Building Cross-Competency in Law Firms

Building Cross-Competency in Law Firms

Many law firms invest considerable time, effort, and resources in cross-training younger lawyers to work in more than one practice area. Cross-training is a worthwhile investment, but often a very costly one. This Green Paper outlines a new approach to cross training, which achieves well-defined, measurable results without the negative business impact that most law firms experience.

Overview of cross-competency development

"We know that we should cross-train our younger lawyers to work in a variety of practice specialties, but it's bad for our business." As we help law firms to improve lawyer performance, we frequently hear this observation.

Traditional cross-training is time-consuming and costly. It requires an investment of time and attention, on the part of trainer and trainee alike, to acquire specialized knowledge that may be used only infrequently during the lawyer's career with the firm. The firm also often loses current revenue, because it cannot always charge the cross-trainee's full hourly rate for work performed outside his or her specialty.

Law firms can avoid this unattractive return on investment by focusing on the development of competencies in another practice specialty, rather than just spending time working in it. This Green Paper outlines a new approach, which produces well-rounded lawyers who not only know more about other practice specialties, but can also use that knowledge to produce clearly measurable business results.

In this Green Paper, we use the phrase cross-competency development to describe this process. We prefer the phrase cross-competency development, rather than cross-training, in order to focus the measurable results that the firm should achieve from this process.

Cross-competency development should pursue these goals:

Provide associates with a practical awareness and understanding of the competencies required for successful performance as a lawyer in another department or practice group. We do not expect a tax lawyer, for example, to become knowledgeable in litigation. However, she should be able to describe the special competencies required in litigation, to spot potentially critical litigation issues arising in her tax practice, and to refer her clients to the appropriate resources in the firm's litigation group. Surprisingly, most lawyers in most law firms would be unable to do this.

Communicate a practice group's competencies through group seminars and closer professional relationships between individual lawyers. We do not recommend that a trademarks lawyer, for example, work in the banking group for six months. The actual benefit that the individual lawyer and the firm gain from the experience of actually working for a short period of time in another practice group is marginal. The costs to the firm, in terms of lost productivity and the possibility of reduced billing rates for the lawyer who is cross-training, usually outweigh the benefits.

Integrate cross-competency development with the firm-wide initiative to define and document the competencies required for lawyers to advance in the firm. Most lawyers in most law firms have no idea what skills and knowledge they need to be successful.

Develop cross-competency in an overall context of improved communications and better service to clients and to the legal markets in which the firm competes. In other words, a cross-competent lawyer will be able to demonstrate that if a client has a problem that is outside his or her expertise, the client will be referred efficiently to another lawyer in the firm. This is critically important in the development of new business from existing clients; but most lawyers in most law firms are unable to do this.

Competencies and cross-training

Law firms need practical, realistic goals for cross-training of their lawyers. In our experience, it is unrealistic to expect most lawyers to develop more than the most fundamental levels of specialized skills and technical knowledge through temporary reassignment. On the other hand, it is very important that every lawyer know and understand the fundamental characteristics of the practice of each group and department in the firm.

This knowledge is a critical first step toward effective cross-marketing. In today's competitive law firm, all partners must be business developers, each in his or her own way. Cross-marketing is probably the most powerful business development tool that every partner has. One does not have to be a rainmaker to make rain through cross-selling the firm's other legal products and services to existing clients.

The substantive goal of cross-training should be to develop cross-competency, not just to gain experience working in another practice area. General on-the-job training is a notoriously inefficient way to teach specific professional competencies. Success becomes more a matter of opportunity and luck than the result of a carefully thought-out program to acquire specific skills and knowledge that a competent lawyer needs. This is little more successful than sitting for prolonged periods in a garage in hopes of becoming an automobile.

Cross-training, therefore, is more than spending time and doing work as it comes. Instead it should be relentlessly focused on producing an awareness and understanding of the basic competencies of practice in the other practice group or department.

Competencies in legal practice can be organized into three general categories:

Legal skills: What are the legal skills -- such as legal research, factual analysis, legal writing, or advocacy - that are required to deliver legal services in this practice area at a level that meets client needs and expectations, and that is consistent with standards of professional responsibility?

Technical knowledge: What specialized legal, commercial, or industry-specific knowledge is required in this practice area?

Practice management: What procedures, methods, or techniques are required to manage legal practice in this area in a way that meets client needs and expectations, supports profitability, or supports the firm's competitive position in the market?

Group and individual cross-competency programs

The first - and most differentiating - feature of our approach is that we do not recommend that a law firm attempt to cross-train lawyers by reassigning them to work in other groups or departments. All of the benefits, both to the individual lawyer and to the firm, can be achieved through a combination of group and individual cross-competency initiatives.

Group cross-competency programs: Internal seminars

One of the desired outcomes of cross-competency is improved communications. Every lawyer in the firm - not just those who are being cross-trained - benefits by learning more about issues that their partners and colleagues confront in their everyday practices. These can range from the impact of new legislation on the work of a practice group to the practical problems of finding and keeping new clients in a price-sensitive practice area.

Individual cross-competency: Shadows and Guides

The best way to learn about another lawyer's practice is to work alongside that lawyer. The economics of law firm practice, however, make this approach an impractical model for building cross-competency. Therefore, the lawyer who is being cross-trained should remain in his or her regular practice group or department. However, he or she is assigned to a close professional relationship with a lawyer in the other practice group.

This program is known as shadowing because the lawyer who is being cross-trained acts like the shadow of his or her counterpart in the other group. The lawyer who is being cross-trained is known as the Shadow. The lawyer in the other group is known as the Guide. The Guide is usually a lawyer with roughly the same professional experience and length of service in the firm as his or her Shadow. The shadowing relationship should be monitored by the partners who normally supervise the two lawyers; but the day-to-day responsibility for communicating and building competency in the Shadow rests with the Guide.

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