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Rock of Stages

25 Apr 2019 / employment Print

Rock of Stages

At age 15, Charles Dickens worked as an ‘attorney’s clerk’, serving subpoenas, registering wills, copying transcripts, and later became a court reporter. He enrolled as a law student in 1839 but, like David Copperfield, didn’t pursue a legal education, in part because he could not afford the £100 needed.

Ironically, the only one of his ten children to find success was Henry – as a lawyer. Charles and Henry Dickens would find that today’s legal system still retains many processes and procedures latent in common law jurisdictions.

As Dr Rónán Kennedy (lecturer at NUI Galway) notes: “Many aspects have not changed since the 19th century.”

However, there has been much change since Dickens was excoriating the legal profession.

The presence of women at all levels of the profession, albeit still with an imbalance in certain areas, would surprise. The use of technology would certainly come as a shock, as it would to anyone from a bygone era. He would also be surprised to learn of Ireland’s independence, with its own legal system and training.

On the other hand, Dickens may have been fortunate enough to receive access support for his £100 fees, though he may not have given the world such great literature, with 11 of his books featuring a rich cast of legal characters.

The unprecedented pace of transformation and innovation in the legal profession is creating new demands on training for lawyers in all five ages of their career: law degree, training contract, professional qualification, continuing education, and exit. If the profession is to keep up, then training is central to the task and needs to reach into all dimensions of the profession.

What binds together all the training efforts undertaken by firms, institutions, professional bodies, governments and corporations is the need to help the lawyer, at each and every point in their career, meet the challenges of innovation.

If we start at the beginning, at the undergraduate level of legal training, there is something of a dichotomy here. The traditional universities tend to be quite adamant that their role is to teach the law itself, though they make the occasional nod towards the work their products will one day undertake.

The younger universities are more experimental, and seek to have their graduates as well-rounded as possible as they enter the next phase of the profession.

Dr Kennedy accepts that “third-level institutions are disconnected from practice, and need to understand better and build better connections”, but he believes his law department is “getting it about right”, adding that the department is “changing as fast as we can”.  

Kennedy spent much of the 1990s working in industry as a programmer, analyst and webmaster, so he knows a thing or two about change and technology. However, he says: “In the formation of students, the practical reality is that there’s not enough space in the curriculum for everything.”

He continues: “It takes years to become a lawyer” – by which he means not just the qualifications, but thinking like a lawyer.

Sharp-dressed man

Thinking like a lawyer means adapting to change. Hence, professional training is undergoing transformation, as legal bodies address the needs of the future lawyer. The Law Society launched the Peart Commission Report as part of its aim to support solicitors using ‘21st century skills’. The commission was convened to develop specific actions following an independent root-and-branch review of the Society’s prequalification training by a team of international experts.

Law Society Director General Ken Murphy said at the launch that the Society was “committed to expanding its focus on innovation, in line with Government policy and with global developments in law and across all areas of global business”.

He continued: “Classical legal principles are still vital, but the modern solicitors’ profession is also equipped with 21st century skills. This includes collaboration and digital literacy.”

The commission’s recommendations fall under three main themes: increasing access to the profession, innovation in education, and streamlining the established training model.

The Bar of Ireland has also set training as a priority, with a reportPromoting Ireland as a Leading Centre Globally for International Legal Services – placing legal education at the heart of its approach. Brexit is a central issue, but there is also an overall desire to further develop the range of options available for legal education in Ireland, with particular emphasis on EU law and on specialist legal issues arising in growth-industry sectors.

The report argues that Irish law students should be offered new prequalification training courses specifically focused on international and EU commercial law, with incentives and encouragements put in place to attract students.

It says that “the immediate establishment of further professorial chairs and teaching positions in third-level institutions would advance this objective. Increased investment in legal education generally, and the development of a greater range of options in legal education, would also encourage competition in the market for legal services in Ireland to the benefit of companies doing business here (and, indeed, consumers), while leading to more jobs and tax revenue.”Student placements play a key role in bridging the gap between the classroom and the workplace. Dr Kennedy says: “We need to prepare lawyers who are going into an environment where they are given a legal problem and told ‘tell me what it means after lunch’.”

Meghan McSweeney, a tutor at UCD Sutherland School of Law with an LLM from Georgetown, agrees: “Prospective employers want to know what practical experience and skills a graduate has acquired. The more opportunities law students that can avail of throughout their studies will assist them become future lawyers.”


McSweeney is starting a traineeship with Mason Hayes & Curran later this year. Reflecting on her experience to date, she says: “I can see how, in six short years since my graduation, that there is a greater emphasis on providing Irish law students with the opportunities to develop their advocacy skills. Students are also encouraged to speak in small tutorial groups, where they receive grades for both participation and presentations.”

Contrasting her US experience, McSweeney says: “The culture of law schools in the United States places greater emphasis on communication skills in its law students. The notorious ‘Socratic method’, which encompasses seating charts in vast lecture halls, means that there is no hiding if a student has not done the reading. This method results in an increased engagement and discussion with the subject matter, as all students will be called upon throughout a two-hour lecture.”

