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David Farquharson discusses on-the-job training in The Times Law Brief, HRM Guide & SmallBusiness

David Farquharson

Lawyer training needs a shock of the new

By David Farquharson

This article was originally published in The Times Law Brief, HRM Guide and smallbusiness.co.uk, and can be viewed here, here and here respectively.

Technology in the 21st century means delivering solutions but legal profession training is mired in old-school thinking.

Among the self-employed and entrepreneurial businesses, the demand for legal services is similarly focused on achieving solutions. This means instructing lawyers who guide clients through pitfalls, and who are proactive in offering advice to overcome obstacles.

However, the training of young lawyers is still wedded to 20th-century thinking: they are taught how to identify problems rather than solve them.

From law school, through to training contract and post-qualification, the focus of learning is on minimising risk rather than dealing with commercial demands. Consequently, young lawyers are increasingly out of sync with their client base.

Should the necessary skills to provide commercial advice be developed earlier? Ideally, yes. But the problem lies in traditional firm structures, where partners depend on routine drafting and administrative skills of young lawyers.

In profit terms, when everything turns on maximising billable hours, commercial on-the-job training is rarely encouraged throughout early years. Quite simply, it is seen as unnecessary.

Young lawyers are largely there to highlight problems, leaving senior lawyers to deliver solutions. This might limit potential negligence, but it does little for junior lawyers in helping to gain confidence or develop commercial judgment. Although detailed drafting and commercial advice require strong knowledge and experience, more should be done to fast-track learning processes.

Defensive thinking may play a part. If junior lawyers are seen as very capable, the client might believe they can get work done at a lower cost and form relationships with juniors instead. Alternatively, if juniors build relationships and expertise, they may set up alone, taking clients with them. On both counts, if they can do too much too young, they are a threat.

This approach cannot be in the long-term best interests of clients or law firms. The evidence of damage is there: young lawyers are increasingly mobile in the market as more leave bigger firms – and even desert the profession – because of limited training, restricted access to clients and mundane work.

Enormous sums invested in recruitment are wasted when firms do not follow up with sufficient post-qualification training and career development. Furthermore, because of resulting shortfalls in experienced lawyers coming through the ranks, large sums are spent on lateral recruitment.

This defensive, risk-averse strategy fails to deliver market needs and does not save on cost. It delivers instead a group of under-confident, frustrated junior lawyers without commercial skills; it perpetuates the risk culture that firms are supposedly seeking to avoid.

A longer term, collegiate approach is needed. Senior lawyers must be given incentive to train junior lawyers, while firms must be confident to take a bet on retention.

Ongoing training for lawyers is a critical part of the successful development of the services profession wrestling with how best to survive and prosper in the high-growth economy. Problem solvers are small in number because, paradoxically, the risk of creating them is perceived as too great.

David Farquharson is a co-founder of Ignition Law, a law firm in London

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