I was once offered an all expenses paid trip to travel to another state to do a Word “boot camp” for a law firm's staff.
I ultimately turned it down.
Inherent in that offer were several erroneous beliefs that drive how law firms and legal departments typically train staff, beliefs that render the training nearly useless.
Most training is too infrequent
In both working and training in law firms for 20 plus years, I’ve noticed a pattern: law firms typically train attorneys and staff only when some external event demands it.
Usually, it's a computer upgrade, either the equipment itself or the underlying operating system (e.g., a Windows upgrade) or the version of Microsoft Office itself. And considering how seldom law firms upgrade systems, most staff gets trained maybe once every three to five years.
I’m sorry, but that's crazy.
Too infrequent = data dump
Waiting that long between training sessions means a lot of updates have accrued, so the training is jam-packed with information. Even if you take an entire day, training is still very fast paced, leaving little time for questions or clarifications and no time to absorb the information presented.
The result is an overwhelmed bunch of trainees who are now expected to be instantly "more productive".
All-day marathon = interruptions
Back when I was offering live in-person training in law firms, I could always bet on at least one lawyer popping his (weirdly, never her) head through the door of the training room, catching his secretary’s/paralegal’s eye, and making that crooked index finger motion that means “come here”. Apparently, it was something that just couldn't wait.
Once that secretary or paralegal left, she (rarely he) never returned.
If the trainees were lawyers, the problem was worse. Taking them away from billable work for even a half day was nearly impossible, and keeping the attention of those who did show up and stay was a challenge.
Conference room captivity = no hands on
The whole “corral everyone into the conference room and make them stare at a screen” training model also deprives trainees of hands-on experience. I've done training this way, and I’ve done it in formal training rooms with everyone assigned a PC, and the latter is far preferable to the “eyes front hands in lap” model.
But it's the rare firm that will make the significant investment into a formal training room. To compensate, I used to do “walkarounds” to everyone's desk for a day or two after live training to help people put their new skills to work in their normal environment, because environment matters.
Not only do trainees learn and retain information better in the environment they use that information in, they often have a slightly different experience from that demonstrated on the trainer's PC.
For example, I once had a student complain that a particular key combination I demonstrated didn't work. It turned out that her Logitech keyboard had that shortcut key reserved for another function. (Fortunately there was a Ribbon command that I could point her to.) Conflicts like these are particularly common in environments where various plugins (e.g., document assembly and DMS) are added to Microsoft Word.
Training is a process, not an event
Another belief undergirding the "boot camp" request was the "once and done" idea: "I just need to do this big thing once, and I can reap the rewards instantly and forever after without ever having to be bothered with it anymore." This idea was brilliantly debunked in the article "Why Lawyers Can't Manage" by attorney Daniel B. Evans in the ABA journal Law Practice Management, Vol. 19, No. 7, p. 26 (October 1993):
Most attorneys are consulted only when something goes wrong, or a specific transaction is contemplated. For that reason, most attorneys see [every situation] as something with a beginning, a middle, and an ultimate end. ... One way or another, all matters achieve some sort of closure.
Attorneys really see only small parts of the lives of individuals and businesses. An attorney may advise a client to change a part of the client's written employment policies, and may advise the client on how to implement the change. In most cases, that will be the end of the matter for the attorney. For the client, however, the work has just begun. ... Attorneys expect to make decisions and then move on to something else. They do not expect to take small steps or to monitor a situation over an extended period of time.
The desire for decisive solutions becomes particularly obvious, and particularly absurd, in the area of automation. A firm of litigators which has never progressed past electric typewriters may look to automate. However, they will not be content to begin installing some PC's as word processors, planning to progress later on to a networked solution for other applications. No, they want it all. They want a fully-automated, state-of-the-art, turn-key, no-additional-software-will-ever-be-necessary solution. The result is often disappointing, if not a disaster.
If I had a dollar for every email I've gotten from a lawyer or legal administrator wanting me to help them set up a "state-of-the-art, turn-key, no-additional-software-will-ever-be-necessary" templating system (usually for dirt cheap), I could retire. When I suggest either incremental productivity improvements with the software they already have OR engaging a bona fide IT consultant to install software actually built for that purpose, they're dumbfounded.
