Issue 8, Fall 2004



Eight Cost-Effective Ways to Promote Lawyers' Development in Mid-Sized and Small Firms (and Practice Groups)

Case Study: Using Appreciative Inquiry

Upcoming Conferences

Articles, Books and Resources

Dear Colleague:

I am frequently asked by mid-size and small firms how they can promote lawyer development when they lack the resources that large firms can deploy. This edition of Management Solutions will describe eight cost-effective measures that can be undertaken by mid-sized and small firms, as well as by practice groups with few lawyers or with specialized needs.

This issue's case study describes an "Appreciative Inquiry" approach to organizational problems. We look at how a firm faced with increasing associate attrition and declining morale began to turn things around by focusing on what was right with the firm, not what was wrong.

Also highlighted below are:

  • Three upcoming conferences where I will be speaking about mentoring, diversity, and professional development,
  • An article featuring a roundtable discussion on how law firms can protect their long-term investment in lawyers,
  • A significant new book on why and how to promote lawyer retention and career satisfaction through "balanced hours,"
  • Two new publications from the ABA Career Resources Center that deal with attorney development, and
  • The Professional Development Consortium's new website.


 Eight Cost-Effective Ways to Promote Lawyers' Development
 in Mid-Sized and Small Firms (and Practice Groups)

Being a professional requires constantly improving one's skills, staying up to date on legal and practice developments, and adapting to rapidly changing markets, technologies, and client needs. While large firms can supply a wide range of personnel and resources to support lawyers in this effort, smaller offices cannot. Nonetheless, smaller firms can do a great deal to support lawyers' learning and growth.

Because there is more frequent interaction between partners and associates in smaller firms and practice groups, there are greater opportunities for teaching and mentoring. The very fact of being small obviates the need for most of the infrastructure, personnel and formal programs that large organizations require. Nonetheless, professional development efforts must be organized and supervised. Discussed below are eight specific professional development activities that can be implemented by firms, offices, and practice groups with limited human and financial resources. Once you decide what you want to do, set priorities, outline a plan, prepare a budget, and put someone in charge of the effort. Someone - a single lawyer or administrator, or a small committee - must be accountable for seeing that your plan is carried out.

1. Train supervisors to develop talent. If you have only limited resources to spend on training, spend your training dollars on educating lawyers to become effective supervisors and mentors. Most associate learning occurs on the job. Conscientious supervising partners who pay careful attention to associates' work experience and development are the most influential individuals in this learning process. The richness of associates' learning is determined by the way their supervisors interact with them – how willing they are to explain, teach, counsel, and include associates in the inner workings of client matters. Recognize and reward supervising lawyers who do these things well. Collect and circulate information about what they do and how they do it. Use this data to create your firm's own "best practices" and use these best practices as examples in your training programs.

2. Provide feedback and coaching. Associates need to appreciate what the firm expects of them, how they measure up to those expectations, and, if they don't, what they need to do to improve. Partners who give them frequent, constructive feedback and regular, precise performance evaluations promote their development. Feedback is best when coupled with coaching. In performance reviews, coaching can be used to discuss associates' development needs and goals. Reviewing partners can assist associates in creating development plans to address those needs and achieve those goals, then support them as they implement their plans. This takes time, but it is valuable for development and requires little financial expenditure.

3. Allocate work assignments systematically. Associates' learning and advancement is directly tied to their work experience. To be sure that associates receive work of appropriate quantity and quality, designate certain partners to be responsible for making work assignments and monitoring work experience. Factors to consider in assigning work to an associate include the associate's workload, breadth and depth of work experience, exposure to multiple partners and clients, and professional development needs. Expect assignment partners to meet at least twice a year with the associates they are monitoring, and also whenever they perceive any potential work-related problems. By systematically allocating and monitoring work experience, the firm not only promotes associate development, it also ensures better utilization of associates' time and expertise, which translates into higher economic efficiency.

