Law Practice Management Asked and Answered Blog

Category: Law firm training programs; Training ROI

Feb 02, 2011

Why Training Programs for Lawyers and Staff Fail to Produce Results


I am the managing partner for a 8 attorney firm located in San Diego. During the past several years we have invested significantly in continuing education – primarily conferences and seminars – for our lawyers and staff. We have just completed a review of our expenses in this area and we are concerned that we are not getting a satisfactory return on this investment. Please advise as to your thoughts.


Training and skill development is not easy. Studies reveal that 90 percent of the people who attend seminars and training sessions see no improvement because they don’t take the time to implement what they learn. Practices create habits and habits determine your future. Up to 90 percent of our normal behavior is based on habits. The key to skill learning is to get the new skill to become a habit. Once the new habit is well developed it becomes your new normal behavior. This requires practice. Unfortunately, law firms do not give employees time to practice and experiment.

Research on memory and retention shows that upon completion of a training session, there is a precipitous drop in retention during the first few hours after exposure to the new information. We forget more than 60 percent of the information in less than nine hours. After seven days only 10 percent of the material is retained. Most memory loss occurs very rapidly after learning new information. Your employees can improve their memories:

Skills become automated through practice. The more we do a set of actions, the more likely we are to link those actions into a complete, fluid movement that we do not have to think about. With enough practice, employees can become fluent in many different physical and mental skills.

Skill development involves behavioral change and changing many habits and practices on the part of the employee. In some situations, beliefs, attitudes, values and the actual structure of an employee’s working environment are affected. Effective training and skill development cannot be achieved with one-shot training programs. Training programs should be considered by all involved to be a long-range effort.

In general, three elements drive human behavior and shape the habits we possess: antecedents, competencies and consequences.

Antecedents are those things that prompt us to take an action. In a law firm setting, these include policies, goals, directives, announcements, training programs, procedures, vision statements, organizational structures, accountabilities and so forth. They are very important because they provide each person with cues as to what to do in his or her job. They encourage certain actions, and they are intended to get people to start doing something by providing them with reasons, plans, skills or information to do it.

The second element – competencies – is the knowledge, skills and abilities that enable people to perform certain tasks. These abilities enable a behavior to occur. Employees develop competencies over time, a product of good antecedents and positive consequences and the focus for most selection and training strategies.

The third element is consequences. Consequences are those things that happen to a person when they perform certain actions. They always occur after a behavior. They may be positive or negative and, depending on their impact, will determine whether a person will repeat an activity. Rewards (compensation systems) are the typical consequences employed in law firms. However, a balanced mix of positive and negative consequences is often appropriate. Consequences drive human behavior.

Firm managers must address all three elements in any training program designed to produce lasting results.

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John W. Olmstead, MBA, Ph.D, CMC

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