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Pathways to Partnership: hitting the ground running

Trowers & Hamlins, winner of People in Law’s award for Excellence in Talent Management, developed a programme arming potential partners with vital commercial and leadership skills. Paul Robinson talks to Jo Faragher

International firm Trowers & Hamlins, like many employers in the legal sector, had a longstanding approach to how it promoted partners. “There was a formal process in place that culminated in a panel interview and presenting a business plan,” explains Paul Robinson, director of human resources.

But while the approach was well established, it was also inconsistent in some areas. “Depending on which part of the business you came from you might be better prepared than others – there were things we were not seeing in every candidate,” he adds. “We wanted something in place that would prepare candidates for partnership for what they would be expected to do, and equip them with some of those skills before they reached partnership.” Not only might this increase their chances of success, they could hit the ground running once their promotion was secured.

In November 2018, a working group of partners, business service heads, HR and learning and development came together to plan a robust new development programme. The result was ‘Pathways to Partnership’, a two-year programme for senior and managing associates on track for promotion, and the first cohort of 20 candidates began the process in April 2019. The programme won this year’s Excellence in Talent Management award at the People in Law awards.

Combined approach 

Trowers & Hamlins worked with external consultancy deWinton-Williams to build a programme that would combine work on a personal business plan as well as “labs” where prospective partners could receive coaching in leadership and business development skills.

The labs focused on skills the firm felt would be essential for successful partnership – client care, business development and people management. They included an intensive day’s training on each topic with “real play” led by actors – role-play exercises testing genuine scenarios the candidates might face.

Crucially, candidates had to show that their personal business plan would make a financial difference to the firm. They had to meet a financial metric of £50,000 minimum over the course of the programme, and would get credit for activities such as increasing their hours and rates; chasing payments; bringing in new business; collecting old debts; and improving their team’s performance.

Robinson adds: “The programme is very commercially focused. We wanted to identify what candidates were doing differently and put a pound sign on it. Getting in new business is one thing but there are other things that add to the success of an organisation such as debt recovery.”

Working out your goals 

An important aspect of the programme is that it helps participants work out if partnership is really for them, he explains. “We envisaged this as a two-year programme and the first year comes around quickly. Some have completed it in one year and some will take the full two years, but some have decided this wasn’t for them after a better understanding of what partnership involved. You can rejoin at a later date, you’re simply making an informed choice at the time.”

The first cohort has completed the first year and 10 of those have now successfully been promoted into the partnership, six have progressed to the second year and two have dropped out of the process for the time being. Candidates receive support from partners in their department, mentors from across the firm and the consultants run one-to-one coaching sessions to support them with their business plans.

A new cohort of 12 candidates started Pathways to Partnership in April 2020, although the programme has had to adapt to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.

Robinson says: “When the pandemic struck we needed to go 100% remote. We’ve broken it down so the labs are not intense days and are in manageable sessions over Zoom. Each lab is done as a batch of two-hour sessions that are intense but for shorter periods. They will be interacting this way with clients anyway, so they need to learn this approach and have that interface.”

“We’re finding that rather than it being a second best, there are benefits of doing it this way that we didn’t have before,” he adds. “If we are able to meet face to face in future, we might take a blended approach, or continue doing things in more bite-size chunks.”

Future plans 

Having seen the benefits of running this programme, the team is now looking at potentially offering a development programme for equity partners. “This would help them take the next step,” he adds, “and we can see the difference it’s made for the non-equity candidates coming through.”

Not only has it focused candidates’ minds, but placing a monetary target on what they need to achieve has helped justify the investment in the programme.  The estimated return based on what the year-one cohort achieved is £2.88 million, compared to an investment of around £100,000 in the training itself.

“We’ve not had to justify the investment but it has helped to have this data,” concludes Robinson, “and as HR and L&D professionals we have been able to go way beyond what we would normally be able to show in terms of results.”

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