Casper Herler: The Role of Law Firms in Training Lawyers
Is there anything wrong with the law studies?
Academic excellence and an analytical approach play a pivotal role in law studies and form a solid foundation for junior lawyers embarking on their career in the business world. As a result, these skills are a precondition for success in terms of a law firm recruitment process. Legal skills alone, however, are not the only recipe for success in business. Other important tools for great business lawyers include:
- leadership skills;
- communication and negotiation skills;
- networking skills;
- cooperation; and
- a high tolerance for stressful situations.
Unfortunately these skills are not taught systematically at university level even though they will help you to stand out from the crowd, establish your place in the community and ensure your future progression towards more challenging positions. These skills will also help you to better understand the needs of our ever-changing society, the business environment and working life as a whole. Change is inevitable, and if you practice these skills you will be better prepared for and more able to adapt to future challenges.
Some of these important skills that are not often associated with the development of the role of a lawyer deserve a closer look.
Leadership and management
Surprisingly, the subject of leadership is not seen as a hot topic among lawyers. Instead, the ideal role model for a lawyer – at least in the Finnish university studies – is still a hard-working expert who rarely needs to socialise or cooperate with others. In today’s competitive business world there will be situations when you will need to adapt from being an expert in your field to a leader. Such a transition does not happen overnight.
Lawyers adopt a leadership position in at least two different situations:
- Acting as a supervisor for others. This could range from supervising an assistant or trainee to supervising a team of lawyers, a department or even an entire company.
- Lawyers may encounter circumstances where they need to take command of a situation. For example, during difficult negotiations a lawyer can either be the one who resolves a deadlock by using their awareness for the situation and parties involved or the one who crashes the negotiations by being too fond of pedantic hair-splitting.
It is often said that self-leadership mirrors one’s leadership skills. People operating in business life, lawyers included, are required to obtain great self-leadership skills, know their own strengths and weaknesses and be able to act and develop on the basis of these. Often great employee skills can be easily turned into great leadership skills – if you understand your own behavioural models and are confident about yourself you are more prone to read and lead other people in your work community.
Like other experts, lawyers are also expected to master new communication methods, establish an online presence and interact directly with clients. Social media is key in this trend and lawyers should learn to make use of it. Business lawyers also have to be able to understand communication styles and strategies in matters falling outside of a legal context, such as stock exchange releases, dialogue with stakeholders in infrastructure project development or acting in co-operation negotiations.
Thirdly, lawyers have to have excellent social networking skills and be able to cooperate with other players in the field. A recent study from Harvard University (Heidi K. Gardner: Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos 2016) shows that companies in the professional services industry which can generate intense collaboration between different people and parties are more profitable compared to companies without such intense collaboration.
This proves that networking can be very beneficial. An individual’s ability to increase their profitability is rather restricted and a mere permanent increase of individual work hours is not efficient as a long-term sustainable solution for substantial increase in profitability. Collaboration on the other hand benefits all and provides means to leverage the advantages of information and experience sharing. A multi-disciplinary approach through integrated teams also motivates professionals and increases the solution oriented approach which leads to better professional service.
How can we learn these skills?
There are two obvious ways of learning these skills as student: by participating in student organisation activities during your studies and practicing these skills through your work life experiences.
In order to meet the new standards for leadership, communication and networking, several law firms have established learning programmes for their employees. This further highlights the importance of trainee programmes as they provide students an opportunity to participate in learning programmes during their studies. Trainee programmes are an important way of learning skills needed in work life and gaining hands-on experience.
Internationally, law firm training and learning programmes have been existing for quite a while, and in addition to differences in the civil and common law traditions this can certainly also be explained by the sizes of law firms in the jurisdiction. A growth of such programmes in Finland and the Nordics can clearly be traced back to the substantial growth of law firms which has been taking place during the past two decades.
The volume of internal learning programmes is already large, and keeps growing. As a result, law firms can be seen as an important trainer alongside universities when training business lawyers to better meet the needs of business life.
This is a way for larger business law firms to take a more active role in developing the role of law in our societies and contribute to the common good. I aim to develop my thoughts on this topic and continue the dialogue within business society, among law firms and colleagues and with our universities as well as with students. Please feel free to share your thoughts of the development so far and how we at law firms should develop our programmes and cooperation in training students and lawyers.
Casper Herler is Managing Partner of Borenius, a law firm dedicated to help clients change our common business landscape. He’s a former researcher and teacher at University of Helsinki, holds a PhD in law and still lectures on environmental and natural resources law as well as environmental advocacy.