She believes that “a culture of active student participation needs to be sustained and fostered throughout the four years of academic study because, upon graduation, these students will be stepping into law offices, the Law Library, or indeed lecturing, and will be required to communicate with colleagues and clients”.

Brian O’Callaghan, partner and head of the trainee and graduate programme at William Fry, explains. “There is a changing approach. Students are more ready now for a career in law. They know a great degree is not enough, and students are alive to this, taking up summer internships and other opportunities.”

He suggests that the experiential aspect of lawyering needs to be “more front-loaded”, explaining that “firms are competing for graduates, who are asking what can you do for me? Why should I pick you? They aren’t just looking for the package; they expect top-end training. Millennials demand it, not just the qualifications, but also the soft skills, like mindfulness, well-being, CSR projects, and firms are reacting to this change. The lawyer needs to be a well-rounded business person.”

Just got paid

Sinead Kelly, director of professional development at William Fry, says that lawyers are looking for a new kind of training experience, and suggests that lawyers “need to start with a holistic approach; analyse how they can work in law. Business acumen was not needed as much before, but now lawyers need to be equipped to support the requirements of today’s clients.”

Technology is a key component, and the experience of using technology can differ across age generations.

However, Kennedy suggests it is not as simple as the idea that younger people have grown up with technology and are used to it. Many older lawyers are just as tech savvy and have the experience of working through the different ages of technological development in society and the law.

The key is the balance between people development and technology tools, and to fully operationalise the training. Kelly says that this means “getting people thinking before they arrive, and following up afterwards with feedback. Bringing groups back regularly.”

Adrian Kiernan, managing director at LaTouche Training (an Irish company specialising in training non-lawyers in how to apply the law), says that technology is “only as good as the lawyer using it”.

He elaborates: “Technology is a wonderful tool, but clients still want or need someone they can relate to, one-on-one, and get confidence from them.” He advocates blended learning, providing substantive theory together with interactive and experiential learning.


Kiernan argues that “in blended learning, you get the best of both, using advanced cyber-materials, pre-reading, and initial videos.

Then you get the face-to-face learning and follow-up assessments. There is still an important role for face-to-face training to play, because there is a networking element – sharing common issues and challenges, that’s the by-product”.

The real impact of technology has been the emphasis now being placed on transferable skills but, again, this needs to be placed in the social and economic context.

Kiernan cites the boom years, when there was a lot of conveyancing work and big conveyancing departments but, during the recession, the demand decreased and many lawyers were caught out, needing to reskill.

Meanwhile, a substantial volume of this work is being commoditised. Kiernan suggests that “they will not be caught out on that twice. Lawyers know they need more transferable skills, and are now more discerning in the training they do”.

Continuing professional development and other courses cannot simply be a process of box-ticking. Aisling Mooney Eddy, talent director at A&L Goodbody, says: “To be trusted advisors, lawyers truly need to understand where the client is coming from, and this should flow through all the different levels of the firm.”

‘Commodity lawyers’ will give you a service, but she says that high-end lawyers go beyond that, beyond the technical law, to develop their leadership, skills sets, and a collaborative approach.

Julian Yarr, managing partner at A&L Goodbody, explains: “Being integrated is what makes you stand out, and what clients are looking for in lawyers is a more holistic approach.” He adds, “Integration is our business strategy.”

The holistic approach is one shared by Declan Black, managing partner at Mason Hayes & Curran: “For more senior people, we do maintain a panel of coaches whose focus ranges from the more obvious, like business development, to holistic personal development.”

Black says the firm’s mantra is “learning not training, so we try very hard to get learning out of the time and money we spend on training. For example, we have mandatory multiple-choice tests for all solicitors on a range of issues, and we have performance tests for hard and soft skills. While these inputs are more difficult to design and deliver, we think the impact is better than the classic training session.”

The place where training is done is another factor, as Black explains that getting lawyers to disconnect from work to focus on training is a key challenge. “We do see a value in off-site residential training and provide this, particularly for new partners. It gives the partners time and space to fully absorb issues, and there are some very high-quality providers.”

Jesus just left Chicago

The last age of the lawyer’s development is how to approach retirement, something that garners much less attention.

A holistic approach suggests that it needs more attention, both in terms of the lawyer’s role as mentor or tutor, and in knowledge management – but also with regard to their own journey in exiting the legal profession. The lawyer’s journey is a rewarding one, and few look forward to the end point.

Training and lifelong learning are increasingly entrenched in the legal profession, not because they are nice to have, but because they are necessary in order to engage with clients and within the firm.

As Murphy explains: “Today’s client is more knowledgeable and tech-savvy than ever before. The Law Society’s vision is to train 21st century solicitors who will meet and exceed the exacting requirements of their clients and their firms.”

O’Callaghan agrees wholeheartedly: “Lawyers have been resistant to change, but that’s not good enough anymore,” to which Kelly adds, “Yes, don’t step back, develop the best lawyers.”



David Cowan
David Cowan
David Cowan is an author, journalist and trainer