Feedback and mentoring

This law firm wasted $35k in an hour. We need to rethink lawyer training.

June 20, 2024


Daniel Yim

A chart showing the typical declining attention of attendees during hour long training presentations

I was chatting to a young, up-and-coming lawyer. He told me how he had been asked by his firm to present an internal training session on a niche area of commercial contracting. He was excited. It would be his first time doing this, and it would be a great opportunity to raise his profile within the firm and improve his presentation skills.

He poured hours into preparation. Revisiting the key cases. Double checking the legislation. Writing the speaking notes. Putting together the slides. Practising in front of the mirror, again and again.

The day came. His fellow lawyers shuffled into the meeting room, inspected the sandwiches on the catering table, and then took their seats, awkwardly perching lunch plates on their knees while doing a last-minute check of their phones.

It was time to begin.

Was it worth it?

‘So, how did it go?’ I asked.

‘Well, it was fine,’ he replied. ‘The only thing is, I’m not sure that many people were actually paying attention.’

‘What’s new,’ I said. ‘That’s always been the problem. But at least people are now aware of the issues and know where to go if they have any questions.’

‘Interesting you say that,’ he said. ‘It’s now been months. Nobody has asked me about the topic, and the knowledge team says nobody’s accessed the slides we put up in the knowledge portal. It’s literally made no difference.’

‘I wouldn’t be too quick to judge,’ I said. ‘Maybe the topic just hasn’t been relevant to anyone’s work yet. And at least you got some good experience and exposure out of it.’

‘I don’t know. I put so much effort and so many hours into this, and for what?’ he groaned.

Calculating the real costs

I’m not against traditional, structured training. But we need to be clear around the significant costs involved in delivering it.

For this relatively modest session, the presenting lawyer spent around 20 hours on preparation. At an assumed charge-out rate of $500/hr, that’s $10,000. Let’s conservatively assume the 50 or so attendees had a blended charge-out rate of $500/hr as well. That’s another $25,000. Even without including the costs of knowledge managers, catering and other support needed to run these sessions, we’re at $35,000.

That amount may be entirely acceptable if the value is there.

The signs didn’t look good though. Perhaps something that was said or the slides may prove useful to somebody at some point in the future, but as the days tick by, the content only becomes more and more out of the date. Perhaps we can point to the intangible benefit of fostering a culture of knowledge sharing and learning. Or the benefit of upskilling the public speaking skills of this particular lawyer. None of this is necessarily wrong, but it’s grasping at straws.

Is the problem that the topic wasn’t well selected? Possibly, but it’s always going to be an uphill battle when hour-long presentations are at odds with how many modern lawyers prefer to learn. There’s plenty of research that suggests Millennials respond better to more informal mentoring or coaching approaches, and Gen Zs expect more collaborative, conversation-based experiences. But I don’t need to tell you that. We all know from our own experiences how hard it is for people to stay focused during lunch-and-learns. There’s a reason the most commonly asked question is, ‘Will the slides be available after the session?’.

What’s the alternative?

$35,000 is a lot of money. That’s not to say it’s $35,000 worth of lost revenue. After all, there’s always time at the end of the day to make up for any missed billing opportunities during it.

The real question is whether that training session, which notionally cost $35,000, was a good use of people’s time. It’s the same question Shopify is asking of its employees by implementing its internal meeting cost calculator. This tool shows meeting organisers the dollar cost of attendees’ time, making people think twice about the benefits versus costs of the meeting before they hit the ‘send invite’ button.

Any learning and development initiative that involves knowledge content creation is going to be expensive. Most forms of structured learning would fall under this bucket, including micro-learning. This does not mean structured learning is to be avoided. Structured learning should be a fundamental component of any law firm’s learning and development program, but it needs to be high quality and deliver a lot of value to justify the cost. On top of that, if the format of the training is a 60 minute presentation, in other words we know a large portion of attendees are going to be distracted on their phones, the bar to achieving sufficient value is even higher.

Unstructured or informal learning sits at the other end of the spectrum. It usually has a low marginal cost, and occurs within the flow of work. It’s also specific and highly personalised. For example, spending 15 minutes running a project healthcheck. Or sitting down with a team member and going through the changes to their work. Or giving them some better context on the commercial objectives of the client. Yet lawyers consistently say they struggle to find the time to do these things, and lack the supporting processes, tools and technology.

Ask any professional and they’ll agree the bulk of the learning happens on-the-job, working on real tasks for real clients on real matters. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we double down on that and think about more ways we can better help people to delegate, support their teams, give feedback and mentor?

The point is not that structured learning is bad and unstructured learning is good. There is a role for both, and in any case many lawyers are required by continuing professional development rules to undertake a certain number structured learning hours. Rather, the point is that we need to be clearer around the costs and benefits of whatever learning initiatives we choose to pursue, and scrutinise how we choose to invest.

The young lawyer left the firm not too long afterwards. He never found out if all that time and effort made any difference. In his leaving note, he thanked everyone in his team for everything they did to guide, support and challenge him to make him a better lawyer. A cliché, but it’s true. The team you work with has by far the biggest influence on your learning and development. Let’s lean into that.

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