Reviewing Law Firm Professional Development Programs . . .

Which Type is Right for Your Law Firm?

Without a fair understanding of their objectives, breadth, and benefits, professional development programs may seem like “busywork” to newcomers. The truth is, however, is that these programs can offer new and experienced lawyers alike valuable skills that will serve them well throughout their entire career. After all, talented and well-trained lawyers are what keep a firm impressive, competitive, and robust. Professional development programs take many different forms. Which program type is right for your firm depends on several factors, including the demands and environment of your firm, associate career goals, and the areas in which associates need of improvement. This article will list several different types of professional development programs, describe their purposes, and offer some criteria you can use to determine if a certain program is right for your law firm.

The Case Study Method

This type of professional development program offers help with: problem solving skills, the principles of practicing law, emphasis on teamwork and producing quality collaborative projects (Harvard Law School).

A professional development program that employs the case study method is excellent for firms who want to develop more astute problem solvers. Make no mistake: such programs may require associates, in addition to their billable work, to commit to lengthy reading assignments, extensive hands-on projects, and rigorous “class” discussions. Such a workload may seem daunting, but if the associates, the program faculty, and the firm are up for the challenge, the firm will develop associates who are exposed to whole new ways of thinking about law practice and analyzing cases according to different methods perhaps once unfamiliar (Harvard Law School). In sum, this type of professional development program depends primarily on active participation and a willingness to contribute to the group as a whole.

Individual Coaching

This type of program offers associates: one-on-one attention and feedback, specific skill development and enhancement, realistic concrete goal setting.  Career coaches have a couple particular goals in mind: to help the associate understand the competitive nature of the legal field and to help the associate develop or build upon specific skills that will keep him or her competitive in such an environment (Chakravarthy; “The Difference between Coaching and Mentoring”). In short, an associate career coach will want to teach the associate the things that are relevant to the particular practice area and field, nothing less and often nothing more than that. The associate career coach may assign a task and break it down into several sub-tasks, all of which build up to one large project. That is not to say that working with a career coach will not inspire growth in other important areas or that an associate career coach will not be interested in celebrating progress. Often, extensive work with a career coach leads to greater confidence, encouragement, inspiration, and a genuine sense of accomplishment (Cheeks: “10 Things You Should Know about Career Coaching”). Coaching is a great professional development method for law firms who want associates to develop with more one-on-one attention.  Further, this plan is ideal if the firm has specific skills/goals that it believes would help take the associates’ careers to the next level.


This type of program offers one-on-one contact and feedback and help with more “intangible” aspects of work, such as overall personal goals and work/balance concerns.  A mentor is someone to whom an associate can relay concerns and discuss potential career obstacles and opportunities.

It is easy to confuse coaching and mentoring. The important thing to remember is that career coaches tend to focus on concrete tasks and specific skill development, whereas mentors often deal with the more “fuzzy” issues—that is, meaningful conversations concerning an associates goals and aspirations, coping mechanisms and techniques to help an associate produce his or her best work even under pressure, and just a general means of support.

Reflective Supervision

This type of program offers: on-the-job training and feedback, detailed attention and constructive criticism.  Professional development programs that employ the reflective supervision model are unique in that they often allow participants to carry out their usual daily work. As they work, however, an “evaluator” or two may assess the lawyers on the job, taking detailed notes on their strengths, but also considering areas in which they could improve. This evaluator may then write up a report on a lawyer’s performance or confer one-on-one to go over the findings and to determine ways in which he/she can target the weak points to become more proficient. This model may be useful for those whose current jobs demand too much to set aside for extensive programs with rigorous outside work. It also challenges participants to become more aware of their own day-to-day practices and to try out different approaches to their work as they see fit.


After this review, all programs have their benefits and disadvantages.  As a law firm evaluates each program type, the type of program the firm chooses will, of course, depend upon what type of development assistance the firm wishes to emphasize.  Indeed, in many cases, informal and formal coaching and mentoring programs have their places, as do reflective supervision and the case-study programs.  Ultimately, regardless of which associate development program a law firm chooses, associates will learn more and be appreciative of the fact that the firm is dedicated to their long-term success within the firm as an institution and a culture.


Works Cited

Chakravarthy, Pradeep. “The Difference Between Coaching And Mentoring.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 20 Dec. 2011. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.

Cheeks, Demetrius. “10 Things You Should Know About Career Coaching.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 09 July 2013. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.

“The Case Study Teaching Method.” The Case Study Teaching Method. Harvard Law School, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2015.


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