Thoughts on Lawyer Skills Training

Once you have your law degree, how do you learn new skills?  It seems a simple enough question but I considered it in light of tweets sent in a bit of a to and fro last week, including this thread, and here, and this one.  There’s obviously some disagreement about the method.  But what struck me more was that it’s not clear to me what skills we’re talking about.

Legal professionals have two fundamentals, regardless of what other motivation they have to practice law:

  • Create enough of an income to support themselves so they can practice law.
  • Meet the requirements of their licensing regulatory body.

If you can’t get those basics right, one way or another your law practice won’t last long.  I don’t see a generational issue with lawyer skills.  It may be that lawyers graduating today, or that graduated 10 years ago or what have you, are perceived to lack certain skills.  But there’s no need to wait for a particular wave of lawyers to age out of practice to address that.  Just as lawyers have faced policy and technical changes to practice – and those can cause stress – they’ve adapted, on the whole, regardless of years at the bar.  At the same time, elements of the profession have consistently commented on how new lawyers aren’t prepared.

Data like the ABA’s legal technology survey (for which I have a bias) shows how lawyers adopt technology and so perhaps we don’t do a good job of capturing data about where the other gaps are.  And perhaps we assume a greater need, based on our own roles (librarians and legal research, for example), than the actual need lawyers have to fulfill those two fundamentals of law practice.

The Method

Training has one of two purposes: teach a lawyer how to (a) use a tool(set) (like Microsoft Word styles) or (b) harness their energy around gaining or improving a skill (like listening) that they will then put into practice.

How do you train someone who has already completed 7 years of post-secondary school education?  I didn’t take the bar, but I have given and taken a variety of training since law school.  One thing that seems to get conflated is education and training.  If you aren’t required to take it through mandatory regulatory requirements, you’re probably still attending continuing education:  CE in other knowledge areas, continuing legal education (CLE) or continuing professional development (CPD) in the legal world.  These are great but they tend to be informational.  I don’t consider most CLE to be training.

Information can be good if the presentation is substantive and you practice in that area.  Adding that new knowledge to the knowledge you already have can make you a better lawyer.  Same with technology: if you’re using technology and go to a session that teaches something you can use on top, that’s great.  But those sessions will not work for everyone in the same way.  CLE conference developers have probably all received the conflicting “too easy” and “too advanced” comments on a given conference’s content.  To some attendees, the content will not provide any accessible value.

There are better ways to help individual lawyers after graduation.  The Practice Management Advisors at the US bar associations and the practice management lawyers in Ontario and other Canadian provincial and the England and Wales law societies can answer practice management on a one-to-one basis.  This is like a law librarian’s reference interview: it’s a question and answer process that will derive resources or information that is applicable to the context of the questioner.  When I ran the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center, I often described what we did as technology reference for lawyers.

But one-to-one doesn’t scale.  And the people who do this advisory role have recognized that, resulting in aggregating the wisdom found in those one-to-one engagements and creating tools that are more broadly accessed, particularly CLE presentations.  Phil Brown and I do a lot of practice management presentations, so he invited me to do a bunch (over 40 in the end) of podcasts: short looks at technology topics.  Along the same lines, I converted an annual hour long seminar I give to the Duke law school on practice technology into a free e-book.  The England & Wales Law Society has put up a set of trending Q&A (not an FAQ) of the questions they receive.  Each of these is informed with context-specific issues but are generalized to make them useful to lawyers who might practice differently.

The benefit of converting CLE content and other interactions into web information is that lawyers can access it when they need it.  One reason I don’t consider most of the educational content to be training is that, particularly when mandated, it may not be sought after for a particular need.  And without that particular need, a lawyer may be aware of a skill’s existence but not be any further along to using that skill.  Web-based content can at least have the potential of reaching a broader audience at the time of need.  So can books.

But I don’t think it rises to training unless it’s something that’s going to be used on a continual basis once it’s been learned.  When I hire a new developer, one of the first things they do is spend a week with a trainer learning how to use the content management system.  When they return to work, they have a deep understanding of how everything is connected and can administer the site.  They will spend the rest of their time with us honing that understanding.

