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How to do staff training that really works

“Excellence,” said Aristotle, “is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

If excellence is a habit you’d like to instill in your staff, then you need to train them properly and make a habit, too, of training and retraining.

Why invest in training employees?

There are many factors contributing to the ongoing need for training in organizations, such as the growing use of technology and the disappearance of law libraries and word processing departments. The absence of a law library may be having a more significant impact on your paralegals and associates than you realize. “There’s a lot of content in the world,” says Doug Striker, of Savvy Training & Consulting, “and helping your staff learn how to navigate through it is a question of investment of time or money.” And the lack of a word processing department means that legal secretaries now need to master advanced word processing skills, including how to create table of contents, footnotes, and styles, among other steps.

On top of that, because of new technology, law firms are leaning towards a ratio of one paralegal or legal assistant to anywhere from two to eight attorneys, increasing the staff workloads. As well, lawyers now dictate to voice recognition software and sometimes the training may not be on how to use the transcription equipment, but rather geared towards the lawyers on how to actually dictate.

Your staff members need to learn many new skills so they can be proficient at their jobs. By providing proper training and committing to a culture of learning, you’re setting the stage for your people to succeed. This makes your organization a productive and desirable place to work.

Developing a culture of learning and growth

To make a training program succeed, though, it’s important that you obtain buy-in from both the partners and the staff. Worker morale, job satisfaction, and productivity are all improved when employees believe that an organization is genuinely interested in their development.

There are several ways you can demonstrate that your firm has a culture of learning.

  • Include training in your annual budget
  • Include learning opportunities for all levels of the firm, including IT, administration, associates, paralegals, etc.
  • Create a policy on employee training, including how often employees are expected to take training and whether or not they will be reimbursed for workdays missed for training
  • Offer regular lunch-and-learn sessions, beyond regular training sessions
  • Encourage input from employees, such as evaluations and suggestions for future topics
  • Provide desk-side support
  • Offer mentoring. Peer-to-peer learning is not only an effective training method, it is also great for team-building.

Encourage your team to view everything as an opportunity to learn, such as a new piece of legislation, a new piece of software, a seasonal event, a successful transaction, or even a mistake.

Take, for example, the Assistant District Attorney in Georgia, who was recently fired for “replying to all” in an email. She was frustrated on learning that the hearing would be once again delayed because of the defendant’s serious health condition. Her unfortunate comment, “Surprise, surprise,” was received by dozens of lawyers, staff and others involved in the case.

Although she attempted to recall the message, the appearance of insensitivity to the defendant’s health condition resulted in the prosecutor being removed from the case and suspended for three days without pay.

While the appearance of insensitivity is bad enough, it could have been much worse. What if the defendant’s condition had been protected under health privacy laws or if the email contained prosecution strategy or other confidential information? In any event, this error should be looked at as a teachable moment on email protocols for every law firm.

Identifying your training triggers

Mistakes like the prosecutor’s noted above might be termed “incidental learning,” which is one of those learning moments that happens unintentionally; that is, something happens because of your actions and you say to yourself, “I must remember to …”.

“There is often an event that triggers a need for training,” says Striker. “These flashpoints can be anything from putting the wrong client’s name on a document to a missed deadline. These errors reflect poorly on the firm. When clients are getting bad documents, it’s embarrassing. And the client’s now thinking, ‘If you can’t get my name right on a document, I don’t want you.’ That’s a sign that it’s time for refresher training.”

Of course, it’s preferable to go the route of “intentional learning,” where opportunities are sought out with the intention of learning. Some training triggers for intentional learning would include:

  • The purchase of new equipment or technology, such as time and billing systems, phone systems, document management systems, and client relations systems;
  • Corporate reorganizations or mergers. You want to ensure that everyone is following the same procedures;
  • Office relocations;
  • Promotions, transfers or new hires;
  • Job redesigns;
  • Performance issues;
  • Changes in laws, procedures or regulations;
  • Succession planning; and
  • Safety issues.

Don’t ignore the basics either, such as Windows file management or email etiquette. Many people have not received formal training on these tasks or, if they had, may require a refresher. For example, corporate trainer and Senior Project Manager Cheryl Farrar of Savvy Training tells of one recent session held for a multi-site firm which was upgrading from Word 2007 to 2013. “Before the roll-out was even completed, the trainer was requested to return for follow-up training and then again six weeks later. Why? It came out during the training that basic skills were poor. “

Assessing your firm’s training needs

So how do you determine where training is needed and how much to provide? There are many different approaches to making this assessment. Some knowledge gaps can be identified through

  • exit interviews,
  • customer feedback,
  • employee complaints,
  • personal observations,
  • employee surveys, and
  • performance reviews.

