Professional Development in Law: 5 Vital Insights from PDI 2016

Washington, D.C. played host last week to law firm professional development and recruiting professionals as they explored some of the latest trends in lawyer training and development.

If you missed NALP’s largest ever annual Professional Development Institute, here are 5 of our favorite takeaways from PDI 2016:

1. Stop thinking retention and start thinking engagement.

Twenty years ago, the half-life of a workplace skill was 30 years. Today, it’s five. Twenty years ago, the goal was to “keep” the “keepers”. Today, with 60% of millennials reporting little to no attachment to employers or institutions, the concept of a “keeper” has little, if any, organizational relevance. Twenty years ago, employees simply…stayed. Today, with 71% of millennials reporting non-engagement or active disengagement at work, frequent job-change is not only common, but inevitable. With these statistics in mind, this year’s conference was chock-full of thematic emphasis on the need to embrace the dynamism of “new law” and to accept that attrition is, and, absent another recession, will likely remain, the inescapable reality of the job market.  

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you should throw retention initiatives out of the window; rather, this year’s discussion focused on shifting your thinking away from engagement as the means to an end (retention), and towards embracing engagement as the end in itself. Recently, The Conference Board defined engagement as “a heightened emotional and intellectual connection that an employee has for his/her job, organization, manager, or coworkers that, in turn, influences him/her to apply additional discretionary effort to his/her work.” A focus on engagement is therefore a focus on providing the best possible personal and professional support to your attorney population as it is here, and as it is now. When you engage employees, you raise morale, improve culture and, as a byproduct, slow attrition. But even if that’s not the ultimate outcome, it doesn’t so much matter. By focusing on improving the work experience for your existing workforce, you are creating an environment that will breed happier alumni and better recruits, which will counterbalance attrition by supplementing and bolstering a flow of competitive talent. 

2. Coaching, coaching, coaching.

That so many of this year’s PDI attendees self- identified either as internal or external coaches underscores that career coaching is playing a vital role in lawyer professional development initiatives, and will continue to do so. To that end, a big theme at this year’s conference was the many forms (and nomenclature) that coaching can take, and take on: from group coaching (what some are calling “circles” or “pods” or “peer-to-peer”) to hybrid coaching (combination group and one-on-one coaching) to coaching that’s not only transformational, but synergistic with the tenets of mindfulness/wellness.

The big takeaway?  Coaching is no longer simply remedial. A range of speakers and attendees presented both formal studies and organizational anecdotes that demonstrate that coaching affects multiple areas of professional development: workflow, mentoring, career progression, stress reduction, communication, business development, and parental transitions, just to name a few. In this environment, it’s clear that you should be making the case for coaching at your firm, whether that means designing and delivering internal programming, or engaging external coaches and consultants. Either way, and whatever your budget and bandwidth, coaching has the potential to positively shape your law firm’s culture and optimize employee performance.

3. Flip the classroom.

An educational theme that got airtime was the concept of “flipping” the classroom. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a flipped classroom is an instructional strategy and a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional learning environment by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom. It moves activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, into the classroom. Conference presenters showcased this learning strategy this year, emphasizing its promise of improved learning outcomes, including the cultivation of  higher-order thinking skills such as problem-finding, collaboration, design and problem solving as lawyers tackle difficult problems, work in groups, research, and construct knowledge with the help of their trainer and colleagues.
So what might that mean for you? It means that the next time you consider a live training, consider sending the slide deck to your lawyers beforehand.  Use the training time to engage your lawyers in interactive exercises that demand the kind of higher-order thinking that will prepare your attorneys to tackle the practical aspects of project and people management.    

4. It’s not a ladder, it’s a lattice.

From the opening plenary to the final afternoon's sessions, there was tremendous emphasis on the new realities of career management. Specifically, conference speakers and attendees spoke about the replacement of traditional terms like “ladder” and “advancement” with words like “lattice” and “progression,” highlighting the fact that career management is no longer so much about helping employees manage their careers, as it is supporting employees as they discover their careers. As the world changes rapidly around us, junior attorneys expect the guidance and the resources that will empower them to progress as professionals – both within your organization and, perhaps even more importantly, beyond it.   

5. DO sweat the small stuff.

When it comes to lateral partner hiring, onboarding and integration, it’s vital that you talk about everything lest expectations and reality fail to line up. This will only undermine your new hire’s ability to succeed. This year, recruiting professionals discussed the importance of the seemingly "unimportant" in the lateral recruitment process – that is, the need to cover topics that may seem relatively "routine," "ordinary" or "administrative" in the grand scheme of things, but which can – and in fact have –  led to new hire underperformance. 
So what kind of things should you be discussing? Think topics as diverse as secretarial ratios (perhaps your new hire is used to 1-1 support, but your firm operates under a very different model), and the allocation of originations credit (perhaps your new hire is used to something else, and considers your partners' approaches a raw deal). These may not seem like the kind of topics that would make it to the top of the interview agenda, but the frustration and resentment that can arise from issues such as these, have the ability to destabilize the relationship between you and your new hire.
Our team was at PDI to present our own insights, which we did across five panels - with a focus this year on coaching – as well as to learn and share as much as we could.  

If you would like to hear more on the above or on other professional development topics that affect you – our clients – please feel free to reach out.