Coach Your Firm Staff Members for Better Performance


By Dr. John W. Olmstead, Jr., MBA

Legal administrators, managing partners, attorneys and staff express common concerns regarding their firm’s utilization of information technology and return on investment:

Technology Utilization and Training in Law Firms

In January 2001, we conducted an informal telephone poll of our smaller law firm clients (fewer than 25 attorneys) regarding information technology utilization and training in their firms. We contacted 30 clients via telephone and queried about their level of technology utilization and training programs and practices. Our findings:

Because our study was exploratory our findings are tenuous and generalizations must be guarded. However, the results do raise interesting questions regarding the status of technology utilization in smaller (under 25 attorney) law firms and training programs in use.

Larger law firms are doing better in both using and providing both initial and ongoing training. We conducted a telephone poll of the 25 largest law firms in St. Louis – 10 firms responded. Our findings:

Martin Hecht, Director of Administration with Blackwell, Sanders, Peper, Martin, LLP, in St. Louis, says his firm has a full-time training staff, a new employee training program, an ongoing program for all employees, and a help desk where employees can call if they have questions. All of these programs, administered in groups and on an individual basis, help meet employee needs and demands. The firm finds the full-time training staff to be a successful method for IT training and skill development.

James Nuoffer, Administrator with St. Louis’ Helfry, Simon & Jones, says, “We have two methods we use to train employees in the area of information technology. First, when new employees come on board, we provide them with a training manual that serves as a cheat sheet so to speak on software that is not well known in the industry, such as Docs Open.”

Helfry, Simon & Jones also pairs new employees with mentors who are experienced in using the specific programs that new individuals will be using. For example, when the firm hires a new secretary, administrators team that person up with an experienced secretary.

“The firm also has a vendor who does all of our hardware and software training,” Nuoffer adds. “When we got the Microsoft 2000 Office [package], the vendor met with all the employees in the conference room to go over the new program. These training methods have proven to be successful for our firm.”

Kenneth Luther, Executive Director with Thompson Coburn in St. Louis, thinks that in-house trainers are key. “We have a training department that varies from four to six individuals, depending upon demand, who prepare training materials and conduct group-training sessions for new hires during employee orientation,” he says. “The training department also provides one-on-one training for current employees in need of ‘refresher courses’ as well as for new hires who have specific training needs that were identified during their orientation.

“We work with a variety of commercially available software, such as Word and Excel, and our personnel train extensively on proprietary software developed in-house,” Luther adds.

“As one would expect from the wide variety of software from which training is provided, our training team comes from many backgrounds and experiences, some from internal promotions and some from outside the organization. We do not expect every trainer to be proficient in every piece of software, so a good deal of specialization has evolved. While this has proved to be successful in the past, we are always looking for ways to improve.”

Importance of Ongoing Training

People, a law firm’s intellectual capital, will be the firm’s most important asset and a key future component of the firm’s overall strategy and competitive advantage. Lawyers, other professional-service specialists and staff will come from different career paths and with varied backgrounds and experiences. In the future, all firm personnel (attorneys, other professional-service specialists, management and staff) will be considered as key assets and part of the team. Law firm staff will no longer be referred to as “non-lawyers” or “non-professionals.”

Firms will safeguard and protect this key firm asset. Skill development and training will receive a major share of the firm’s capital investment. The firm will leverage its human capital and knowledge base instead of billable hours. Effective ongoing training programs will play a key role in employee recruiting, development and retention and it may be one of a firm’s most potent strategic weapons.

Recent studies are reflecting that effective employee IT training is having more to do with increasing employee satisfaction and retention than cash, vacations and other traditional perks and benefits.

According to a December 2000 survey of 410 U.S. companies by Watson Wyatt, the percentage of employers offering skills training as an incentive for top-performing employees to stay increased from 62 percent in 1999 to 68 percent last year. More impressively, the average training budget per IT employee among the companies doubled from $500 to $1,000. Most U.S. companies report they’re planning to continue to increase IT training spending in 2001.

Training is not an area for budget cutting. Human capital management experts say that even if cutting training budgets saves you a little money now, it’s likely to cost you a lot more in the long run. Hiring new employees is expensive.

