Tag Archives: professional development

Organizations, including law firms — the new “defining archetype”

Knowledge project height_250_width_250_tkp

“The defining archetype of the new world of organizations is no longer the middle manager but in fact the free agent.

Venkatesh Rao said this in the Podcast, “Venkatesh Rao on the Three Types of Decision Makers, Mental Models, and How to Process Information,” at The Knowledge Project.

Law firms planing for the #Social Era should start from this insight, which, as MidLaw has been saying, throws back to 19th Century models.

The ascendancy of free agents goes to the core of why the mid size is the right size for law firms. Rightly ordered mid size firms have no middles, and they are best suited to foster autonomous professionals.

New members of law firms, be wary of settling into roles that are too narrowly focused on your firm’s internal hierarchies or structures. Focus on external networks.



Sir Thomas More and the mid size law firm

HThomas-Moree was the great lawyer of the English common law. He stood at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of what came next. A lawyer who was canonized.

Thomas More’s 1998 biographer, Peter Ackroyd, says that

For most of his life, More was a lawyer and a public administrator; he was not a visionary or a scholarly humanist. … [H]e believed that experience in the practical business of the world led to prudent deliberation and good judgement [sic].

“Experience in the practical business of the world leads to prudent deliberation and good judgment.”

Experience, deliberation, judgment. That is the core franchise of the mid size law firm. It is the promise that mid size firms make to beginning lawyers; and the product they deliver to clients.

The same thing is at the core of “the practical liberal arts,” which President Jane Fernandes is defining at Guilford College. Practical experience married with structured study of tradition and learning.

On organizing law firms around professional values

pellicansCompetence, autonomy and connectedness.

These factors were recently correlated with a sense of well-being and life satisfaction among lawyers. They far exceed money, status or prestige.

In plain terms, lawyers who feel a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy and a sense of connection with others are the contented ones. These factors, the study also found, are less often experienced in large law firms than they are in public service jobs. But note well: the satisfaction achieved in public service is not said to come from the greater nobility of the work, or from reflection on a life well spent. Rather, it’s because public service lawyers are more likely than big firm lawyers to experience a sense of personal competence and autonomy and meaningful connections with others.

Surely, achieving those modest conditions are within the grasp of virtually anyone with a law license – big firm or small, private or public. It’s not about the job; it’s a matter of how the practice environment is structured.

In fact, it might be argued that law practice, certainly “classical law practice,” is the natural home of competence, autonomy and connectedness. Those factors align remarkably closely with the traditional culture of the legal profession. And, now-days the emerging culture of all knowledge work, not just legal work, (think Google) seems to be aspiring to the same principles.

Traditional legal ethics. The heart of legal ethics has always been in the lawyer’s duties of competence, independence and loyalty. It’s not much of a stretch to see competence-autonomy-connectedness as equivalent to those ancient ethical precepts. This is where lawyers began.

Maybe in some ways, large, leveraged and departmentalized law firms have moved away from this core. Large organizations inevitably limit autonomy and may dilute personal connections with clients and colleagues, and they concentrate individuals on narrower and narrower circles of competence. Even so, few law firms, large or small, do not claim competence (they call it excellence), some form of autonomy, and professional connections (collegiality) among the foundations of their culture.

birds-group-photography-cropKnowledge workers.  Even as lawyers may have moved away some from this original core, organizations of knowledge workers are moving rapidly toward cultures that prize flat or non-hierarchical structures,  a sense of community and, of course, excellence.

My best guess is that business organizations of the future will look more and more like what law practice might have looked like in the 19th Century. (OK. Please allow a bit of latitude here, but you get the point.)

Technology. Technology is abetting this. The thrust of 21st Century technology is to “commoditize” knowledge, to equalize the capabilities of small organizations with larger ones, and to create new capabilities for networking and for social connections – in every instance promoting individual competence, autonomy and community.

