In this the second article in a series on the role and development of in-house lawyers in a changing professional and market landscape, Paul Gilbert takes an in-depth look at personal development. The first article “The trouble with in-house lawyers” which introduces the imperative for change – can be read via this link.

Continuous professional development for lawyers in the United Kingdom was introduced in the mid nineteen-eighties. The original purpose was clear; every lawyer should invest in their ongoing training and personal development to maintain a level of technical competence and skill. This was conceived more as a public/client protection initiative than for the personal benefit of individual lawyers, but it was a bold ambition and no-one would argue against it, in principle at least.

I would like to focus on one aspect of its effectiveness; that which relates to the development, contribution and value of in-house lawyers. While this is my focus, much of what I say is equally applicable to all lawyers operating under the current regulatory ambition of continuous professional development (CPD)

I believe the situation we are now in is truly shocking. CPD is broken, indeed has been broken for decades and is essentially a feeble charade of its stated purpose.

For very many lawyers it seems to loom into view as a rather inconvenient pause in their busy lives when frankly any conference, presentation or workshop however dull or indeed relevant, will do to ensure they can tick a training box that says they have attended the minimum hours required.

In none of this is there is a sense of investment, no requirement to show learning, development or value. Recognising this, the CPD “industry” has responded brilliantly to meet the obviously low aspirations and expectations of lawyers. How does this manifest itself?

  1. Law firms offer free lectures – These are very often thoughtful and usually worthy. There is every chance the subject will be relevant and the content accurate. These lectures represent a chance for law firm associates to practice presentations, but often represent a chance for invited delegates to write limp apologies for failing to turn up. I regularly speak to organisers of these events in law firms who tell me the attrition rate on the day for “no-shows” can be 50% or more of the expected number of delegates. What a meaningless, empty, disrespectful waste of time.
  2. Too many training providers offer generic “tick-box” subjects – piling people into windowless hotel conference suites with bad coffee. Most delegates viewing the prospect of a whole day in such an uninspiring environment as akin to punishment, all plotting as early an exit as is possible, reconciled even at the outset to there being nothing more valuable on offer than a day out of the office and an early train home. The most important part of the day is for delegates to ensure they registered and have carefully noted the CPD code reference, after which they can relax knowing that essentially the purpose of the day is fulfilled.
  3. Finally, corporate HR departments buy off-the-shelf computer-based learning packages and then foist their pence-per-view training modules on the lawyers with the grim determination of the sheep dip operative.

In all of this any sense of imagination, thoughtfulness, relevance, investment and application are jettisoned because in the end nothing is about personal development, everything is about ticking a bloody box.

Worst of all however is the fact that far too many General Counsel do not fight for a meaningful training budget and by doing so concede that there will be nothing to offer, but the above flaccid ineptitude. It is as if they simply bow to the inevitable and treat CPD as the mere tick-in-a-box everyone expects; an essentially valueless vessel of no substance or worth beyond the fact that there is a record of “attendance” (if not of presence).

Welcome to the world of zombie development.

The observable reality therefore is that a prospective lawyer invests tens of thousands of pounds in their degree and post-graduate debt. Then as a trainee their employer will invest far more to put them through a training contract so that they can practice. Then, at the point when they can make a meaningful contribution as an in-house lawyer in a major brand (handling millions of pounds of liabilities, managing risks that impact the share-price and the livelihoods of fellow employees) many legal teams have no budget for their ongoing training and development needs.

This is about as strategic as giving an ice-pick to a diamond cutter.

If we are charitable we might say that we draw a distinction between the formal CPD we “have” to do and personal development which is an imaginative mix of thoughtful mentoring, career planning and seeking out opportunity. However I fear this is not being charitable, but being deluded. Lawyers simply do not invest in themselves and this must change.

It must change because of the contribution that is needed from in-house lawyers in business and in the public sector today. It must change because in-house lawyers have the opportunity and the insight to help shape their environments like never before and crucially it must change because of the career profile of the vast majority of in-house lawyers going forward.

An in-house lawyer today in their first in-house role, let’s say in their early thirties can expect to work for at least another thirty years. The average life-cycle of a role now is three to five years and reducing. We therefore confidently expect in-house lawyers to have up to ten roles in a career. That’s ten highly competitive processes in which only one person in a hundred or more will succeed. Not only has each in-house lawyer to demonstrate a level of technical attainment, but they will need to show many other skills as well – that they have business acumen, leadership credentials, presentation/influencing/negotiation skills, that they can write well, manage well, implement well, add value, encourage others and contribute beyond their brief.

