's relevant to everyone in the department as well as the creation of a professional development plan that plots the lawyer's career path with the department over time.

GC's new normal professional development checklist

  • Create a professional development plan for/with each lawyer to define personal targets, metrics, and competencies and measure that against actual performance; revisit and update the plan each year
  • Make professional development initiatives part of evaluation, compensation and promotion processes and decisions
  • Develop internal programs beyond legal substance: include business skills, technology applications, legal project management training, communications, budgeting, supervising teams, knowledge management, etc.
  • Partner with firms to deliver programs to your legal department to improve alignment and save on costs of training
  • Find leaders in the department or business who can teach, as well as expert speakers with skills that your lawyers don't have: promote the value of both
  • Insure that training is a regular and repeating priority in the workplace – no one's exempt and no one's ever done!

Final tips: It takes a village to develop an attorney

Before I conclude this article, I want to revisit the creation of professional development plans. For executive managers and supervisors in firms and departments, this effort is maybe the hardest part, since it requires leaders to fully evaluate and assess individual competencies, facilitate mentoring, networking, and soft-skill development, and deliver tailored and personalized just-in-time training to a wide variety of individuals and varied skill sets. Once you set out the requirements, you then have to measure to determine performance to goals. It's not easy; it's a full-out HR-oriented effort. But since the primary asset of any legal enterprise – firm or law department – is its people, shouldn't that be a top priority? Many leaders who struggle with the idea of administering such an effort have enlisted the help of corporate HR professionals and talent/professional development directors, since this kind of evaluation and development process is bread and butter to their experience and training.

I don't recommend that you simply plot and plan a bunch of programs that will be generally available to your lawyers. You cannot assume that "if you build it, they will come" (and that they'll automatically understand its importance and relevance when they're already crazy busy). I also don't recommend that you rely solely on granting individual education accounts that authorize the lawyers to each decide on (even if it requires some kind of oversight or permission) what kinds of development or training they might need or don't need. While the individual lawyer must – of course! – be included in the process of creating and executing their own professional development plan, it's likely that most lawyers in today's market don't understand the value of skill sets they don't have and that I'm extolling, or don't wish to admit or address shortcomings without prodding from supervisors and management.

I recommend leveraging the best incentive you have: make training and re-tooling an important and mandatory element of lawyer evaluation, compensation, and promotion assessments. Don't make them into something that can earn you a few extra points if you engage, but won't bite you if you don't. This is where the rubber meets the road since it requires legal department leaders to actually assess the skills that each lawyer has or may be lacking. For example, that attorney who may be favored by internal clients for his personality and judgment but desperately needs a class in technology, data, and automation, should be steered towards this education by threatening his compensation, or he'll keep doing only what he's comfortable doing and never face the consequences on others of his inability to use the e-billing systems, understand appropriate pricing systems, or even calendar his travel or conference calls.

Every lawyer, regardless of seniority or substantive law knowledge, can benefit from professional development. Moreover, you can't make value-based re-tooling a priority for folks in the lower ranks and allow the senior leaders to avoid training and development sessions. Indeed, when it comes to learning new order skills, it's the senior-most folks on the roster who often need that kind of pushed development most.

In Part 3 of this series, I'll take a deep dive into the kinds of initiatives that departments are offering their lawyers to better prepare them for practice in the new normal.

About the author

Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence and success. Comments welcome to