4. Learn from your own cases and deals. An important part of learning occurs when lawyers analyze their own work. Have supervising partners call the entire team together at the conclusion of every client matter to review what the team did well and what could have been done better. This simple activity educates everyone on the team in how to repeat successful tactics and strategies and how to avoid repeating mistakes. It enhances lawyers' development and leads to continuous improvements in client service.

5. Have current leaders prepare their successors. To continue thriving as a business, firms need to have leaders in the pipeline. There are countless leadership training courses, and all are expensive. Sometimes it is important for a firm to invest in such programs. At the very least, however, firms can identify potential leaders and help prepare them in-house for leadership roles. Current firm leaders can teach rising leaders about law firm management and structure, client relations, practice development, and law firm economics. Firm leaders can serve as mentors and role models, providing guidance about what it means to be a leader in the firm. They can also work with rising leaders on actual firm problems or strategic planning. As they work together, the senior partners can transmit their wisdom while observing and advising the more junior lawyers in leadership techniques.

6. Share learning internally. The most inexpensive way to transfer learning throughout the firm is to encourage all lawyers in the firm to teach each other. Ask lawyers who write articles or make conference presentations to use their materials as the basis for an in-house presentation. Similarly, ask lawyers who attend outside CLE programs to present what they learned to their colleagues. Hold informal "lunch and learn" sessions to discuss topics of shared professional interest, e.g., substantive legal points, recent court decisions, legislative actions, case developments, or firm clients. Rotate responsibility among lawyers for selecting the topic and leading the discussion. This method promotes teaching habits and helps lawyers improve their presentation skills, demonstrate their substantive knowledge, and hone their leadership abilities.

7. Make your formal training programs cost-effective. Sometimes the specific needs of associates and partners are best addressed by formal training programs. If that is the case, set priorities and hold training sessions on the most important topics. Use your own lawyers as faculty whenever they have suitable expertise and teaching ability. In addition, look for free or inexpensive training resources to facilitate in-house course development, such as videotapes or DVDs of programs sponsored by bar organizations or law schools. If you need to use outside training providers, search for options that are not too costly, such as online CLE offerings and programs sponsored by bar associations and CLE vendors. Even if you choose to bring in a trainer, there may be inexpensive alternatives. Your clients or suppliers may offer training at little or no cost. For example, liability insurers often teach ethics and risk management programs. You can also collaborate with other small or mid-size firms to develop a joint training course, or to present programs for each other on subjects where the firms' practices are complementary.

8. Use community resources. For maximum professional development, lawyers must expand their sources of learning beyond the firm and the legal profession. Clients, community leaders, and prominent business guests can offer valuable insights and information about client management, current civic issues, or industry developments that affect the firm's practice. Many of these individuals will welcome the chance to talk with your lawyers, and most will do so at no charge. Your lawyers will benefit both from what the individuals have to say and from the networking opportunities presented for new business and for teaching lawyers the art of business development.


 Case Study: Using Appreciative Inquiry

When organizations experience a problem, they frequently undertake surveys, focus groups, and interviews to diagnose the problem so that they can design and implement remedies. But by solely emphasizing the problem, the inquiry process can backfire and exacerbate the underlying trouble. By asking about what's wrong, the exercise reinforces negative attitudes by having people dwell on their negative experiences. To avoid this outcome, I like to use "Appreciative Inquiry (AI)." This technique focuses on the potential for positive change by looking at "the best of what has been, what is, and what might be" in the organization. (The Power of Appreciative Inquiry, Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco (2003)) AI builds on organizational strengths rather than concentrating on organizational deficits.

I used this approach with a West Coast firm that was confronting higher than usual associate turnover and declining morale among the associates who remained. To find out what was causing this troubling situation, the firm's Managing Partner interviewed a few associates and reviewed exit interviews of the associates who had left. He tried to reassure associates in his interviews that the firm was dealing with its problems, but soon sensed that the mood in the firm was getting worse instead of better. He asked me to help him turn the situation around.

