Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

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The Road To Becoming The Fully Realized Professional

by Phyllis Weiss Haserot

The legal profession is experiencing a renewed interest in professional development at many levels, as we predicted would occur when the situation changed from a buyers' to a sellers' market in the pursuit of talent. Not only are firms and their clients seeing an increase in work with a better economy, but also the change in the demographic picture as the large cohort of baby boomer senior lawyers start to transition out is significantly influencing the demand and requirements for professionals development. More is happening on the training front; however, important gaps between what is being offered and what lawyers need in terms of skill and fulfilling of client needs are still evident.

Before I move to discussing the gaps I see in the professional development landscape of most firms, let's summarize the notable trends of the last few years.


  • A hot topic is “law firm universities.” One which has gotten a lot of press is Reed Smith's university, developed with the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Still in its first year, it is too early to assess the impact, but its leadership curriculum looks like a very promising and needed development which other firms will watch closely. Clifford Chance has had a homegrown program – ambitious, but not quite a "university" - with an innovative approach, described below. Large accounting/consulting firms have had in-house “universities” for many years.
  • In-house professional development is very slowly expanding beyond the technical legal subjects and skills typically awarded continuing education credit.
  • The position of Professional Development Director is becoming more significant. It is often held by formerly practicing lawyers, even former partners. Departments are expanding, and more money is being invested in professional development.
  • E-learning, blended learning and combining media, live and electronic formats are being offered and are catching on. Professional development professionals have become quite knowledgeable about adult learning and are trying to incorporate varied formats beyond lecture to offer something that will engage each type of learning style.
  • Benchmarking for both technical and soft skills is beginning


Where are the gaps? What significant topics are not being addressed in most firms? Unquestionably some firms have made tremendous strides and understand how pivotal good training and coaching is to the strength and long-term success of firms. Areas that had lacked attention such as marketing, business development and sales are getting more emphasis. However, management and relationship skills development lag far behind in most firms. While not a comprehensive analysis of law firm professional development needs, here are the areas where neglect is hurting and holding back achievement the most.

  • Soft skills, for example: how to get the confidence of clients (beyond legal smarts); communication to superiors, juniors and staff, clients, judges, etc. A recent Corporate Legal Times survey found that partners weren't generally better communicators with clients than associates are. Other examples of the need for better soft skills are listed separately below.
  • How to manage people internally. This sometimes requires breaking the "abused child syndrome. Patterns of bad behavior are frequently passed down in the treatment of the next generations, often because people don't know better behaviors. More constructive and productive models need to be taught in order to maintain talented professionals and get the best performance from them. (And when necessary if they can't be reformed, firms must move the problem partners out.)
  • Inter-generational relations. This area covers a lot of territory, from understanding the differing attitudes and objectives of firm colleagues and clients to transitioning of roles and responsibilities, asking for and giving feedback appropriately, mentoring and professional development, and composing effective client teams.
  • Identifying and capitalizing on your personal style. This is the key to homing in on business development, management and leadership, and client relations success. Increasing individuals' self-awareness as well as teaching them to "read" other people's styles and flex theirs sets a solid foundation from early on in one's career.
  • Preparing new partners: what to expect; how to manage. Too many firms still don't define partnership expectations clearly or help new partners (or shareholders) anticipate the psychological/intra-firm dynamics, business generation, financial and work/life changes they will encounter and ease adjustment so they don't face additional stress and corresponding reduction in productivity (even if short-term).
  • Transitioning from “worker bee” to “entrepreneur.” Senior associates and partners need to make mental shifts to fulfill their evolving roles. As with “preparing new partners,” a sense of ownership and commitment needs to be instilled from at least the mid-level associate stage along with a solid understanding of firm economics and both the individual and team as an economic unit while respecting and fostering the integrity of the institution as a first priority.

The gaps outlined above are not limited to associates' skills; many partners need these skill enhancements as well.


Clifford Chance's programs, first developed in London, are the perhaps the most progressive in filling some of the gaps I described earlier. Foremost is the Global Business Skills curriculum, which was rolled out in the U.S. in the summer of 2004, according to Carolyn Older Bortner, Manager of Professional Development and Associate Life in New York. The curriculum includes: presentation skills; legal writing; matter management; mentoring; client development and handling client meetings; and leadership among the practice and soft skills that attorneys need in real life. Bortner said as part of this curriculum, attorneys not only attend live seminars, but also participate in development centers which focus on soft skills. Sometime during their fourth year, associates are taken off-site for a day and a half to experience a battery of exercises around mock situations. Towards the end they formulate a development plan with a facilitator (human resources professionals and retired partners), which is not for evaluation purposes but "purely developmental," said Bortner.

Somewhere in the seventh through ninth years, associates go through a senior development program which is designed around the same model but is geared to managerial skills. Associates can have follow up discussions with their facilitators or with a partner the individual works with. The firm also offers e-learning courses which are follow ups and refreshers for business skills.

Clifford Chance provides new partner orientation annually in London, and there are smaller regional orientation programs. In many other firms, new partner orientation focuses mostly on financial changes and some managerial responsibilities, but not enough on expectations. However, a few years ago, Greenberg Traurig started a series of new shareholder seminars at the instigation of Luis Salazar, a shareholder promoted the year before who wanted to help others coming behind him transition to the necessary mindset and get easy access to the information and skills he had to ask about and ferret out for himself.

The programs he started morphed into more institutional programs for new shareholders that include orientation about everything. In addition, the management meets with those attorneys who actually are promoted from associates to shareholders for a Q & A/lunch session. “This is both a source of information and a special event to recognize that they've been at the firm all along rather than laterally acquired,” said Salazar.

Individuals in firms need refreshers for the skills in which they have previously been trained. Weil Gotshal & Manges is rolling out refresher courses in communications skills, how actually to be a mentor and mentee, to give and receive feedback and act upon it, and to conduct recruiting interviews for both partners and associates according to the firm's Director of Professional Development and Training, Sandra Bang. “One of the keys to success is frequency of the refresher courses,” said Bang.


Coaching is the cornerstone of professional development which provides the ultimate benefit. It is personalized teaching that expands awareness, brings clarity, develops new habits that achieve growth, and fosters self-motivation. Studies show that coaching after training increases the value (return on investment) by four times (!), integrating and sustaining newly learned skills. Good ongoing coaching is missing in most firms and needs to be “the next big thing.”


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 2006, published in NALP and other media.