I once pitched a similar idea to a CLE conference:  have a multi-hour workshop for lawyers.  In that time, they’d register a domain, license a web host, install a basic web site CMS like WordPress, and start to develop their own content.  It’s a completely doable idea – I’ve done it with law librarians.  And it’s unquestionably training.  The whole idea is to get the lawyer up and running with a set of tools they’ll use repetitively to market and communicate about their law practice.  But there are practical limits to educational conferences that can make training opportunities hard or impossible to manage.

The Measurements

I don’t think training is the issue.  Many of the skills that have been floated for lawyers are skills that other knowledge workers already have.  If a regulator decided every lawyer needed to learn to code to meet their fundamental obligation, there are plenty of coding bootcamps available.  If the perspective is one of access to justice – which is not the same as a focus on the practice of law – then the skills that require training might be different.  Law librarians would say legal research!

So what skills are we talking about?  A Google search suggests that “lawyers should know how to

  • use Adobe Acrobat
  • count
  • work with investigators
  • handle a traffic stop
  • argue
  • use Microsoft Word styles
  • complete the work they do not delegate

This interaction from the #CLINNOVATION conference shows skills that used to be taught (and perhaps should still be!):

Tweets about training law school computers labs in the 1980s and 1990s

And the recently announced Institute for the Future of Legal Practice is focused on the skills around the T-Shaped Lawyer (here and here), coined as the plus-shaped lawyer in Canada.  (If it isn’t an agreed term, it might go pear-shaped).  To the extent these skills are (a) provided in a bootcamp or other hard to scale method and (b) are not required by a regulator, echoing Sarah Glassmeyer, I don’t think access to this sort of training will be evenly distributed across the profession.

Two themes seem to recur in discussions of the skills new lawyers need.

The first is the failure to include measurements to show why particular skills are needed.  I don’t have any issue with lawyers learning to code.  Then what?  As any developer can tell you, if you don’t continue using that skill, it will fade (or be superseded by a new language).  Do we have some measurement to show what the need is for coding: apps, API connections, Excel spreadsheets?

We know that X% of lawyers uses Microsoft Office products and we should probably find out how many of them were ever trained to use it properly – metadata issues, recovery, sharing, styles, whatever – and then give them the carrot or stick to get them trained.  We know they’ll use the Office suite, and once trained, may use it more effectively.

Or hiring.  Can we determine how many solos hire?  Most solos probably hire a person at some point in a 40 year practice arc but I don’t really know.  Can you give them training so that they do it well, and retain it over the years when they aren’t hiring?

The second is failure to consider the reusability of the training.  Once we know what the demand is, and can identify the skill to train, the lawyer then needs to be in a position to reuse it.  The developer is an example.  But just as important are so-called soft skills: managing, mentoring, and the like.  Investing the time and energy to go beyond education on a topic to actually getting training – which could take a week or more of billable time – should also assume that lawyer has the opportunity to reuse that skill.

I’m thinking in particular of the everyone’s a project manager or everyone’s a leader education.  No, everyone isn’t a project manager.  Or a leader, in the sense that they use those skills on a regular basis.  People who get professional development in that sort of a setting will learn new skills or information and may be able to reuse it, but it won’t help them be better project managers if their role doesn’t entail projects.  It’s that context, again, that the bar association and law society staff – and all law librarians, and all lawyers working with clients – deal with.  The lawyer being trained needs to have a context in which to use that skill.  And I’m not sure that’s well-defined.

The legal services environment of the future will emerge regardless of how well or how poorly we prepare for it.  But it seems to me that, if we want to prepare legal professionals for the future, and if that future involves in-depth training (re-training some might suggest), we need to understand much more clearly what the skills are that require training, and how those skills will be reused.  At that point I think the fundamentals will kick in: either the regulator, or the lawyer’s bottom line, will make it clear that the skill adoption is necessary to participate in the practice of law.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.

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