Instead of concentrating on associates' unhappiness, I asked questions about what made the firm a good place to work and how it could become better. My questions were stated positively:

  • What attracted you to this firm?
  • What do you find most satisfying about working here?
  • How have partners shown you that they value and support you?
  • What makes you proud to be part of the firm?

These questions created a constructive framework in which to examine the firm's work environment. The AI process did not ignore the attrition and morale issues. Indeed, those underlying problems were brought up throughout the inquiry process, especially when associates compared their positive experiences to the conditions they felt were creating a less-than-desirable workplace. However, when comments were reframed from negative problems ("Why are lawyers unhappy here?") to affirmative challenges ("How can we make this a place where lawyers will be happy and want to stay?"), the discussion became more constructive. Rather than griping about what they disliked, people became more energetic, engaged, and willing to move forward. Associates and law firm leaders were able to work together to develop a plan for increasing retention and improving morale.


 Upcoming Conferences

Over the next few weeks, I will be speaking about mentoring, diversity, and professional development at the following conferences:

  • Fifth Annual Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference, sponsored by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, New York City, November 3, 2004,
  • Association of Legal Administrators Combined Region 1 and 2 Education Conference, Orlando, Florida, November 5, 2004,
  • Third Annual Professional Development Institute, Washington, DC, December 2-3, 2004,

I also recently spoke at a program hosted by the Atlanta Legal Diversity Consortium, Inc. (ALDC). The ALDC is an organization dedicated to enhancing diversity in the Atlanta legal community. For information about the ALDC, see their website at


 Articles, Books and Resources

1. The September 2004 issue of Law Practice, the magazine published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section, featured a roundtable discussion on Investing in Long Term Success, in which I participated. The discussion can be found at

2. Solving the Part-Time Puzzle: The Law Firm's Guide to Balanced Hours (NALP, 2004), by Joan C. Williams and Cynthia Thomas Calvert of the Project for Attorney Retention (, is an essential book that every law firm should study and put to immediate use. The authors have produced a guidebook that carefully lays out the case for "balanced hours programs," which they define as "work style programs that allow attorneys to reduce the number of hours they work without sacrificing their professional futures." Balanced hours programs go beyond the conventional part-time policies found in most law firms. They are driven by business considerations, principally the need to recruit and retain talented lawyers. These programs do not stigmatize or penalize lawyers who work reduced hours, and they ensure that participants succeed by providing active management oversight. In addition to making the economic case, the book describes in detail how to design and implement a balanced hours program, and supplies helpful forms, worksheets, and a model policy. The book is available from NALP,

3. Best Practices in Attorney Professional Development: Heading Off and Handling Wrong Turns, was recently published by the ABA Career Resource Center and is available electronically as well as in hard copy. The 40 contributing authors are members of the Professional Development Consortium and leaders in in-house professional development. The book contains three sections, each of which consists of many brief chapters offering advice on specific topics. Each chapter discusses common mistakes and how to prevent or cure them using a "best practice tenet." The book also contains numerous job descriptions for professional development personnel at various levels of experience and responsibility.

4. 100 Plus Pointers for New Lawyers on Adjusting to Your Job, by Sharon Meit Abrahams, Ed.D., Director of Professional Development at McDermott, Will & Emery LLP. This handy booklet is published by the ABA Career Resource Center, in cooperation with the ABA Young Lawyers Division. It provides "tips, tactics, and tools for early success in the legal profession," informing new associates about such diverse topics as using technology wisely; understanding billing, collection and costs; internal networking; time management; and what to do when you make a mistake.

5. At long last, the Professional Development Consortium has launched a website! The PDC is dedicated "to sharing ideas, strategies and best practices to improve the performance of lawyers and the profession." It now has 274 members from law firms, government agencies, and corporations in the United States, Canada, England and New Zealand. In addition to descriptions of the organization's activities and members, the new website provides access to membership information and applications. Check it out at


©2004 Ida Abbott Consulting

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