There are pros and cons to each of these methods. For example, a survey, whether web-based or print, will enable honest and open feedback. However, it can be tricky to design appropriate questionnaires and the survey itself might not provide any insight into the reasons behind the need. A personal interview allows for flexibility in the type and scope of questions, but, in a large law firm, can be very time-consuming. And personal observations may reduce interruptions in work, but would require a trained observer.

Of course, employees can also simply tell you what they need. For example, you could share with your staff members the long-term goals of your company and invite their input into how these goals will affect them and where they might require training.

June Madison, a corporate trainer and curriculum developer, tells of an IT project for rebranding a large organization’s Intranet. “We started with surveys,” she says.” We used SurveyMonkey to gather needs analysis information from the employees. We found this to be a really good way of getting started. We gathered as a team and came up with some objectives regarding what we needed to know about the employees’ skill level and their current abilities. This worked well in the beginning stages of our planning. From there we went on to determining outcomes and assisting various departments in deciding what those were. Articulating detailed outcomes was very important to the success of the process.”

At Savvy Training, when they start a project with a law firm, they may use one of the following:

A skills survey: This is an anonymous self-assessment a firm can administer to allow end users to report their level of knowledge on certain technology platforms, or even particular features of a single piece of software (such as Microsoft Word). The goal is to gather self-reported data in a non-threatening manner. This is a non-scored assessment.

A knowledge check: This is a graded quiz on a specific feature or features of an identified application. The cumulative scores can be used to guide a training plan.

A skills assessment: This is a comprehensive task-oriented online test designed to definitively determine skill gaps and proficiencies in an identified application.

“Although the skills assessment will usually render the best result,” says Lesly Kenney, Director of Business Development at Savvy Training, “the skills survey is sometimes a better way to avoid tension and negativity before a pending rollout.”

How much time should be scheduled for training?

The time required to train your staff will, of course, vary depending on the topic. For example, moving from an old platform to a new one (e.g., WordPerfect to Microsoft Word) will require more time than would be necessary if training on software upgrades. According to Farrar, software upgrades would typically require training sessions of one full day for secretaries and legal assistants, two hours for an associate, and half-day for administrative staff, such as the receptionist, human resources and accounting personnel.

Secretaries and legal assistants get the most training because, as you can imagine, it is hard to get an associate to give up billable time for training. Due to these time constraints, associates generally get fewer hands-on exercises and just a basic overview of the topic. However, Farrar is noticing that more often, the younger associates, who generally handle their own document creation, are joining the longer training sessions in order to build their skills.

It’s important to be flexible. And remember that if you opt for shorter training sessions, then you will likely require more floor support and follow-up sessions to fill the gaps that were missed in the training.

“Of course,” says Striker, “you don’t need a training consultant every time the firm acquires software. Software packages have embedded training. Google and Microsoft all have high-end built-in tutorials. Even Go-to-Meeting has a tutorial. There are different levels of use, though. Take Excel, for example; the needs of your personal injury attorney will be different from your litigator or real estate paralegal.

While responsibility for training staff often lands on HR or IT managers, those managers do not always have the requisite skills to develop a training program.

Farrar, who has more than 25 years of experience as a corporate trainer, says “It takes a certain type of person to be informative and engaging. Your IT person may be too technical, and you don’t want an advanced financial expert training everyone on Excel’s basics.”

One alternative for law firms is a learning management system (LMS), which allows an organization to host content online, providing easy access for learners with reporting functions and assigning courses to people.

The advantage to an LMS is the ability to access the content when refresher training is needed. Monica Sandler, National Director of Training for Attorney Resource, says, “While providing onsite instructor-led training during major upgrades and roll-outs is ideal for many firms, the need to have a trainer available after the class is over is often not in a firm’s budget. By making effective, efficient and reasonably priced e-Learning available to firm staff, most of the post roll-out stress can be alleviated.”


“All firms do things differently,” says Striker. “You want a firm to get to a place where they’re not putting out fires. By having knowledgeable staff, you can avoid last minute disasters. Investing in people and their education pays off. Develop a holistic approach to training under the umbrella of HR and IT, and make it a part of the firm’s culture. By sending the positive message, ‘We’re going to invest in our people.’ You have a better chance of a positive outcome. You’ll have happier people whose needs are taken care of.


An invitation from Savvy Training

At Savvy Training we have a knowledge check within our LMS that we would be glad to share with your readers via online login. Law Office Manager readers can email info@savvytraining if interested and we would be happy to give them access to the knowledge check for Microsoft Word 2010 Intermediate so they can see how it is structured and delivered. They will be presented with 25 randomly-generated questions relative to the topic. It’s a great intermediate way to assess a training need.

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