Creating value for clients

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Written by Nigel Spencer on 1 September 2014 in Features
Features

Firms can create value and differentiation through learning partnership experiences, Nigel Spencer says

As the workplace continues to change, different sectors and organisations are having to adapt accordingly. The professional services sector isn’t immune from this as law firms strive to create value for their clients, thus giving them an advantage over competitors.

Adding value and looking at different ways of building relationships with clients is increasingly important for law firms to show creativity and innovation. This requires top employee engagement and is one of the main challenges facing Nigel Spencer, global director of learning and development at law firm, Reed Smith.

Spencer is responsible for implementing Reed Smith’s learning and development strategy globally. As an accredited coach, he creates learning programmes to develop the skills of lawyers and staff within the firm. He also sits on the firm’s diversity and corporate social responsibility (CSR) boards, helping to create learning activities to support outreach activities within schools and universities.

Spencer will be part of a panel debate on employee engagement at the annual World of Learning Conference & Exhibition (WOLCE) in Birmingham later this month. Speaking to TJ, he says that one of the key ways he’s been building engagement among new recruits is through experiential learning.

A challenge facing all law firms is to get graduates up to speed and engaging with these members of Generation Y coming into the workplace. Employability skills need to be developed before graduates enter the workplace so changing their mindset and getting them ready for the corporate world is of vital importance.

“Building commercial skills and client focus is imperative for us and it’s something you want to continuously develop. If I was a client, I’d want someone who will talk about my business with me and understand my needs – it’s an ongoing thing we’re developing here at Reed Smith,” he says.

“We’ve evolved our mandatory post-university course which all future trainee solicitors undertake, from a course which was focused purely on technical legal learning to a Business Masters which includes MBA learning.

“I do not want our graduates to just gain knowledge in the classroom. I want to incorporate learning by doing as much as possible, making the year before they join us full of experiential learning and building knowledge of the firm and our clients’ businesses at the same time.

“One of the ways we ensure that the graduates do this is by getting them to go out to clients during the Business Masters and run real business projects. In this sense, they are building the skills out in a commercial world and learning what it means to be commercial. Learning to lead a project and manage stakeholders is something I’m a real believer in and it’s important to balance this with the classroom learning.”

In undertaking projects, the graduates are asked to apply their business learning out at a client, working either individually or as part of a small graduate team on a topical business issue for a client. For the client, this gives them valuable resource at no cost to push forward some business research (hence adding value for them through this extra resource). For the graduates, the project is an early career experience to lead a client engagement, to experience a commercial context and to learn about a client’s business and industry sector. It also gives the message to future lawyers that broader business understanding is a key to their future success as the project needs to focus on a broader commercial issue for a client, not a legal one.

The engagement doesn’t stop there. Spencer is a big believer in the sharing of knowledge. The firm runs learning programmes for all levels and uses one-to-one coaching as a follow-up to many programmes so that attendees can tailor the learning to their own particular situation. This helps the learning transition from the classroom back into the workplace. Knowledge is also shared in the business through creative reverse mentoring schemes. This alternative method helps to embed learning.

“We’ve implemented a creative reverse mentoring initiative, asking junior lawyers to teach their more senior colleagues some of the business strategy models they had learnt – models which the more senior generation had not studied formally in the classroom.

“Mentoring takes place in group sessions which focus around the firm’s industry sectors – thereby re-emphasising to both populations the importance for their career development of this industry analysis and expertise. As preparation for each of these group sessions, the junior lawyers work in small teams, revising a strategy model, which they can then teach to their more senior colleagues in the mentoring session.

“After this initial part of the session, the junior lawyers applied the model to one of the firm’s clients which they had researched, which led on to a general discussion about that client and also other similar ones in the relevant industry sector.

“These sessions work on a number of levels, and are successful because they allow mutual benefits. The junior lawyers are forced to embed the learning thoroughly – as they themselves said, there is nothing like teaching a topic to ensure that you thoroughly learn it! The more senior lawyers already in the firm learnt new strategic analysis models from the juniors, but were also able to contribute themselves – sharing knowledge about how these models applied to current clients.”

According to Spencer, learning is a strategic tool that helps to build networks around the business. This is especially important for an organisation like Reed Smith that employs more than 4,000 employees globally; including locations throughout Europe, US, Asia and the Middle East.

“For us it’s about realising that learning can be especially helpful in law firms as people transition into new roles. You can use learning sensibly by making sure that you focus on people at transition points. This could be working with a group or a specific individual. Learning can be a very strategic tool in that regard. It shouldn’t be about remedial situations. It’s about going from great to greater. It’s about people moving into high profile roles so that they will be more successful and that’s an increasing trend.

“I always see learning as a medium to help build networks around the business. One of the things that help our business continue to be successful is to help connect people. It’s all about building relationships and this adds more to our client relationships – using learning for a purpose in  that regard.

“With Generation Y it’s about access to senior people and leadership experiences. By giving young people experiences quite early, it helps to bring them up to speed. That’s a big change happening in all law firms,” he concluded.

About the author

Nigel Spencer is global director of learning and development at Reed Smith. He can be contacted at nspencer@reedsmith.com

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