A Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner Case Study: How to Teach Business Acumen & Innovation to Associates

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Teaching business acumen and innovation to associates is a high priority for law firms’ professional development staff. Kelli Dunaway, professional development associate director at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, shares how the firm responded to this need through the creation of its “business academy” and how innovation through the program’s design has expanded the firm’s commitment to innovation among the associates who have completed the business academy.

Legal Executive Institute: Tell us about you and your career journey to your current role as associate director for professional development at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner?

Kelli Dunaway: I am a recovering lawyer to start with. After about three and a half years of practicing law, I shifted my path to recruiting.

From there, I discovered professional development; and in my recruiting role, I started taking on any and every professional development project I could get my hands on at Winston & Strawn. Because I enjoyed it so much, I moved into a professional development coordinator role. With two more moves in between, I started with Bryan Cave in 2011 as a professional development manager. During that time, I have earned two promotions — and it was in 2013 when the firm’s business academy was born.

Can you share about the business academy and its history and how it has evolved since it started in 2013?

When I started at the firm in 2011, I went on a listening tour with anyone that would sit down with me — associates, partners, and allied professionals. I kept hearing over and over again from everybody that associates don’t understand business, how it works, and how our clients’ businesses are operating.

In response to this need, the business academy started as a mini-MBA program for junior associates in their second and third years. The courses included accounting for lawyers, basic business fundamentals, how to read financial statements, and how to communicate with your clients to emerge as a partner (versus a vendor).

Eventually, the program evolved into a two-day simulation with a full story of a client’s challenges with characters. We assigned attendees to teams and let them play the roles of the characters that we had developed to take a problem and design a solution for the client, including how to price a matter using new ways of pricing.

Over the last five years, we consistently challenged ourselves to make the program effective, and as part of the post-mortem exercise, we discovered innovation was missing — and we wanted this program to reflect the firm’s commitment to and the accolades it had earned for innovation. As a result, in 2015 we designed the program to be a hackathon exercise for four associate classes with three rules: i) the team had to outline a real client problem; ii) the solution to the problem had to use technology and could not include billable hours; and iii) the solution must deepen the client relationship with the firm.

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Kelli Dunaway, professional development associate director at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner

The associates had to make their own teams, identify their own problems, and devise a solution. Each team had an evening to design the solution, and on the second day of the program, each team had to pitch their solution in a three-minute pitch. The winning idea was a technology to utilize smart tags that are required for federal bankruptcy filings and to make those filings accessible on one platform that would allow attorneys to filter notifications, search filings, and organize everything on a particular case. We had also hoped that the technology solution could be used on other dockets to make the smart tags universal.

Eventually, the business academy evolved for the associates who participated in the original hackathon. We brought those same four class years back as senior associates, and we did a different business academy focused on innovation and business development. Again, the senior associates broke up into teams, and we asked them to respond to a fictitious RFP for a client with the requirement to respond in a holistic and innovative way. The pitches were judged by a panel of real clients.

In terms of impact, we understand that we may not see results until these particular associates’ classes are responsible for leading teams responding to an RFP. However, anecdotally I have worked with the associates who have been through the academy, and the key difference I see is that they are more interested in innovation in general and training other associates on how to use technological tools.

What are the most profound changes that you’ve seen since you first started in the professional development segment of the legal industry?

The evolution of the importance of professional development staff in law firms has been one of the most profound changes.


There is not a question about return on investment because there is an unquestionable belief that professional development is an investment that is worthy of additional resources.


When I first started in professional development, it was a priority on the East Coast and many law firms were focused on it. However, on the West Coast where I was based, it was very sparse in the 2000s. However, since the demands for lawyers are different than they were 15 years ago, firms are seeing the benefit of having dedicated professionals take a step back, analyze the workflow, determine what the learning needs are, and see how they can learn better. Now, there is not a question about return on investment because there is an unquestionable belief that professional development is an investment that is worthy of additional resources.

What are the professional trends that are gaining your attention right now? And what are your challenges?

Innovation is becoming much more of a focus for a lot more firms. The challenge is always the same in that it is difficult to get people inside the firms who are not me to focus on this in order to help me design and deliver trainings that will help others learn innovation.

Innovation is hard because it is difficult to change the way you do things even when you know you should. There are competing interests at play. If I am using technology to help me on my matters, then I’m billing fewer hours, but I only get paid by billing hours. The economic model presents challenges to innovate because the incentive structures that law firms have in place do not incentivize innovation and efficiency.

I know people are thinking about innovation, technology, project management, data analytics… all of these things. They are talking and writing about it, but I do not see a lot of movement. The inconsistency exists for both law firms and clients. Clients demand more efficiency, better pricing, and better holistic suite of services, but they are not demanding it from their lawyers.

Other trends I see include doing mentoring differently and creating a roadmap of core competencies for associates in response to their greater desire for transparency. Digital learning on demand is also a new trend. There is a movement that trainings need to be shorter, but it conflicts with CLE requirements, and that is a challenge.