Millennials. Is it a cause or is it an effect? In 2013, Millennials made up a third of the population of the United States. They constitute a majority of the work force.  And, they are often characterized by attributes that line up with these same factors. Legal employers are commonly admonished to provide work cultures that meet Millennials’ expectations of professional development and recognition of individual achievements, while anticipating their independence from institutions coupled nonetheless with a desire to work as part of a community or team broader than themselves.

So, it’s simple enough. The pillars of professional satisfaction are competence, autonomy, and connectedness. Traditionally, these values have been at the exact center of the professional lives of American lawyers. And now American business culture generally is creating new forms of organizations founded on these same things.

So – as law firms find themselves being reshaped by technology, by non-lawyer service providers, by the expanding role of legal departments, and by limited-service law firms, a key to recruiting and retaining talent will be to create future firms in which professionals can build their careers around competence (professional development centered in meaningful experience), autonomy (participation in a non-hierarchical business organization) and connectedness (collegiality, shared values, and close connections to clients).

Achieving this in law firms that handle larger, complex matters is harder than it looks, but it is imminently doable.

Millennials as lawyers, a delicate and touchy topic

The Millennials, we are told, move frequently from job to job, seemingly at a pace that, for lawyers, would obstruct professional development and frustrate the efforts of legal employers seeking to recover investments in professional development. This is a challenge.Baby-Owls-l (1)

And then there are the Millennials themselves. Yes, Millennials as a group can be characterized along various dimensions. They are said to optimistic, team-oriented, and tech savvy. And, they are achievement-driven, pressured to succeed and distrusting of organizations. The lists go on.

But for all the things that can be said about Millennials as a group, what is true of the group may tell you nothing about any individual member of the crowd.

In the weeks since Brooks Pierce’s terrific discussion of generational differences, led by Wake Forest University’s Rogan Kersh, I have sat with Millennials who affirmed the broad characterizations of their kind and urged that our law firm structure itself to manage them accordingly – and I have sat with others who, even as they accept the general insights about their generation, at the same time vigorously (and very credibly) deny that the same conclusions apply to themselves as individuals. They even resent the assumption that they can be lumped in that way.

This learning about generations, and Millennials in particular, must be applied with caution and a delicate touch.


Millennials as lawyers and their professional development – can the center hold?

These peripatetic Millennials, slated as they are to move from job to job. Seemingly, there’s no economical way to train and develop Millennial lawyers. No way to foster the development of seasoned legal judgment – what with Millenials moving as often as we are told they will do, from employment to employment. Acquiring professional judgment takes time and experience. For my money, it also takes models.baby owls

Hard as they are trying, law schools simply cannot turn out practice-ready lawyers. There will ALWAYS  be a gap between school and the moment of taking responsibility for real-life clients and their problems. And it takes experience to develop the judgment that’s required to handle what’s new, uncertain, ambiguous.

My theory has been that, in the 19th Century, practicing bars provided the needed bridge for new lawyers from school to practice – as a matter of shared culture at a local bar. Later, in the 20th Century, the bridge was provided in large degree by law firms as a matter of firm culture.

Today, increasingly, the center does not hold. The fabric of shared legal culture is very thin. Law schools seek to provide clinical programs. Law firms sometimes hire and sometimes don’t; and firms may emphasize productivity over professional development. Alternative service providers displace young-lawyer functions altogether. And the profession is splintering into an ever widening array of limited-purpose and specialized practices.

Into this soup come the Millennials. They move from job to job at a pace that would seem to obstruct professional development and frustrate the efforts of employers seeking to recover the costs of their training.

This is a system yet to find its equilibrium.

But, I come to it with a bias: There was never a time or a place where valuing learning for itself did not pay off. That must be the response.

Learning is a universal value. A learning culture must be at the center. It must always hold.

A law firm must be a learning organization.

More maxims of an aged manager, Book Two, Transitions

bird_flight_1280x800I have roles at a law firm, at bar organizations; at a school, a college, farms, and a public library; and in a city, a church, a family and a life. Every one of them is in transition.

