For the eighth year in a row, members of the legal training and professional development community recently converged on Washington, D.C., for their annual pow-wow, the NALP Professional Development Institute. This year, the faltering economy created a greater sense of urgency among the 227 attendees (only three fewer than last year, but down 30 percent from 2007). Where past events often focused on improving performance of individual lawyers, industry transformation was the guiding principle this Dec. 3-4.
The inertia of law firm growth over the past decade finally hit a wall just before NALP's 2008 PDI. Since then, the unprecedented number of law firm layoffs, delayed associate start dates, reduced associate salaries, canceled summer programs and budgets slashed for items ranging from technology to training have created an opportunity to restructure law firm operations. "People realize that we have solutions that we can implement in our firms," said Colin Beazley, manager of professional development for McDermott, Will & Emery in Menlo Park, Calif. "They are no longer just talking points."
Throughout the conference, speakers exuded a measured excitement about the possibilities for a new era of training, mentoring and skills assessment that will allow firms to produce better lawyers and deeper client relationships. There was also a noticeable shift in the discussions, moving from attorney retention to client retention. Programs focused on improving talent management, building leadership skills and promoting diversity. The conference seemed "more competency-based as far as giving people insight into what firms are doing right now," said Kalin Griffin, leadership development manager at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Many of the sessions focused on the relationship between lawyer training and client service. A number of presenters referenced the Association of Corporate Counsel's "Value Index," and its rating criteria, which include how well outside counsel understand a client's objectives and expectations, the legal expertise of the firm's attorneys and their level of efficiency and responsiveness, among other things. "Past events used to focus on the basic definitions of core competencies and benchmarks," said Christine White, Washington, D.C.-based chief officer of learning, diversity and recruitment at Nixon Peabody. "It is now moving toward creation and execution to ensure delivery of quality service to clients."
With core competencies and benchmarks on associate performance as a foundation, sessions such as "Evaluating and Measuring the Effectiveness of Professional Development Programs," "Creating Highly Effective Interactive Programs" and "Teaming Professional Develpment with Client Development and Service" provided blueprints for creating a complete training curriculum featuring business development courses. "The stakes are high and as a result discussions were strategic and high-level," said James Leipold, NALP's executive director.
NALP's 15-member Long Term Strategic Planning Committee met last week on the heels of the PDI for its own high-level discussion. "NALP will be undertaking the challenge of setting its path for the next five years," said LeaNora Ruffin, the president of NALP and assistant dean for career development at Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Del. "Ironically, this process will be aided, in part, by the current economic crisis, which has forced us to think deeply about issues that may not have been in sharp focus for us before," she added.
Despite the enthusiasm, "I don't think we are out of the woods yet in terms of fully evaluating 2009's economic impact," cautions Serena Miller, senior manager of professional development at Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Va. "It is, however, an opportune time for firms to reassess and revamp their professional development programming to meet not only internal lawyer needs, but most importantly, client needs."
That alignment of interests between lawyers and their clients is a critical step in responding to the recovery. And, the focus on innovation at this year's PDI is likely to have a positive impact in 2010.
Ari Kaplan is a lawyer and the author of The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career Through Creative Networking and Business Development (Thomson-West, 2008).