How to link associate training to law firm performance?

How to link associate training to law firm performance?

Helping associates develop skills that boost law firm performance, such as lean operations or talent management, is high on executives’ priority list, but whether the training is effective remains unclear more often than not, a global McKinsey survey suggests.

Half of the people who participated in the survey said building associates’ capabilities is among their top three priorities. Associate training was most important in India, where 62% of respondents listed it among their top three priorities, and in China (58% of respondents). Both regions are home to quickly expanding law firms.

The majority of polled law firms linked associate training to individual performance, but these metrics are proving to be insufficient, according to the survey results. Thirty-six per cent of respondents said lacking credible metrics of how associate training affects the legal practice is a big challenge (up from 22% in 2010). More than half did not know whether the training improved law firm performance in the past three years.

“In the results from organisations that are most effective at capability building, however, are some lessons for improvement,” the survey report says.

To improve performance, law firms are shifting resources from training executives, mid-level managers, and technical specialists to emphasise skill development of frontline associates.

One-third of the law firms McKinsey polled used most of their training resources on frontline associates, up from 22% five years ago. At the same time, fewer law firms used most of their resources to train executives (26%, down from 31% in 2010), mid-level managers (19%, down from 23%), and technical specialists (14%, down from 16%).

In 2010, 31% of executives polled in a similar survey rated training frontline associates very effective in improving legal practice performance. Fewer executives were as enthusiastic about the effectiveness of training management or technical specialists in, for example, research and development, IT, or engineering.

The most effective skill development programmes encourage associates to keep learning; offer them tools, methods, and standard procedures; institutionalise the sharing of best practices (eg, in law firm academies); and integrate learning with human resources processes, such as performance management.

A consulting firm recommended law firms follow three steps to establish associate training programmes that link learning results to legal practice performance and include meaningful, quantitative targets:

  • Systematically and objectively identify gaps in the institutional and individual capabilities that promise to have the most positive impact on the legal practice.
  • Tailor the training programmes to associates’ specific strengths and needs and complement in-class learning with real work situations and coaching. Proposed leading-edge methods include digital learning, which reaches a large number of associates anywhere at once, and learning that links skill development to day-to-day work experience in a risk-free setting, such as model factories or simulators.
  • Make the human resources function and individual legal practice units co-owners of skill-building responsibilities and integrate learning results into performance management. Establish rigorous performance management systems with robust metrics and then measure progress against clear targets to identify gaps.[1]


1. Based, but with many changes, on an article published by Sabine Vollmer