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Ongoing and consistent training can build technical skills, enhance productivity and even boost staff and attorney morale. So why does this subject cause so many sleepless nights for firm administrators? Because getting the training right is a tricky business. What to train? Who to train? What format to use? Small group, individualized, computer-based training? Outsourced or in-house? And how will you know that the investment was worth it after the training is completed? Answers are relatively easy if the training is accompanying a system rollout or upgrade. But what about training on existing systems, to help people become more productive and confident with their skills? First, all training programs should reinforce the perception that excellence and professionalism are core values at the firm. This places individual improvement in its broader context. As a firm, you are saying that “we value excellence in all we do, and therefore will support you in every way we can to contribute.” People will be more motivated to improve and extend themselves if they view their performance in this meaningful context of the firm culture. NOT AN ENDGAME Next, remember that training is never an end in itself. As much as possible, training outcomes should be measurable so that you can weigh the value derived from the investment. Feedback from students is important, but comments such as “the food was delightful” should never register in your list of key success factors. Be flexible. Not everyone learns exactly the same way. Some thrive in a classroom setting while others shrink. Some learn best one-on-one, with a trainer they already know and trust. For still others, give them a manual or computer-based programs and get out of their way. Training offerings should reflect the varied learning styles of individuals and respond effectively to the particular needs of adult learners. Sometimes it is appropriate to hire professional trainers. But quite often, similar (or even better) results can be achieved by supporting individuals in sharing their skills and reinforcing their role as mentors. People tend to learn more from those they know and are comfortable with, especially when the training is situational or one-on-one at their desk. Next, training should be targeted to the needs of each student. It makes no sense, for example, to send Betty or Sam to a half-day workshop on tables of authorities if they only do one or two of them a year. Different practice groups do use many of the same programs, but often engage different features and functionalities. Litigation secretaries can hold vastly different word-processing skill sets than their corporate counterparts. The ability to accurately identify individual or departmental learning needs is critical. This is best achieved by getting as much information as possible, from the individual and others — attorneys, colleagues, peers — who are well positioned to provide meaningful feedback. Individual learning objectives can also be incorporated into an employee’s performance plan, further validating individual training outcomes. Quite often in law firms, training is more of a reflex or afterthought, than a fully integrated and active part of the firm culture. Employees tend to be keenly aware of this in such cases, and it is reflected in their attitude whenever the subject is mentioned. By providing consistent and practical opportunities for individuals to improve themselves and the firm, you are reinforcing the message that excellence can never be anything less than an asset. Wayne Smith is manager of information systems at Chester, Willcox & Saxbe, and is a member of the LTN Editorial Advisory Board.

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