If anyone thinks this will be achieved by pitching up to a few CPD lectures good luck, because I fear it may not. What EVERY in-house lawyer has got to do is to consider their career as the passport to delivering value to their employer, their family and for themselves. This needs planning and it needs a serious focus at all stages.

What follows are the practical steps that I urge every in-house lawyer to follow. Invest in personal development is not a throw-away line; it is the only means you have that will help ensure the probability is improved of securing roles that your talent and potential deserve.

Your network – If this is only the group of people you like to drink with, you have failed to build a network. If this is the group of people who only hear from you when you need a new job you have failed to engage with your network. A network should be wide, diverse and active. It is the people you have helped, the people with whom you share ideas and the people you want to actively encourage and support. Your unconditional commitment to your network means you then have a reservoir of resource to call upon when you need it.

A mentor – No successful career in whatever field has been successful without the support of a mentor. Whether inside your business or outside, whether a lawyer or a non lawyer, every in-house lawyer should have a trusted sounding board and a private outlet for personal concerns and ambitions. The wisdom of others, shared without fear or favour, is an essential pre-requisite to making better decisions.

Skills development – The skills needed to succeed today are many and various. In the early part of our career there is an understandable focus on technical skills, but our career will not be defined by how much law we know. What skills do you need to succeed today and for the foreseeable future? What steps are you taking to develop those skills? This is not about fancy programmes and spending lots of money. If you need to present better, seek out low key presentation opportunities, write articles (whether published or not), volunteer to lead a project, chair a meeting or prepare the project plan. Whatever you do there will be moments to seize and to practice skills. No world class athlete in any discipline, just rocks up to an event and wins. If you have untapped potential it will not be revealed by osmosis; practice what you need to be great at and then practice some more.

Selected courses – A well run event (even the free seminars I disparaged above) is full of opportunity. Next time you accept an invitation to a one hour lecture on a vaguely relevant subject also ensure you do the following:

  • Turn up with some thoughts about the subject, how it is relevant to your business and have two or three questions to ask.
  • Ask at least one question in the forum, ask any others in the networking opportunity that follows
  • Get the contact details of the presenter and follow up to say thank you personally and to share a related article that you have read (or better still that you have written)
  • Get the contact details of at least one other delegate who you have not met before and share with them afterwards something likely to be of interest in their world
  • Make a point of analysing afterwards if there is a practical “quick-win” for anything learned at the event that would benefit your business and seek the opportunity to implement it.

If all you do is seek the shadows, leave at the first possible opportunity and complain about it as a waste of your time, please don’t ever accept an invitation again, it’s not for you; but if you can be alive to the possibility that you can learn, share and engage, please come and come again. This is truly personal development.

Opportunities within – What needs to be done in your work? Process improvement? FAQs reviewed and updated? Internal training programmes to write and deliver? Projects outside of legal? Whatever it is volunteer, set out what you can do and what value it will bring. Everything that has a value to your business is also a personal development opportunity if it is planned with that in mind.

Opportunities without – Not everything will be available when you need it from the resources of your employer. What about community projects? Charitable causes? School governorships? What can you see that engages and develops skills that have a positive contribution for you and indirectly therefore for your employer?

Having a plan – And for all of this you need a plan. I suggest three rolling plans at all times; a one-hundred day plan, a one-year plan and a three-year plan. The one-hundred day plan should always have one personal development opportunity that is defined and achievable. The fact that it is short term and current keeps it in focus and means there is less opportunity to drop good intentions under the pressure of the always burgeoning to-do list. The one-year plan should have more craft and direction to it setting out three to four key objectives for the year ahead, a budget, the anticipated “return on investment” and the key milestones. The three-year plan is much more strategic and likely to plot the arc from one role to the next. This plan should contain detailed objectives, but also develop the narrative around the rationale for mentoring, the thoughtful building of the network and the identification of opportunities inside and outside the organisation.

All of this can sound a little self-serving and frankly it is, but there is also a wider and more important context. To be an in-house lawyer today is to carry a burden that was not always part of the role in years gone by. An in-house lawyer today, more than ever before, is one of the key influencers in business; a creative talent and part of the business assurance resource. To be successful requires skilful deployment of resources, knowing how and when to intervene to maximise the impact of the contribution and helping shape products and services to increase the opportunity for business to be successful.

The personal development of individual talent is a responsibility every bit as significant as the investment in technology and efficient process and should be planned and resourced accordingly. All in-house lawyers have a duty, in my judgement, to make their personal development a meaningful priority.