Why Upskilling Junior Lawyers Should be Your Firm’s Priority

The law firm model is broken. Industry commentators and those who work within it are increasingly pointing out how the traditional pyramid law firm model (a select number of senior partners delegating tasks down to a large cohort of associates and juniors) is unsustainable in the disrupted economy we currently live in.[1]

A changing legal industry calls for change within firms

Increasingly dominated by new technologies, the legal market is experiencing great changes to hiring, largely driven by trends such as:

More traditionally structured firms that intend to survive in future need to urgently address and improve staff retention, and provide an appealing culture for the next generation who will inevitably inherit and drive the legal industry forward.

The benefits of upskilling and empowering junior lawyers

No doubt upskilling your firm’s junior lawyers requires time and financial investment, but there are benefits in doing so, including:

1. Freeing senior staff to focus on more high-value, complex work

Junior lawyers possess enthusiasm, energy and fresh perspectives – qualities that firms should harness to enable the organisation’s senior lawyers to focus on more high-value and complex work, and business and strategic development.

2. Improving staff retention and engagement

The remit of the junior lawyer is changing thanks to the same technology that is driving disruption in the legal industry. For example, artificial intelligence is now making a play on the work of junior lawyers while activities like proofreading, document review and research (quintessentially components of a junior lawyer’s training) are already heavily automated.

With career prospects and training some of the major reasons why graduate lawyers accept a potential employer’s offer, upskilling your firm’s junior fee-earners is an effective way to improve staff retention and engagement.

3. Encouraging fresh perspectives that can move your firm forward

In his article in Lawyers Weekly, Bob Murray – principal of global consultancy firm Fortinberry Murray and international expert in strategy and leadership – predicts the reversal of demand in the global legal industry, where grads and younger lawyers may eventually be sought after more than the current crop of senior and mid-level partners.

“Grads and junior lawyers don’t come with so many of the assumptions and so much of the Pavlovian baggage that senior partners and even senior associates are lumbered with.”

“Law itself, in the future, will be the concern of youth and technology,” says Murray, who also noted that many of the current partners will need to eventually “leave law to the youngsters who can take it in the new digital direction that it is bound to go.”

Investing in the development of your junior lawyers’ skills will enable your firm to not only keep up with new technology and survive in the current climate of digital change, but also take your practice into the future.

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), named as Australia’s best recruiter of law graduates for the third year in a row, recognises the need to empower junior lawyers in these ways.

“At HSF we fully appreciate that the practice of law has changed and that clients expect more agility, efficiency and greater value from their legal advisers”, says Peter Butler, senior partner and former managing partner and head of litigation for HSF. “This is why we support upskilling, mentoring and empowering our junior lawyers from the moment they join us.”

“As their technical legal abilities continue to develop, we also encourage our junior legal staff to assist with the firm’s innovation strategies, business development and knowledge management. Not just to free up more senior legal practitioners for more specialised work, but to help our junior practitioners to become the firm leaders, and industry specialists, of tomorrow.”

Tips to upskill your firms junior lawyers

Consciously investing in your junior staff in the following ways will immerse them in your firm’s culture, build loyalty and allow them to add value more quickly:

  • Offer personalised onboarding that personally engages and recognises each junior staff member’s specific talents. This can enhance job satisfaction, productivity and reduce turnover.
  • Enhance their non-legal skills in areas such as interpersonal communication, business development, teamwork and problem-solving. While day-to-day immersion in legal work will effectively build professional skill development, these ‘soft skills’ are increasingly vital in client-focused legal services.
  • Offer greater access to digital legal guidance and knowledge solutions (including practice notes, precedent documents and legal updates) can enable your junior staff to learn faster and upskill at any time, including remotely.
  • Adopt a mentoring process that matches more senior practitioners with junior legal staff – enhancing the former’s staff management and knowledge-sharing capabilities, while enabling the latter to be work ready more quickly.

While clients are increasingly baulking at the concepts of effectively paying firms to train their junior staff, large team leverage and overservicing, it’s an inescapable fact that junior lawyers are the industry leaders and legal innovators of the future.

In the past, junior lawyers were generally regarded as somewhat insignificant – with upskilling being an almost accidental by-product of surviving a firm’s pressure-cooker environment. In an era of increasing disruption, however, upskilling a firm’s junior lawyers should be a matter of priority and conscious design. A firm’s survival in this market will greatly depend on the engagement, enthusiasm and skills (‘soft’ or otherwise) of its staff.

[1] http://www.afr.com/business/legal/threat-to-law-firms-as-pwc-kpmg-expand-legal-capabilities-20160602-gpa3w2; https://www.crikey.com.au/2013/10/31/law-firms-pyramid-scheme-model-coming-undone/

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