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Nicola Jones

Barrister, Athena Professional

Refuel, refuel, repeat

Refuel, refuel, repeat


Continuous learning is a lawyer's fuel as you navigate uncertain times, says Nicola Jones

Continuous learning is a career lifeline in the 21st century. More than half the population born in Western Europe this century will live to be over 100 years old.

At the same time, technology is changing the way we live and work at unprecedented speed.

To keep up, to stay relevant and be able to earn for longer – we are all going to need to keep learning throughout our lives. The three-stage life of education, work and retirement will no longer feature.

In the legal sector, client need is already driving the shape of legal services in ways never seen before; and that in turn is generating pressure for lawyers to be able to focus their intellect and skills in new directions; to dial up their emotional intelligence, be creative and alive to emergent ideas.

The direction of travel is inclusive of different professions, perspectives and approaches. Stepping forward and owning this territory, putting a stake in the ground for the rule of law on the way, is non-negotiable.

Business purpose and values are your compass. Continuous learning is your fuel as you navigate uncertain times and it will enable you.

The brilliant thing about getting serious about continuous learning now is that regulatory restrictions on professional development have been lifted (the SRA dropped the continuing professional development (CPD) hour in November 2016), so learning can happen in a rich variety of ways appropriate to your business needs.

Learning is both profoundly individualistic and greatly enhanced by sharing. It is a gorgeous paradox and one that lawyers tend to overlook, often having been schooled in long and lonely hours in the library.

Now, there are more ways to learn, to connect and share ideas than ever before so the opportunities to create learning with real impact are also better than ever.

There are several things that we ignore at our peril in relation to learning at work. First, learning is iterative – it does not happen in a day or a weekend – it happens with repetition over time.

Second, skills can only be developed with practice and reflection. Third, line manager support is essential. Time pressure is the enemy of each of these factors, yet we know that productivity and engagement go hand-in-hand with continuous learning.

Alongside learning goes some ‘unlearning’, for example, letting go of the expectation that there is a ‘right’ answer in all situations. In a reputation-led sector, stepping out of the norm, letting go of traditional modes of thought and behaviour is difficult, even frightening.

We know that legal training involves next to no content on business, management or leadership skills. We also know that lawyers are super smart and highly capable of tackling new ways of working in the right circumstances. This adds up to a huge opportunity to support and challenge people to bring all their talents to bear on the issues facing the sector.

Consider what it takes to introduce a new system of service to a firm. Continuous learning runs through this process from start to finish.

Members of global innovation network She Breaks The Law held a recent workshop where those involved in innovation, change and legal design in law firms and service-providers, asked the question, what helps initiatives gain traction?

We identified four essential elements:

  • Clarity of purpose and engagement with that purpose.
  • Understanding the role of learning in the change cycle and equipping people accordingly.
  • Leadership.
  • Emotional Intelligence.

We concluded that great project management is a pre-requisite; and uptake depends on how people feel and behave. Success factors include leadership, a big dose of humility, a dollop of time to acquire and practice skills, probably a handful of role models, some support and a soupcon of accountability (oh and some ‘badass’ women).

As a sector, we need to demonstrate compassion; give ourselves permission to learn; and to enjoy both the process and the outcomes.

People who are engaged, connected, confident and have a rounded set of skills and behaviours at their disposal are more likely to feel good about their work, their colleagues and their future.

Nicola Jones is a director at Athena Professional