Research conducted by Meta Group, Inc., in Stamford, Connecticut, shows that when an employee leaves, it costs from one-and-a-half to two times his or her salary to hire a replacement once you include salary increases, advertising, third-party recruiter fees and hiring bonuses paid to the new worker. It’s far cheaper to retrain your existing workers. The nature of today’s automated law office is that you need constant training and retraining.

Why Training Programs Often Fail to Produce Desired Results

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.

The Coaching Model

Based on our exploratory polls of small and large law firms, we believe that information technology utilization can be dramatically increased by developing integrated ongoing training programs that are conducted both at the group and individual level. More work needs to be done at the individual level beyond mere help-desk support.

Other than assigning mentors to new employees, we were unable to identify any law firms utilizing coaching as a part of their information technology training program. These programs should encourage individual practice and experimentation. There should be performance goals, regular follow-up, accountability and feedback. We believe that training at the individual level can be improved by utilizing the coaching model and teaching your IT and training personnel how to effectively coach employees.

Companies across the U.S. offer workers personal coaches as a tool to help them thrive. Coaching is invaluable. It points out things people would not notice themselves, and plays a big role in shaping behavior. Companies also see it as a way to help valued employees evolve on a swiftly changing business environment. In essence, coaching is the process of equipping people with the tools, knowledge and opportunities they need to fully develop themselves to be effective in their commitment to themselves, the firm and their work.

Coaching is a leading edge professional development technique. It shifts the focus from where people receive direction from others to one where people commit to doing things they care about passionately.

Many academicians label coaching as a critical leadership and management competency. Coaching can help managers talk with subordinates about development needs and it is an excellent vehicle for transfer of knowledge and skills. Coaches function as mentors, instructors and taskmasters. The key to their success is accountability. Coaching gives employees someone to answer to on a weekly basis.

Typically coaches require coachees to set goals and be accountable for their accomplishment. Coaching involves:

Learning plays a key role in coaching. Coaches typically use the following process in working with coachees:

The coach’s role is that of steward, facilitative leader and teacher.

Law firms retain coaches to work with attorneys and staff, mostly on a personal level, to address problems involving lack of commitment, inertia, implementation, self-accountability and follow-up. Firms using coaching in many areas:

While attorneys are beginning to rely on coaches, we have seen little evidence of coaches being provided for the firm’s administrator, trainers, IT staff or other staff personnel. We believe that not only should coaches be provided to these key members of the management team when appropriate, but they should also be trained in coaching skills, and these skills should be incorporated with their other tools in their management toolbox.

Characteristics of Successful Coaches

Like any other profession, coaching does require certain traits and skills. Good coaches typically share many characteristics:

Good coaches help their teams – whether individuals or a group – set stretch goals, reveal assumptions or behaviors that produce unintended results, reframe the way people think, model successful action, and provide affirmation and recognition.

Tips for Getting a Program Started

Individual information technology coaching/training will be require new assumptions and planning to successfully get the program off the ground. Here are tips to help you get started:

Coaching ethics require that the coachee (the team) give permission to be coached. Therefore, we suggest that your coaching program be voluntary and be used as a supplement to your existing training program and help-desk support. There are three fundamental rules in creating a coaching relationship:

By incorporating coaching into your IT training program, you can integrate a much stronger feedback system that allows for individual practice and experimentation. It will also reap other benefits:

The end result will be higher utilization of the firm’s information technology and a better return on the firm’s information technology investment.

Originally published by Legal Management: The Journal of the Association of Legal Administrators, March/April 2001.

Dr. John W. Olmstead, Jr., MBA, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management and the president of Olmstead & Associates, Legal Management Consultants, based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm provides organizational performance, management, leadership development and marketing advisory services to law and other professional service firms. Their coaching program provides attorneys and staff with one-on-one coaching to help them get “unstuck” and move forward, reinventing both themselves and their law practices. Olmstead is the Editor-in-Chief of “The Lawyers Competitive Edge: The Journal of Law Office Economics and Management,” published by West Group. He may be contacted via e-mail at Free articles and a personal profile self-assessment scale are available. To request copies, send your name, e-mail, and mailing address to

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