Continuing Professional Development:

A look at three in-house approaches

BC’s practising lawyers will soon be engaged in one or more of the many possible approaches to the Law Society’s Continuing Professional Development program, to be launched on January 1, 2009 (see page 6 of the December 2007 issue of the Benchers’ Bulletin). Over the next several issues, we will survey a number of working examples of those options. The first of those is the provision of professional training within law firms.

“Most of Vancouver’s larger law firms, including ours, have made in-house professional development a strategic priority over the past decade or so,” says Thelma O’Grady, manager of professional development for Bull, Housser and Tupper LLP, one of Vancouver’s oldest and largest (nearly 100 lawyers) business law firms. “BHT was the third firm in the city to hire a professional development manager, and the first to staff that position with a legal educator.”

When O’Grady joined the firm in mid-2004, she was charged with the mandate to lead the creation and management of a formal program of professional development. The current BHT professional development program includes the following elements:

  • articling student seminar curriculum;
  • electronic library of professional development materials;
  • lunch-time seminars held regularly throughout the year — 60 sessions in 2007 — including sessions rotating through a curriculum of legal subjects and presentations by senior lawyers and other distinguished individuals on new developments or topics of special interest;
  • coaching programs for associates in their first four years; and
  • one-on-one support for lawyers requesting more in-depth professional development, transitioning to new practice areas or delivering presentations outside the firm.

lunch-time professional development seminar at Bull, Housser & Tupper LLP's office “The lunch-time seminars are a key element of our professional development program,” says O’Grady, a Bencher since 2006 and former director of programs for the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC. “The sessions are conducted in the office and over lunch, and are well attended from across the firm.”

“Young lawyers often tell me how much they appreciate the participation of our senior partners in the discussions that follow the formal presentations.”

O’Grady identifies recruiting and retention as strategic drivers underlying the high priority attached by BLT’s leadership to in-house professional development.

“Support” and “flexibility” are two words used by Clark Wilson LLP partner and Training Committee member Bonnie Elster to describe the professional development program created by her firm for its 81 lawyers.

“Ninety minutes to two hours of the first Friday of every month is dedicated to a firm-wide lawyer training seminar,” Elster says. “We have just completed our first 30-month curriculum cycle, covering a mix of core legal knowledge, practice management techniques and client relations skills.”

Associates and students are expected and encouraged to attend the monthly seminars, and partners are invited as well. Clark Wilson partners lead most of the seminar presentations on legal topics — with research and preparation support by associates — and outside talent is brought in from time to time.

“We have had a number of speakers from the Law Society, including Carmel Wiseman on legal ethics and David Bilinsky on practice management,” says Elster. “It’s important to look for subjects and speakers to spark interest and attendance throughout the firm, and to respond to unexpected opportunities as they arise.”

“For example, later this month we’ll hear from Professor Kenneth Adams of the University of Pennsylvania on legal drafting. He attracted great interest in the solicitors’ world for contributing a 90-page affidavit to the recent Rogers telecommunications ‘comma case.’?”

A strong in-house professional development program provides an excellent platform for conveying far more than knowledge, skills and techniques: defining and modelling the firm’s core values and culture, and serving as a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining the right talent.

“Finding, supporting and retaining talented, effective people is among Clark Wilson’s top priorities,” Elster says. “We want to recruit the best and retain the best, and we do that by building a reputation for helping our lawyers to be the best they can be.”

You don’t need to be a big firm to earn a reputation for excellence in developing talent, as Hammerberg Altman Beaton & Maglio LLP have demonstrated since opening their doors in 1999. Personal injury litigator Soren Hammerberg has made in-house professional development and mentoring central elements of his personal philosophy since entering the legal profession nearly 30 years ago.

“I have always believed that the best way to build a firm is from the ground up,” Hammerberg says. “Our firm has grown from five to 15 lawyers in eight years while developing a culture of commitment to client service with exceptional practice standards.”

Hammerberg’s firm combines regular seminar sessions and mentoring to frame its approach to in-house professional development.

The 10-member personal injury practice group — one of the largest in BC — meets outside the office for a quarterly “roundtable review,” starting with briefings and updates on administrative topics and moving to discussion of current legal and practice issues over dinner.

The full firm also meets quarterly, with three practice groups taking turns in presenting a discussion paper over breakfast. “The cross-pollination value of those breakfast sessions can’t be overstated,” Hammerberg says. “Our young lawyers are introduced to perspectives and issues outside their immediate practice areas, and we’re all enriched by the exchange of knowledge gained by sharing different practice experiences from all corners of the firm.”

Mentoring is the third pillar of Hammerberg Altman Beaton & Maglio LLP’s version of professional development. Every young associate is assigned a senior member of the firm as a mentor, and Soren Hammerberg’s door is always open. “We give our young lawyers file responsibility and experience they would be unlikely to receive at larger firms, and we support them with personalized mentoring,” Hammerberg concludes.

The Law Society is considering a formal mentoring program as part of the Continuing Professional Development program, but not for 2009.

Three very different firms, employing three different approaches, are using in-house professional development to promote excellence, and to attract and retain talent.

If you have questions or comments about the Law Society’s pending Continuing Professional Development program, including in-house professional development, please email Alan Treleaven, Director of Education and Practice, at