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Business skills

Upskilling junior lawyers to add immediate value to the firm

It is in the interest of the law firm to encourage its junior lawyers to develop and thrive in their roles – to ultimately add value to the organisation. However, it often requires a concerted effort from the senior management, including partners, to upskill and develop junior lawyers and ensure they perpetually receive the necessary training and support.

In an interview with Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute, Catherine Roberts (CR), Director of Practical Law Australia for Thomson Reuters Legal, Australia, speaks to Peter Butler (PB), a Partner at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), about their upskilling programme and strategy.

CR: Why is it so important for firms to upskill and retain their juniors?

PB: There’s only one reason why a firm becomes preeminent: the quality of its people. Our graduates, lawyers and senior associates are our future partners. They are the DNA of our continuing success, enabling us to weather the most challenging market conditions.

We never lose sight of the need to recruit and retain the best talent. Practical, technical ability is at the heart of what we do across all areas of the firm. Clients – who are extremely sophisticated users of professional services – recognize and respond to this.

CR: What are the repercussions for firms that don’t have an upskilling strategy?

PB: Any sensible firm will invest in staff upskilling. In my view, any firm that doesn’t will fall by the wayside.

At HSF, our commitment to our staff extends all the way to the partner level. We ensure that all of our lawyers go ‘above and beyond’ mandatory further legal education requirements by offering them ongoing internal and external training programs and up-to-the-moment library resources and knowledge management technology.

CR: How does HSF’s upskilling program differentiate it from other firms?

PB: Having been confirmed as the leading recruiter for Australian law graduates in the Top 100 Graduate Employers ranking for the last three years, we like to think we’re doing something right.

Our graduates undertake a two-year program involving a ‘graduate year’ – where they gain practical experience and sit exams in subjects such as professional ethics and trust accounting – combined with a second year of intensive continuing education in specialist subject matter. We aim to make them into the best possible lawyers during those two years.

I’m pleased to say that almost all of our graduates stay on after the initial program.

Another thing that sets HSF apart is that, at any one time, we have scores of lawyers doing LLMs and MBAs, which we enthusiastically support. We offer, uniquely for the legal services sector, the Perry Fellowship, for a talented young litigation lawyer; and the Page Fellowship, for an outstanding commercial lawyer. Each fellowship is more valuable, financially, than a Rhodes Scholarship. Our fellowships enable further study overseas at, for example, Oxford, or an Ivy League university, on full-pay for one year.

CR: What strategies has HSF adopted to streamline its training for juniors?

PB: We’ve done a number of things, including ensuring that our continuing education program is devised by professionals with the input of partners from across our practice groups; that our juniors have access to the latest knowledge management technology; and that our on-the-job training is not ad hoc, but based around interpersonal coaching from senior staff.

CR: How does the firm engage its juniors and promote a culture of collaboration and innovation?

PB: Richard Branson once said, ‘Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to’; and ‘You can’t do a good business with a bad person. Find the right people to work with and you can’t go wrong’.

We encourage our lawyers to be passionate about what they do and to be great in their fields. When you are surrounded by positive, motivated people, it can’t help but rub off on you as a person and in the quality of your work.

We encourage every team member to meet and share their ideas regularly. Lawyers and our business support professionals often attend each other’s meetings to work on strategic matters. We’ve also encouraged clients to come in and advise us about their businesses and potential areas of growth. We need to be on top of industry and technological change, which is why we also host expert speakers on topics like blockchain, automation or start-ups.

CR: How does legal guidance technology help HSF’s juniors add more value?

PB: We give our lawyers access to know-how guides and knowledge management resources. Machine intelligence is increasingly being used for low-level work, freeing senior staff for more complex matters and critical thinking. Knowledge management resources are changing the game, enabling us to upskill our juniors by having them undertake drafting and advice work they might not have been able to attempt even 10 years ago.

A research job that might have once taken hours and led a junior down many a blind alley is now incredibly quick and efficient with a research tool such as Thomson Reuters Practical Law™. Instead of taking hours to assemble the right resources to answer your query, it can take mere minutes to get access to high-quality research. We will always need to apply a lawyer’s skill and judgment to a client’s needs, but when you put human skill together with new knowledge management technology, you get a great result.

CR: What are your views on the value of training to enhance nonlegal skills?

PB: We believe it’s critical, which is why industry experts and other professionals have input into our training program. It’s important to not just train your juniors in new technology – but to teach them about the psychology of interacting with other people in applying practical law. For example, we’ve had the chairman of one of our major banks come in and to talk to us about their operations and how the firm might work better with them. We’re always asking, ‘How can we do better?’

CR: What are your views on the value of mentoring?

PB: Coaching and mentoring are vital to our firm culture. We like to create a safe learning environment for our staff; ‘safe’ in the sense that everyone knows their view is welcome and contributions are encouraged.

I call them ‘jam sessions’ – the team puts up the various options, and a case is put together for all of them. We encourage an environment where people can speak freely and are appreciated, even while having their views tested by the team. Openness is key.

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