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Engage in the future: What’s on the horizon for professional development?

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Professional Development

As law students consider various pathways for their legal careers, regardless of where they end up, they will actively pursue, participate in, benefit from, and further develop as an attorney through professional development.  For many, professional development (PD) is the means through which law students can actively guide their career paths, starting in law school and continuing as their careers evolve, allowing them to grow, develop and stay attuned to market needs and shifts.

In the not-so-distant past, professional development consisted of attorneys completing Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses, often through a bar association or law school, in various practice areas in order to freshen their knowledge and hone their legal skills. 

In today’s modern law practice, PD has grown to encompass much more than CLE courses and now includes a wide array of training and development programs (typically at entry, mid and senior levels of practice), diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) courses, mentoring, trial advocacy skills preparation, leadership training, and coaching/career management.  Some of these activities have been around for years, while others have originated as a result of more recent environmental factors and the evolving nature of client demands.

Along with so much else, PD has pivoted tremendously in the last 18 months.  According to the NALP Foundation’s recent Professional Development in a Pandemic survey of leading US law firms, over 90 percent of firms reported that COVID-19 and civil unrest impacted their professional development activities, while 67 percent made changes to these due to the economic downturn.  Many firms reacted by adding content to existing programs, especially on topics relating to racial injustice and civil unrest, and not surprisingly shifted to videoconferencing platforms for the virtual delivery of most programs and activities. 

Additionally, over 70 percent of firms cited the following areas – DEI, new attorney orientation and integration, and performance evaluations/reviews—as their top priority areas, followed by mental health and well-being (63 percent) and cultural cohesion and integration for remote workers (62 percent).

What does this mean for law students?  Perhaps most importantly, professional development activities—especially those around topics of equity and access to justice—will certainly be expanding and thriving.  Attorney wellness and mental health is another rapidly growing area, with many law practices offering programs focused on attorney well-being and bar associations ramping up mental health programming.

Since these are also topics addressed by increasing numbers of law school programs, savvy law students would be well-served to participate in these activities with an eye toward understanding how these issues affect themselves as well as the profession.  Law students, for example, could:

  • Take advantage of mentoring programs through a student organization or bar association;
  • Launch a new or join an existing DEI outreach effort; or
  • Sign up for a coaching appointment with your career services office; or
  • Volunteer for a community wellness initiative.

The pandemic has also proven that remote learning and virtual activities can actually achieve optimal outcomes—even in the legal industry.  New attorney on-boarding and training, for example, may be conducted more frequently in virtual or even hybrid settings, especially as legal employers realize the financial and pedagogical efficiencies of virtual versus in-person activities.  And for those with multiple locations, the move to videoconferencing allows for expanded collaboration across offices, resulting in even more opportunities for integrated attorney teamwork, seamless client engagement, and broader access to justice. 

Law students who have quickly adapted to remote learning while in law school will certainly find this trend continuing in the professional world.  Opportunities to meet and collaborate in-person will likely not disappear completely, so learning to appreciate and balance a hybrid approach to working together will go a long way in the years to come.  Law students, for example, could:

  • Continue to hone their videoconferencing skills;
  • Seek out collaborative work and team-based projects; or
  • Approach problem-solving with flexibility and creativity.

For law students researching potential employers and attempting to distinguish among them during a job search, PD also offer an empiric way to compare employers and assess their commitment to issues of particular importance, whether practice-based, skills-based, or topic-focused.  Employer websites today are typically overflowing with information regarding their professional development activities along with testimonials from attorneys touting the benefits of these programs.  In addition, the NALP Directory of Legal Employers (nalpdirectory.com), a comprehensive and detailed resource, also includes a separate tab for Professional Development in each employer profile.

Looking ahead, the NALP Foundation’s Professional Development in a Pandemic research study found that the vast majority (96 percent) of firms will continue with programs and channels developed during the pandemic, with many also planning to expand their virtual professional development program offerings.  

PD is constantly evolving to serve the needs of individual attorneys and legal employers as well as to the larger needs of the legal profession as a whole.  To best prepare, law students should take advantage of as many professional development opportunities in law school as they can and work to integrate these opportunities for growth and enhancement into their future practice plans.

Skip Horne Skip Horne is the Vice President for Engagement for the NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and a member of the ABA Career Center Board. He has previously served as President of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) and President of the National LGBT Bar Foundation. The NALP Foundation’s Professional Development in a Pandemic study was conducted in partnership with the National Business Institute and is available on the Foundation’s website at nalpfoundation.org.