Why Law Firms Need to Increase Attorney Engagement

attorney engagementEarlier this month, I had the pleasure of presenting at the National Association of Legal Professionals Professional Development Institute. NALP-PDI brings together legal professionals from across the country, and world, who focus on law student and attorney development. Among many others, we had law firm CLE professionals, law school career service officers, law professors teaching professionalism, partners working on diversity and inclusion, and consultants sharing the latest techniques in professional development.

Throughout the entire two-day conference, I heard one word over and over again: engagement. It truly seemed like the NALP-PDI buzzword, from the specific (how do we engage women of color in our law firms) to the more general (how do we better engage lawyers in CLE courses)? I went to a number of programs that all seemed to circle around this idea of engagement and I wanted to share the thoughts of a few of those panelists with you.

Employers Need to Increase Work Engagement

No, that’s not a typo. One thing I learned at NALP-PDI is that the onus has to first fall on the employer to increase engagement, not on the employee. The speaker on this topic was Anne Brafford, the founding member of Aspire, a legal educational and consulting firm. Brafford, a former partner at Morgan Lewis, is currently a Ph.D. student in positive organizational psychology. While her materials are not currently available publicly online, I’ll summarize what she spoke and wrote about here.

First, what is work engagement? According to Brafford, work engagement is a positive, fulfilling, work-related mental state characterized by vigor (energy and resilience), dedication (significance and pride) and absorption in one’s work. And why should law firms care about engagement? Because engagement is positively associated with job performance, productivity, client satisfaction, and profitability. Negative associations? Turnover, burnout and depression.

How Can Employers Increase Work Engagement?

Here’s where the employer enters the picture. As Brafford explains, possibly the most important determinant of work engagement is “meaningfulness,” that we as workers feel we are worthwhile, useful, and valued, that we are making a difference, that we are not taken for granted, and crucially, that if we invest our full selves into our work, we have a strong sense of return.

Brafford identified a number of organization-level strategies to increase meaningfulness. Among them, senior attorneys fostering a greater sense of autonomy in a junior attorney’s work. What autonomy does, Brafford explained, is that it provides workers with a sense of ownership and control over their work. Autonomy allows workers to feel that their personal contribution matters. Here’s how it can work in the legal profession. Senior attorneys can appeal to a junior attorney’s interests and goals (“Here’s why I think this project is a good match for you.”) They can avoid controlling language, and instead take the perspective of the junior attorney, give rationales for work requests, and maximize opportunities for choice (“I know it’s a tough call to work this weekend but we need to get the client this draft by Monday AM.”).

Two more suggestions from Brafford to increase meaningfulness. First, explain the significance of a junior attorney’s task to the larger framework, particularly with work that seems thankless like document review. Often, senior attorneys assign a junior’s work, and never explain or acknowledge the contribution. Second, recognize that for many junior attorneys, the senior attorney is the mouthpiece of the client. Brafford recommended taking a minute to let junior attorneys know how their work has made a difference to the supervisor and how it’s improved the client relationship. Finally, the single most important factor for engagement: a sense of progress in meaningful work. Senior attorneys needs to share small wins, share minor setbacks, share progress on a case with junior attorneys. Keep them engaged in the project and through that, have them stay engaged in the law firm.

Employers Need To Engage In Learning

We at the Commission on Professionalism understand that many attorneys do not feel thoroughly engaged by their CLE programming. We have spent a great deal of time at the Commission sharing a variety of techniques to increase engagement, from changing the lecture format, to utilizing non-ethics professional responsibility topics, to looking at online course alternatives. And while these remain crucial, I do want to highlight one engagement lesson learned at NALP-PDI, that the nature of learning itself has transformed.

How Learning Has Changed

One thing I love about NALP conferences is that the organizers bring in speakers from other industries to share lessons learned from their companies with law leaders. Our plenary speaker on the first day was from Bersin by Deloitte, a consulting company focused on HR, talent management and learning. The speaker, Dani Johnson, spoke about innovations that can motivate and develop talent in law firms. Many of her takeaways are summarized here, in Bersin’s Predictions for 2016.

One of the biggest innovations she mentioned has come in learning. Learning has become more contextualized. Learners, including lawyers, now have access to endless pools of information from endless sources around the globe. It’s a revolution that’s being heavily supported by technology, with “high-fidelity MOOCs, courses authored by experts in every domain, marketplaces of low-cost (often free) online courses, high-quality video-based educational content, and of course millions of blogs, articles, simulations, and other materials that help us learn.”

Given that well-spring of knowledge, facilitators, trainers and education providers now have to move beyond traditional teaching. Instead, they need to also consider themselves curators of information, getting the right information to the right people at the right time. At the same time, they need to personalize that information, making it applicable, personal and motivational to an individual learner.

How Can Law Firms Increase Learning Engagement?

Increasing learning engagement starts with recognizing how the world of information has changed. As an educator, engagement is not only trying to understand what the latest and greatest options are for online course delivery, but also, how to share information with a group of people who already have access to it all.

Here’s a fascinating approach reported by Bersin. A retailer introduced an online portal tool to help its employees curate, recommend and arrange content that they find helpful. Within six months of adopting the technology, the company had more than 4,000 employees actively sharing content on technical topics. Are there any law firms out there doing the same thing? Should they be?

Increase Lawyer Engagement for 2017

As 2016 comes to a close, we have to recognize the unique challenges facing our profession. In so doing, we need to look to other industries to see how they are recruiting their workers, retaining their workers, training their workers, and engaging their workers. The benefits are tremendous, particularly for our profession’s long-lamented health and wellness. So let’s take the engagement challenge for 2017. Try some of these ideas. See where they lead you. And maybe next year, speak at NALP-PDI on how your law firm, recognizing the changing climate, increased attorney engagement and started your own worker revolution.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

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