Rocketing value with Continuing Education
In June this year, our firm was elated to win the prestigious Financial Times ‘Most Innovative Asia Pacific Law Firm 2015’ award, emerging from a rigorous study on law firm innovation by RSG Consulting. This crowned the firm’s very passionate journey on the path of Innovation – including two consecutive FT Innovation awards as ‘Most Innovative Indian Law Firm’ for 2013 and 2014.
This recognition did not come by happenstance. ‘Being the first’ has been a pivotal force for us. We have painstakingly cultivated the spirit and discipline of brainstorming, churning unusual ideas, and introducing unheard-of methods and practices (among law firms and beyond) for long term strategic impact.
How else do you hold up a proposition that provides premium integrated strategic advice to solve complex problems of clients and rescue them from crisis - whilst you stay a ‘nano’ firm thriving on its lean but power-packed ‘braincount’? How can you lead thought in your profession and create a climate for continuous ‘research-led’ invention and solution? This is possible only by nurturing a compulsive, participative and flourishing ‘learning’ culture. And that’s what we chose to do.
Perhaps one of our best and most prevailing ‘firsts’ was our concept of ‘Continuing Education’ (CE). Every morning, we assemble for about an hour for a session of collective learning. No law firm in the world is known to dedicate time every working day to ‘training’. More pertinently, every lawyer in the firm invests that one hour daily to mastering his vocation, broadening and sharpening his knowledge, thinking, and craft. Not an easy trade-off against more alluring billable hours, as evidenced by the fact that hardly any law firm had even considered other forms of learning besides the ‘on-the-job’ kind.
Yet, we decided to invest in fast-tracking our people’s abilities. So, every member grows competencies ahead of the normal curve and has higher capacity and range. By equipping our people with heightened expertise and all-round proficiencies, we believed we would serve our clients better. Our logic was simple. Wouldn’t a passenger choose to fly a plane where he knew the pilot trained every day, rather than once a while?
Let’s take a quick leap back to discover how this program evolved organically. Research and knowledge sharing was always endemic to NDA’s practice. Also, we had identified an ‘Inverted T’ approach where apart from the core area of specialization, firm members were, in the initial three years, pushed to garner broad exposure to various practices. This helped every member develop a wide enough understanding of ‘other practices’ to be able to expand their delivery capability and proffer integrated strategic advice.
Early in the new millennium, the NDA team would regularly converge to discuss and debate trends, developments and ideas in the legal, regulatory and political environment. These discussions soon gathered a life of their own. Embellished by other ‘learning’ programs such as ‘Yearn to Learn’ (training of fresh, early stage talent) or ‘Read to Lead’ (exploring books), or NDA’s regular ‘Globalization Retreats’ (fostering management education), NDA started a structured participative training session every Thursday. This session, called ‘Continuing Education’ was intended to expand the horizontal base of the ‘Inverted T’. Steered by firm members, usually experts on a topic, every CE facilitated versatility, depth and width of knowledge. Sensing the huge benefits to the firm’s ‘premium’ strategy, CEs were subsequently converted into a ‘daily’ activity.
Choosing to invest in people development, however, instead of milking billable work was not an easy (and financially contrarian) call for the firm’s leadership. Nor is it an easy ride for our firm’s professionals, who not only need dollops of belief in and commitment to this system, but also need to demonstrate consistent, extraordinary discipline and persistence. For they each need to battle early-morning logistical challenges, balance client work demands and other pressing demands on time – every day – to be present in time for the CE session. Further, firm members regularly spend time to prepare and conduct these sessions.
Notwithstanding these travails, we have persisted with this tough routine, our 9 a.m. CE session. Continuing Education (CE) Program today encompasses a structured approach to learning and development of our people. It underlines why our firm is popularly viewed as a ‘Law school after law school’.
It needs to be said, that CEs and its processes have provoked more debate and creative modifications within the firm, than any other process or program. For several years, as we strived and sometimes struggled to ensure consistently high participation, quality and energy in our CE sessions, there were views that getting lawyers into the habit of daily training, ahead of their ‘delivery’ priorities – even for a pre-determined hour - was a lost cause. What queered the matter was that without high and quality participation, a training session could easily become a mundane ‘waste of time’. What’s more, getting the entire firm to start their day at 9 am isn’t a cakewalk.
How did we battle this natural resistance?
We’ve tried a blend of means such as imposition of targets and credit for participation, recording attendance and persistently reminding those missing out, and many others. But what has truly worked has been ‘collective inspiration formed of collective conviction’. At some point, we decided to shed our debates on whether or not, and simply pursue the path ardently. And that was when CE transformed to a firm-wide way of life. The effect spiraled. We created pull with cutting edge content and execution, leadership and expert participation every day, and a dynamic, inspired CE committee that constantly ensured relevant and effective material. Today, extensive use of technology have made the CE experience accessible and user-friendly. Our feedback mechanism (with mobile applicability), the valuable easy-access repository of CE sessions, all offices connected through video-conferencing and other means, and user-friendly information flows have made CE participation effortless.
So, why should we strive to make the CE program stick and sustain? Because the one binding aspiration in every firm member is to be the best professional we can be. And a similar aspiration we share for the firm is our ability to fix the complex challenges our clients face with preparedness, quality excellence and premium expertise.
The CE innovation has a direct impact on the development of the individual lawyer, growth of the firm and its services as well as value that a client experiences. It has created a highly charged academic environment within the firm. CEs strengthen the firm’s research centric outlook and its unique model of ‘anticipate, prepare and deliver’. The CE topics range from the latest developments and jurisprudence in law, policy and business; case studies of deals and transactions; experience and expertise sharing; technical (in different areas of law), conceptual or skill-based (competency) training and so on. In effect, we interact, analyze, discuss, debate, interpret, and learn. We often formulate our positions on different matters of law and perspectives on global developments in these sessions. These sessions have often been launch pads for innovative approaches to complex issues.
Finally, an important lesson from our CE journey is this. Once, a population reaches an inflexion point where the gains of a process fructify in extraordinary results, it is easy to align the entire organization to adopt it. However, when a concept is arduous to apply and not a common practice either, it is that much tougher to embed. So, till a critical mass of the population experiences the higher empowerment and heady results, we need to collectively keep inspiring others to embrace the ‘contrarian’ habit. Here, leadership counts – and anyone can lead. We have never failed to find leaders and first movers to make CEs innovative and bring the zing back every time it tends to sag. The sheer roster of thought leadership output and innovative solutions we have accomplished over the years tell us why our CE is the bedrock of our innovation and client success story.
We would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.