A Secret to Building Future Firm Leaders: Peer Learning
Every law firm wants its associates to develop into successful partners. In fact, nurturing talented associates — and retaining them — is critical to your firm’s long-term success. But there’s a gulf between the skills associates use in their day-to-day work and the talents they must cultivate to become partners.
Associates spend the bulk of their time developing their core legal skills: researching and writing, analyzing issues, learning to efficiently select the most relevant guidance and precedent, and sharpening their attention to detail. However, such work alone does not cultivate the broader leadership skill set required of a successful partner.
Partners must (i) build and nurture client relationships, (ii) actively participate in a firm’s various committees (e.g., recruiting, hiring, evaluations, compensation, senior management), (iii) develop executive presence, (iv) make effective presentations, (v) lead and manage teams of attorneys and staff and (vi) set the firm’s course in pursuit of far-reaching goals. Learning these leadership skills is crucial for associates, but because doing so doesn’t translate directly into billable hours, such education can quickly fall by the wayside.
So how do you make time for associates to grow the qualities they need to become successful partners and leaders? My decade-plus of advising leading law firms has shown me that firms already have the resource they need to provide this crucial education: outstanding mid-level and senior associates who can teach others.
Lawyers teaching lawyers
Each associate contributes to your firm’s goals, and sometimes an associate’s accomplishments are truly outstanding. You can capitalize on those accomplishments through peer-to-peer learning. Have associates explain to others how they achieved their success: what their thought process was, what stumbling blocks they encountered along the way and how they finally attained their goal.
For example, say one of your senior associates led a large, disparate team in successfully closing a complex transaction. Set aside a portion of your next team or practice group meeting for the associate to walk their peers through the steps that led to their success.
The competitive environment of a law firm may seem at first blush to be an unlikely place for peer learning. But over and over, I’ve seen this approach reap a host of benefits:
- Increased engagement. Associates and partners alike thrive in a culture of cooperation. And when associates feel that they’re part of the big picture — contributing to the firm’s and their colleagues’ successes — their sense of loyalty and engagement skyrockets. Rather than toiling ceaselessly on billable work, they see their efforts as part of a larger endeavor that matters to them.
- Enhanced skills. When lawyers teach lawyers, everyone involved learns. Not only does an associate spread important knowledge to others, but the act of teaching itself helps to deepen the very skills needed to develop into a partner: projecting a professional image, being a good listener, anticipating questions, speaking and explaining effectively and bringing another person’s point of view into one’s own thinking.
- Improved work environment. Peer learning creates an atmosphere of trust and collaboration, which not only makes your firm’s culture more pleasant, but also more productive. Friendly competition is a given in the field of law — even opposing counsel may be a valued friend — but cooperation is what drives effective work toward firm goals.
- Better retention. Associates who teach and learn from each other foster lasting bonds. They naturally discover their own special capabilities, invest themselves more deeply in the firm’s success and establish loyalty in an environment in which they can learn and thrive. Peer learning is one of the most sure-fire ways I’ve seen to improve associate retention — and develop valuable partners to lead your firm in the future.
How to teach success
Everything you need to implement peer learning for associates is already available to you. It’s just a matter of codifying this approach into simple yet effective practices. Here are a few ways you can use your existing resources to help associates build leadership skills:
- Make teaching a part of your associate career development plan. By including this as a clear, defined goal, associates will recognize that you value their growth and their contributions.
- Publicly acknowledge associates for outstanding accomplishments and ask them to act as resources for their peers.
- Create opportunities like lunch-and-learns, symposiums, meetings and CLEs where associates can talk to others about the nitty-gritty of their practice: what works and what doesn’t.
- Make peer learning an ingrained part of your work process. When a matter is successfully closed or a process is completed, include short retrospectives to provide an opportunity for reflection on how things went and lessons learned.
- Get feedback. Ask associates receiving training from partners or associates how it’s useful, whether information is being communicated in a way they can relate to and what ideas they have for improving the process.
- Make a point of communicating firm values in everyday conversations, not just during annual reviews. Eventually, associates will learn to evaluate themselves in relation to firm benchmarks, even when you don’t bring them up. This instills a feeling of independence and ownership, preparing them for the role of partner.
I’ve seen lawyers learn skills from both partners and peers that have not only helped them grow as attorneys, but also made them invaluable contributors to their firm’s goals and bottom line. Formal mentoring programs are invaluable, but if you think of mentoring only in terms of partners teaching associates, you run the risk of overlooking other fertile resources for development retention and engagement, namely, having seasoned associates mentor their peers. Including peer-to-peer learning as part of your comprehensive approach to mentoring is key to unlocking a culture of collaboration and success.