While I’m out of the office this week, I’m really pleased to be bringing you a special guest post from one of the ILN’s member professionals. Alice Steen, Knowledge Manager at Holmes O’Malley Sexton, discusses best practices for developing a learning culture in your organization.

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Alice Steen, Knowledge Manager, at Holmes O’Malley Sexton reflects on ten years of learning and development (L&D) – providing strategic planning, specialist training, funding and supports for the staff’s further education, career and professional development at the thriving full service law firm.

Alice is a qualified solicitor with post graduate qualifications in higher education, teaching and learning, together with being a Lean Black Belt.

Alice joined Holmes O’Malley Sexton (HOMS Solicitors) in 2008 when it had just one office and 26 practising solicitors, 2 legal executives and 3 trainees. She has witnessed the firm’s solicitors, legal executives and trainee numbers grow by nearly 300% along with now having four offices in London, Dublin, Limerick and Cork. The nature and demands of her own role have changed dramatically as a result.

Managing knowledge and L&D is vital to ensure consistency in client service delivery across multiple offices. One the of outcomes of which we are most proud is the exceptional level to which the firm holds itself in terms of delivery of advices to clients. This is down to high level commitment to ensuring that we hire the best people and invest in their development in line with our strategic renewal programme. Our “lifelong learning” ethos flows from the top. Managing Partner Harry Fehily undertook CEDR (Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution) training and became a leading Accredited Mediator. Robert Bourke, Partner, completed a Diploma in Strategic Growth (Biotech & Pharma).

Harry comments,

The culture and commitment to L&D has changed over the years. It has gone from ensuring that solicitors meet their Law Society Continuing Professional Development (“CPD”) requirements each year to being fundamental in the implementation of our business strategy.”

Having gone through a period of strategic renewal, and as a team decided on the direction of the firm, we identified where training was required for our specialised business units in order to achieve our vision. The alignment of the L&D function and plan with the corporate strategy has been transformational for business. Instrumental in that further, continued alignment has been through the firm engaging our Business Development Manager, Maria Gleeson, a qualified solicitor with over 13 years of experience in the industry, along with having obtained a Masters in Business Administration from UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.

The main facets of our L&D plan include tailoring the following to our business strategy and sector focus:-

  1. In-house CPD scheme.
  2. Educational Assistance Scheme.
  3. Planned external training.

Our In-House CPD Scheme

Our In-House CPD Scheme consists of specialist training delivered onsite for our solicitors in their particular legal fields and other professional development areas such as leadership, management, leadership, IT skills, innovation, soft skills etc. External leading industry experts provide training, including barristers, engineers, accountants, leaders, solicitors and various other professionals.

Advantages to having an in-house CPD scheme include:-

  1. Ethos of excellence: Even the most junior members of our team have now had exposure to leading industry experts sharing knowledge and experience.  By having an exposure to these role models at a junior level you realise what it takes to set you apart from the pack.
  2. Networking: Develop contacts and relationships with industry experts. We are extremely privileged to host some exceptional speakers. It is a mutually beneficial, two way relationship, in terms of both the speaker and our staff developing contacts, networks and referrals.
  3. Bespoke development: Knowledge, skills and expertise grow and develop year on year for each team member, be that legal skills, business skills or soft skills. Content is specifically tailored to our firm and our people, rather than a one size fits all approach at external events. Our leaders and future leaders have up-to-date, all round knowledge of a range of legal areas, not just in their specialised areas, as they simply have to pop up to the boardroom at lunch time to take part, without booking a day or half day out of the office and travelling to an event elsewhere.
  4. Teambuilding: Having our junior team members in a room with the business leaders and learning from each other has had benefits beyond anything which we imagined.  It creates an environment where people are not afraid to ask questions or put up their hand and suggest a solution. Firm wide discussions in the confidential in-house setting facilitate sharing of ideas which progress into tangible benefits and initiatives for clients and the firm.
  5. Financial savings: Time and cost savings, for the firm and in turn for clients, through no travel to external CPD and delivery of training over lunch.
  6. Engagement: With the wider team with solicitors, partners, legal executives, trainees and interns all attending. Experience and tacit knowledge are shared, especially by more senior members of the team. However, we have also witnessed a sort of “reverse mentoring” taking place by giving millennials a voice around the table.  Millennials have a huge amount to offer in terms of process improvements and insight into what our clients expect from a digital perspective.  Our in-house CPD scheme has a provided a platform for these insights to be shared with the leaders of the firm.
  7. Business Development:  By aligning our L&D with the business strategy it ensures that we are constantly upskilling in the right direction for the business.  Having attended a course our team members are asked to produce client added value content, such as seminars and briefings, on foot of the course. This has resulted in clients not just benefiting from excellent legal and business acumen in their lawyers, but in the spin-off content being directly useful and relevant to our unique mix of clients.

Our Education Assistance Scheme

Through our education assistance scheme we facilitate and support solicitors and other professional staff to undertake formal study to obtain further qualifications and skill development. Examples include undertaking diplomas, certificates and leadership programmes. The firm assists in funding course fees as well as providing supports such as paid study leave and time to attend courses. The scheme supports and develops the individual in line with their development plan as well as the firm’s strategic focus and commitment to further develop and specialise in key areas of growth. Solicitors obtain further specialism, qualifications and professional development whilst the firm attains higher levels of specialism and more client focussed and tailored services.