Let me say it again: Training is a process, not an event. Stop thinking of it as a ginormous "once and done."
Staffers aren't exempt from this mindset, either. I've gotten my share of emails from legal assistants and paralegals who've been laid off and suddenly decide now's the perfect time to start brushing up on their skills. They may have a lot of time while unemployed, but cramming for a skills exam while you're stressed out about job hunting and your monthly bills isn't conducive to learning.
Dig the well before you're thirsty.
Training must allow for learning style preferences
I've had more than one student tell me they’re visual learners. Or kinesthetic learners. Or some other kind of learner. While the learning styles theory is controversial in some circles, there's no denying that everyone has their preferences. And they're entitled to them.
While it's practically impossible to address every learning style in every training situation, you can usually hit the major ones with the right equipment and proper planning. Most people are a mix of more than one style anyway.
All-at-once training ignores how people really learn
Effective training is not just about learning preferences, though. It's also about how human brains actually work.
Think about the way you learned your native language. You learned some basic vocabulary, practiced putting those words into rudimentary sentence structures, continually built on those skills, and gradually reached fluency. And you're still learning.
That's the thing my “boot camp” correspondent missed. He expected to get back a group of eager super-productive workers after I drilled them for two straight days. What he would have gotten instead was a bunch of exhausted, overwhelmed employees who would still need some time to incorporate their new skills into their day-to-day workflow.
It takes application to retain knowledge
This is something even experienced educators missed. I once took a college computer science course in which the professor announced that, in line with his personal pedagogical theory, we would not get the entire class period to take our exams. Instead, he would start the exam at the same time we did, and when he finished his exam, it was pencils down for the rest of us.
At midterm, most of us were failing the class.
After becoming Exhibit A for H. L. Mencken's assertion that “there's no theory so stupid you can't find at least one academic who believes it,” our embarrassed professor had to acknowledge (if not verbally, then at least behaviorally) that the decades he’d spent applying that knowledge gave him an unfair advantage in recalling it on cue.
I've heard it said (though I cannot remember where) that as adults we retain about 20% of what we learned in high school. I'm willing to bet money a lot of that 20% is the stuff we use in day-to-day life. (My algebra, for example, is quite rusty, even though I made As and Bs in math.)
But knowing what's possible counts for a lot, too
I know that my trainees aren't going to walk away with 100% recall of everything I teach them. That's why I spend some time equipping them with the basics and the rest of the time showing them what's possible.
Both are important. Knowing how the interface works from the ground up helps later with being able to find the right feature in the right place. Even if a certain feature isn't going to get used all the time, being exposed to new features often opens trainees' eyes to possibilities they hadn't considered before. And since retaining knowledge you're not using daily can be a challenge, I've always left trainees with resources to take back to their desks so they can refresh their memories later.
I am always looking for better, smarter, faster ways to produce documents ... I had no idea Quick Parts was a feature or that it would radically change the speed at which I can produce a document. All of the chunks of text that I use over and over are now saved in my Quick Parts gallery and with a couple of clicks I can drop them into the document I am working on.
[I learned h]ow to use auto-text and auto-correct, how to set up pagination in specific ways, quick parts and formatting an appellate brief. I have not worked my way through the entire course yet ... [b]ut I do go back and revisit lessons, like paragraph numbering for example. Having the information there and not eating up time searching the internet for an answer to a question or a problem has been a tremendous help in getting my work done faster.
Using Deborah’s very detailed and annotated mini lessons on how to use Word’s many features, my understanding of Word has increased a thousand-fold. I am beginning to feel more comfortable with such obtuse tasks as auto numbering. I now know where to look for features that before were basically either hidden from me or were not easily understood, such as the simple buttons for increasing or decreasing number levels.
If you believe, as I do, that:
- The way law firms/legal departments train you is inherently flawed; and
- It's time for you to take your own skill set seriously as a matter of personal development
... then be sure you're subscribed for tomorrow's announcement.