Professional Development and Training: The World's a Different Place

Friday, July 1, 2005 - 01:00

Steven P. Daitch
West Education Group

It's often said that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. I believe in a slightly altered version - everything you need to know, you learn from your customers. I have spent the last several months trying to understand what our customers are looking for in professional development by visiting the largest law firms in the United States, corporate law departments, and several large legal offices of the U.S. government.

What did I learn? Professional development has changed drastically since the last time I did the same tour in 2002. During my visits, I heard a lot of new phrases. Concepts such as lifetime learning and commitment to learning excellence repeatedly came up in conversation. Where it used to be considered an administrative issue, managing partners and chief executive officers of the world's largest law firms now see professional development as business critical to compete for the best new lawyers, retain the brightest members of the firm, and win new business.

Professional development is no longer simply about managing MCLE requirements or new associate training. Clients demand up-to-the minute legal advice based on the latest changes in the law from lawyers who have a high degree of business and professional acumen. Clients want to work with legal professionals who understand their industry and can fully advise them not only on legal matters, but also on the implications of these matters to their business. As a result, firms have realized that their true competitive advantage is human capital and have worked accordingly to turn professional development into a core strategy.

To help lawyers achieve these goals takes not only a high degree of commitment, but also a radically different approach to professional development. The firm must incorporate professional development into its core culture, finding ways to cost-effectively merge professional development into overall training plans and otherwise manage this development for all of its personnel.

One example of a firm that has taken professional development to the next level is Reed Smith, a leading international law firm with nearly 1,000 lawyers located throughout the United States and United Kingdom. The firm has arranged for all of its attorneys to take part in a jointly developed executive education program, Reed Smith University. The University will include five schools, covering leadership, business development, technology, professional support and continuing legal education.

Search almost any Web site of a top global firm and you will find similar results. Law firms are committed to professional development and training in ways they never were before. What tools are they using? Most are familiar - third party CLE providers or in-house CLE programs - and now more and more firms offer their legal professionals access to programs via the Internet.

Online Continuing Legal Education

Legal professionals can participate in online CLE courses through two methods: on-demand and live webcast. Live webcasts allow legal professionals to attend programs through the Web in real time, saving valuable travel and lost time away from the office. Webcasts are developed and distributed by traditional CLE providers and delivered through streaming audio-video or audio-only formats, letting legal professionals participate as if they were in the room. On-demand programs are prerecorded, and let legal professionals participate in courses based on their schedule, with the option of pausing, rewinding and stopping the program if they need to speak to a client or tend to a time critical matter. Both formats typically let the user link to program materials.

Why Online?

Convenient access, ease of use, and high-quality programming drive the demand and progress of continuing legal education, but the introduction of the Internet, and subsequently of online CLE programs, has changed the way that legal professionals participate in courses, offering flexible, cost-effective learning opportunities without the travel requirement. Overall demand for easy access, acceptance and technological improvements, as well as the need for instant access to programs related to current and industry-related issues, also have contributed to the growing number of legal professionals who participate in online CLEs.

In addition to added convenience, online learning helps lawyers gain access to more immediate information on issues that are prevalent in the industry and their practice area. At West LegalEdcenter, for example, we've introduced a new category of online programs called Hot Topics that address fast-changing issues while helping attorneys relate topics to their own practice. Interestingly, the availability of online programs also can allow legal professionals to virtually attend "classic" CLE events. As a result, programs that were recorded by unrivaled experts in the law past and present, such as the Irving Younger CLE Seriesª, are now available online to a new generation of lawyers.

Additionally, acceptance of online learning as a genuine form of education has increased overall. The business community now frequently turns to online education as an adequate and necessary way of fulfilling education gaps. The CLE world also is expanding to accommodate new technologies, and Thomson West is leading this charge. For example, in response to a West LegalEdcenter petition, the Ohio Supreme Court Commission on Continuing Legal Education for the first time approved a West LegalEdcenter live webcast. Our service has received similar approval from New York, Texas, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Vermont this year. In addition, 37 of the 40 MCLE states now allow some or all MCLE hours to be earned online.

Future Of Professional Development

As more law firms understand the value and importance of professional development, electronic performance support systems (EPSS) will become a key tool in training management. EPSS can help organizations reduce the cost of training and increase overall productivity and performance by empowering employees to perform tasks with a minimum amount of external intervention or training. By using this type of system, employees, especially new employees, will not only be able to complete their work more quickly and accurately, but also will learn more about their job and their employer's business. This vision of creating profiles for each member of the firm based on a model of set characteristics of high-performing professional and business staff is now achievable.

The legal industry's view of professional development has truly changed in recent years, but the growing number of tools, including online CLE in particular, has made this transition easier. Just-in-time training, coupled with large repositories of CLE programming that provide courses in all practice areas at all levels of legal education, as well as professional and business skills, now offer a clear competitive advantage. As a result, law firms can concentrate on the business and practice of law, while being assured that their commitment to professional development will offer the greatest benefits to their firm and their clients, including to the bottom line of both organizations.

Steven P. Daitch, Esq., is vice president of West Education Group and general manager of West LegalEdcenter (http://www.westlegaledcenter.com/), the nation's leading online continuing legal education (CLE) service from Thomson West, which is part of The Thomson Corporation. For more information about West LegalEdcenter, contact us by e-mail at support@westlegaledcenter.com.