Transition is all there is.

Transition or die … well, dying is also a transition.

Where did I ever get the notion that there is anything else?

I see the healthcare industry feels the same tug: Mark Bertolini’s Preventative Disruption.

Photo from Cheryl Pigate

Photo from Cheryl Pigate


Traditional law firm professional development models obsolete?

birds & young 2Brooks Pierce’s lawyer staffing model is not far removed from what might be called “traditional” or “old fashioned.” That means that we still hire most of our new lawyers immediately upon their graduation from law school, or judicial clerkships – and we assume that when they join us, they are not ready to practice law; they are certainly not ready to practice law “the Brooks Pierce way.” We assume our new lawyers will learn by working with experienced lawyers (what the consultants call the “apprenticeship” model).

Depending on many variables, we assume that it takes four to seven years before most new lawyers become “stand-alone” professionals. We assume that in time our associates will become our partners and spend their careers as members of Brooks Pierce. This model helps us to deliver a standard of client service that, we hope, sets us apart.

Are we obsolete? In a changing world, we hold to the conviction that our way remains the best: the best professional development model for lawyers who will become counsellors and advocates for clients facing the most difficult problems.

The greatest challenge to our model has come from high turnover among associates, which we attribute to demographics. Turnover among young lawyers at law firms generally is high, as apparently turnover is high for Millenials generally.

We believe that turnover at Brooks Pierce is lower than among our peers, but – at our size and in our practice niches – turnover (or, retention) is still a challenge, and it is expensive. We cannot ignore it.

Whaddaya gonna do?

We manage. Specifics (our not-so secrets) will come in posts to follow this one.

We believe that we have have continued to make the economics of the old model succeed, even in a time of high associate salaries – and on terms that are fair to our clients, yet work for us. That part is a story for another day.

We are not obsolete. We are classic.

Socrates was thinking about lawyers one day

Socrates said:Socrates

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

Not every item on calendars and lists of tasks is fruitful. Nor every client or matter.

“Busy” is getting a bad name. I mean bad.

This insight has been found to be high in Omega3.


Professional development in mid-size firms IS experiential learning

Brooks Pierce’s remarkable, still-sort-of-new Director of Recruiting and Professional Development, Gail Cutter, makes these comments on the last post here.Experiential 111

Yes! This line of thinking is why I believe that liberal arts training is the best preparation for law school and practice.

Like liberal arts students, associates need an environment in which intellectual curiosity is encouraged and original thinking is prized. The best associate will not simply parrot what she learns from a partner. She will challenge every process and conclusion, wrangle with each logical leap and generate new ways to look at things.

Law firm clients, after all, don’t turn to their lawyers to solve old problems. The essence of practice liberal arts training–and the best law firm professional development–is the ability to anticipate and solve the NEXT challenge.

The successful professional of tomorrow, in all disciplines and fields, will thrive in a world of constant innovation. You can only build up your intellectual muscles–to be more fast, flexible and nimble–if you get out there and practice.

Brooks Pierce thinking. Wish I’d said that.



Practical liberal arts — professional development — professor/partner-involved experiential learning

learningcycleI have known for some time that “experiential learning” is the most effective learning. (Just ask the U.S. Army.)

Now, I have learned that undergraduate experiential learning happens most at small, liberal arts colleges – where the teaching load is carried by the professors themselves and not by assistants. Lectures are not the keys – lectures can even be outsourced. The keys are doing things with professors involved – the research, the writing, the discussions, the field trips and the experiments.  AND – most important – professors taking an interest in students – one-on-one.

That’s what changes lives.

It works just the same for lawyers and professional development. Change the word “professor” to “partner” and you are talking about law firms. Lawyers’ professional development happens best at mid-size firms — where new lawyers work directly with experienced partners on whole projects (not small pieces). And the best firms are the ones where the partners take an interest in this and in younger professionals.