Why most law firm Word training is a waste of time

20 Comments

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.

Why?

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.

More...

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.

[L]aw firms typically train attorneys and staff only when some external event [e.g.,  system upgrades] demands it.

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.

Back when I was doing live in-person training, I could always bet on at least one student being pulled out of the session for an 'emergency'.

They never made it back to class.

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.

... 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."

Dig the well before you're thirsty.

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.

Effective training is ... also about how human brains actually work. Think about the way you learned your native language.

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.


Tammy 

Paralegal

"


[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.


Katy
Paralegal

"


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.


Robert
Attorney

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.

About the author 

Deborah Savadra

I spend an inordinate amount of my time playing with computers and attempting to explain technology to lawyers and law office staff. It's not always easy, but someone's got to do it.

  1. May I add: the importance of who is in the room: the more senior the executive, the more frequent the interruptions (won't accept 'I'll get to that shortly'), the more arcane the 'what if' (all outliers must be accounted for right here and now), the more demanding the 'buts' (We want a new system but don't change anything).

  2. The worst training for me is that there was none. I was a secretary for a connected company and just got tossed in as their Legal Secretary had to unexpectedly quit. Each night I would go home and research and learn anything that I didn't fully understand from that day. Over the course of 10+ years I've taken classes, training by court clerks and absorbed from many source–you included!

    1. Amazing how often that happens – no training and it is sink or swim! Boy, can I identify with that. They will definitely miss me if I ever get to retire! Definitely appreciate having Debra as a resource!

  3. Your article so succinctly expresses my frustration with training days. It is always too much, too fast, and too little consideration for those of us who may not learn the same way or would like to have references to go back to. Teach me how to find something and give me time to find it, and I will answer most any question you give me! Unfortunately, there is too little time in the office when there is not enough staff to devote to really learning something that would save time if I could only find the time to learn the concepts you send us. And trying to find personal time at home to learn something new — I can forget that as well. Keep up the great work. Sometimes I do get a nugget that I can use almost immediately! Everything else is in a folder for "one of those days. . . ."

    1. “Unfortunately, there is too little time in the office when there is not enough staff to devote to really learning something that would save time if I could only find the time to learn the concepts you send us.”

      That’s why I argue for incremental training rather than “boot camps” – learn some useful trick (the simpler the better to start) and apply that wherever you can. Then, once you’ve got that worked into your daily routine, learn something else. Unfortunately, law firm management wants instant results, hence the “boot camp” requests.

  4. As always, excellent article Deborah!!!

    I’ve been working with law firms since 2007 – all of what you stated is accurate.

    And in my experience with non-law firms (since 1992), this seems to be true as well.

    I often get the request – “…teach me Word/Excel…”; and when I ask what specifically they say, “All of it”.

    Ridiculous notion, right?! The best times for learning is when I ask, “Well, what project are you working on right now in Word/Excel?”

    Pulling up specific examples and giving alternatives on how to do it more efficiently, is the best learning experience.

    Most firms don’t want the expense of one-on-one training – especially when training is outsourced and charged by the hour.

    Sometimes I’m able to reach a compromise and provide firms trainings by breaking them up based on departments/project teams. Since they all work on the same or similar documents – they can better think and ask for what they need collectively.

    I am a huge fan of all you’ve done on this site!

    1. Thanks, Charles! Sounds like you’ve had a lot of the same experiences I have, although the training I did for non-law firms seemed to go more smoothly. That’s probably because in those situations, I was on a team that was implementing something new, so it was a “learn from scratch” for everyone as opposed to “make existing skills better” situation. I guess the same (erroneous) mindset is everywhere!

      Your points on “[p]ulling up specific examples and giving alternatives on how to do it more efficiently” and “breaking them up based on departments/project teams” are well-taken. In my world, litigators tend to have different document creation challenges than estate planners, even though a lot of the features used are the same.

  5. Debra:

    I agree with your assessment of how law firms offer training and their mentality (not quite the right word) behind their actions. It was a lot better, back in the day, when word processing companies (like Micom and WordPerfect) had free support lines you could call and get help on a specific problem that you couldn’t find in the (paper) manual they supplied with the software. (I know. Don’t want to kill trees and all that.).

    I downloaded your checklist. Thank you for that tool. Do you offer any free online classes for those of us who are out of work and can’t afford your usual online courses (Though I prefer your forthright explanations)? Or is searching Google for free information the best way to go? If not, how much does it cost for one of your classes? Maybe I can swing something. Just have to figure out exactly what I need.

    Thanks again for your emails. I save them, just in case I need a tidbit in the future.

    Missy Andrews

    (BTW: I tell everyone who’s interested about your website. I think it’s wonderful!)

    1. Missy:

      Yeah, I remember when software came with disks and manuals and a customer support number! That was a long time ago.

      I would say that if your financial situation is such that you’re unable to afford any of the courses listed here, then you may need to prioritize your job search over a formal course. I’ve deliberately (and against the advice of some) kept the prices of my courses low enough to be affordable for individual staffers who want to increase their skills on their own; however, I do have to cover the operating costs of the site, and selling courses is how I do that. You can always Google and YouTube your way to some other solutions and come back here later when you’re employed and your finances are in better shape.

      I appreciate you mentioning my website to others!

  6. I find your blogs and tutorials the most effective systems for learning the intricacies of Microsoft WORD available anywhere. They are well-organized, truly topical, and provide answers to real world problems faced by users who need immediate, practical, and effective solutions in real-time.

    I find myself regularly returning to your posting on Styles, Tables of Contents, and Tables of Cases and Authorities. As a solo practitioner responsible for producing and finishing my own documents in typeset rather than typewritten form and appearance, I find it well worth the 15 or 20 minutes necessary to review your materials on Styles and Tables just before I start document “finishing” prior to filing any pleading, memorandum, or brief.

  7. My CPA office doesn't offer any training (Outside USA) except one time for certification. Boss wanted to apply for some government contract.

    My personal philosophy that 1-2-3 days training are waste of time and too expensive (When you pay out of you own pocket).

    In my office I am some sort of Excel Guru but I expressed openly to any one willing to listen that learning Excel or Word is a process that 1-3 daily training cannot fulfill. Better way is to learn it incrementally at home and work, it will take several month but after that you work will be much easier.

    Nothing beats healthy curiosity to learn the tools that you use daily. Learning Word Styles saved me stress and time and I still I consider myself a regular user (compared to Deborah and other Gurus).

    (P.S English is my third language and grammar is not my strong side)

  8. I've been a legal word processor for 30-plus years and am enjoying reading your articles here, which are 100 percent correct in my experience! A lack of user training has been a problem at our firm for a long time. But overtaking that, for the last decade or so, is an even bigger problem to me — too many options! As our firm has grown and technology has advanced, we've gotten more users using more different methods of numbering, conversion, redlining, styling, cross-referencing, etc. It now feels like the Tower of Babel, where users (and documents) are speaking different languages, and not understanding one another! And these "Frankenstein" documents, created by multiple users, piecing together segments created with different methods, tend to be more unstable. I try to focus on the bright side — more job security for us word processors! But it's still discouraging to see this trend continue, with no end in sight. I don't expect us to go back to fewer options. But I wonder sometimes if it might help to — at the very least — train everyone in using the same word processing vocabulary?

Comments are closed.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}