Our Partner responsible for Human Resources in the firm, Donal Creaton, commented,

When a firm or business invests in its employees it is investing in itself and its clients. We have seen time and time again that when we invest in our employee’s professional development that the employee enjoys great satisfaction and support out of personal and professional development which in turn reaps rewards for clients through the firm delivering specialist services in the most cost efficient way possible.”

We have invested in leadership training for over a quarter of our solicitors to date. We chose Ingenium Training and Consultancy to provide this leadership programme in conjunction with the University of Limerick. Olivia Hayes, Smart Choice Project Lead at Ingenium, commented,

The Smart Choice Leadership Programme simultaneously facilitates career planning for participants and successional planning for organisations. It provided the HOMS Solicitors participants with a rich and practical toolkit in leadership.”

Developing a learning culture in your organisation

Alice’s advice on creating a learning culture within a law firm includes:-

Be prepared for it to take time.

We first employed a dedicated Knowledge Manager in 2008 and commenced the initial phases of our L&D plan through starting our in-house training scheme in 2009. It took time to change the culture to tailored directional learning, grow our in-house scheme along with a planned, strategic focus on external training and further qualifications.

Do not take a rearview view of learning.

Learning is not just about legal specialist areas. Its about providing skills to professional legal staff to enable them to meet the demands of a modern business practice – project management, leadership, innovation, technology, lean six sigma, to name but a few.

Walk the walk and talk the talk.

Leading an L&D strategy requires specialised skills outside of the usual legal qualifications of a law firm’s Knowledge Manager. Alice has studied post graduate certificates in teaching and learning in higher education along with qualifying as a Lean Black Belt. Lean is a process improvement methodology which is an extremely powerful business transformational strategy.

Learn from experts and use L&D as a business development tool.

Use in-house and external training as opportunities for business development – to network, to act as ambassadors of the firm and to deepen key client, business and community relationships. Do not just share tacit and explicit knowledge from your own professionals in-house. Ensure you also include external specialists to deliver your in-house scheme. This develops and deepens those relationships – look for clients, business and industry leaders to come in to your offices to share their insights. Set up a scheme for external training approval so that you are involved in strategically investing funds for staff to attend external specialist training only where it is useful and necessary.

Accommodate different learning styles.

Learning psychologists have long expounded the fact that we all learn in different ways and the general consensus is that there are seven different learning styles. Gone are the days that it is acceptable to learn through listening to a dusty academic professor mumble though a lecture with no notes, visuals or teaching technique. Explore the different learning styles and teaching techniques. Go to training seminars and workshops yourself and outline and encourage what is expected in a learning event to your team and your training facilitators. This is also vital in order to be non-discriminatory and all-inclusive in provision of L&D services, especially to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

Reuse, repurpose, reshare and evolve.

Whether you are a two solicitor law firm or a firm with over one thousand employees, your best learnings will be material that is useful. When you look to reuse that material, it will enable you to not just save time and money but it will facilitate evolution of the material into something of even higher calibre and quality. For instance, useful knowledge should be used in all aspects of the firm’s teaching, learning and business development through in-house training (in person, online and storage on knowhow databanks), client seminars, industry and business community seminars, articles and newsletters.

Align your learning and development plan to the firm’s business strategy.

This is a constant process of alignment and retailoring. You need to be adaptive and flexible. Engagement with all key stakeholders in your L&D plan is vital: Managing Partner, Business Unit Managers, Business Development Manager, Human Resources Manager, IT, external industry experts and business leaders and of course the participants. This can be challenging given people’s time constraints, especially fee earners, and that is why it is especially important to measure and showcase the benefits and successes of L&D. Equally these people also act as L&D champions which is instrumental to the momentum and continued growth and success of L&D.

Measure the benefits and successes.

Evaluate training through post-training questionnaires. Use an online survey tool for speed, ease of use and automatically result overviews at a glance. Report on successes and learn from any failures. Measure reuse of knowledge in client value add initiatives. Accolades of successful client and business events can be showcased through newsletters, web posts, social media and sharing of client feedback and testimonials.

Showcase any saving, measure it. We have grown our in-house CPD scheme since 2009, when we provided 10 hours of internal CPD that year, to 2018’s 35 hours, focusing on our growth areas and skills development. Servicing a team of approximately 30 partners, solicitors, legal executives and trainees in 2009 to a team of 85 in 2019 has resulted in provision of thousands of specialised CPD hours being provided in-house in a “lunch and learn” programme. This has also resulted in costs savings to the firm of in excess of €1m over ten years through a decrease in external training event fees, travel time and billable hours. Savings are ploughed back into supporting professional staff to obtain further qualifications and to attend industry leading, specialised external training (further afield in other jurisdictions where necessary).

Closing Remarks

Our CPD and education assistance schemes and supports have gone from strength to strength with HOMS Solicitors having developed an extraordinarily strong L&D culture. Commitment to lifelong learning and to our employees is key to our strategy to deliver unrivalled services to clients as well as making this firm a great place to work. Knowledge management supports are vital for all businesses providing professional services, not least in providing knowledge based legal services, and excellence in this area is at the heart of our service delivery.

Our solicitors and professional staff have welcomed and taken advantage of our L&D commitment through the in-house scheme, the strategic planning of attendance at external training, and our education assistance scheme. Feedback has been excellent (although we do continue to learn, develop and improve our L&D strategy!) and these schemes contribute to our great place to work commitment, as well as assisting in recruitment and retention of staff.