Are BigLaw Firms Heeding the Call for Business Training?

Here’s another law firm (in addition to Sutherland Asbill & Brennan–applauded in my April 28th post, that is paying attention:

Foley & Lardner is launching a new professional development series specifically designed for women attorneys–coordinated by Carol Frohllnger, J.D.,  a training consultant with NegotiatingWomen, Inc.  Foley will conduct six interactive training programs covering strategic networking, mentoring and leadership, among other topics.  A core group of Foley partners have been trained to serve as discussion facilitators.

Clearly, Foley has ample partner buy-in for its gender tailored curriculum. The firm should be applauded for conceiving and implementing an ambitious program designed (and most likely) to enhance the careers of women lawyers, a group whose path to success in large law firms, particularly in management,  remains uncertain at best.
Of course, those who have worked in the diversity space for any period of time are aware that Foley takes its diversity commitments seriously. This firm long since “got” the business case for diversity (which is particularly compelling given its client base) and the fact that management would have to embrace diversity–in recruiting, in advancement, in firm culture, for the firm to be a player in the global economy. The extensive new women’s program is highly unusual, especially in an economic climate in which the average BigLaw and other firm is focused on cutting expenses, reducing rainmaker flight and maximizing partner distributions.  Professional development, traditionally (albeit misguidedly) treated as a relatively soft cost, often suffers in those circumstances.  Yet Foley (like Sutherland Asbill & Brennan) has chosen this moment to make a substantial investment of partner and associate hours and money.  
iStock_000014148485XSmallA few “in an ideal world” remarks: 
Imagine the impact of a program of this kind if it could be offered in more general application to all associates, if not all lawyers, with diversity (including gender) specific refinements addressed in special affinity group sessions and/or an individualized coaching component.  Male attorneys need focused business development and other practical training as well.  
In fact, as noted in our original blog-post, “most newly minted law school graduates enter the BigLaw workforce without adequate networking, communication and other practical business skills, much less serviceable business sense or drafting skills, and are billed out at prodigious rates poorly tolerated by their increasingly irritable clients.“
Novice associates are all too often advised to put their heads down, bill their hours and become the best lawyers they can be, for the first three years or so–the familiar refrain being that good work is the best advertising and there’s plenty of time to network and contribute to the broader community later.  Unfortunately, although there is obviously no substitute for fine legal work, neither the new economy nor the profession, in its current state of flux, will support a professional who doesn’t leverage her reputation for excellence through strategic networking and self-promotion, much less a lawyer who can’t spare the time to keep up with his old friends from college and law school as they climb their own career ladders.  
The bottom line: The legal profession has undergone painful and seismic change, and we’re far from done.  Our young lawyers must be trained to be business people if we wish them to be around to succeed us.

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