Why investing in people pays off

A rigorous scheme that measures training quality has proved to be a morale-booster for solicitors and their staff, writes Sharon Wallach
Solicitors could be forgiven for sighing with resignation as yet another quality monitoring system looms. After BS 5750 (a standard for regulating the quality of consumer services), legal aid franchising and practice management standards, now come s Investors in People. The difference is that the first three are largely about procedures while the latter, unsurprisingly, concentrates on people.

Only a few law firms have acquired the IIP standard so far, with another handful working towards it.

The scheme, created after a series of Government initiatives, has existed in its current form since 1990. But just over a year ago a new company, Investors In People UK, was set up to promote awareness of the programme, oversee its delivery and assessment by the training and enterprise councils - which receive Government funding for the task - and maintain the standard itself, which is reviewed every three to five years.

The standard is rigorous. An applicant must produce a "storyboard", describing how it meets each of 24 indicators, backed up by written evidence. This is then presented to an independent assessor, who visits the firm and undertakes in-depth interviews with a random cross-section of partners andstaff, from the senior partner to the caretaker.

Cameron Markby Hewitt won accreditation last year, the first City outfit to do so. Bill Shelford, the senior partner, says the firm chose IIP for the competitive advantage it offered. "It allows us to differentiate ourselves from other firms of similar size," he says.

In addition, concentrating on people is essential in the practice of law, which is very much a "people" business. "You are only as good as your last job, and as the people who work for you," Mr Shelford says. "We want a stable workforce. A high staff turnover is costly and wasteful and can be avoided by motivating people. The only way to do that is to involve everyone in the running of the firm."

Through IPP, Cameron Markby Hewitt has achieved a drop in turnover of staff to below the City average. Absence through sickness, sometimes seen as a barometer of morale, has also been reduced to 2 per cent, around half the national average.

Fiona Bruce & Co, of Stockton Heath, Cheshire, was the first solicitors' firm in the north of England to receive IIP accreditation. "We wanted to improve the quality of our work for clients," says Ms Bruce, the firm's sole principal. "We looked at BS 5750 and at IIP and decided that because we offer essentially a service rather than a product, IIP was a better vehicle. It helps a business to maximise the output of each member of staff."

Ms Bruce set up her property-based firm four years ago. Her staff includes a surveyor, who is also the practice manager and her husband, and a newly-recruited solicitor to whom she points as evidence of IIP's benefits. He came from a "substantial" Londonfirm, where he was lined up for a partnership. He replied to Ms Bruce's advertisement in part because of IIP. "It was a big plus factor," she says. "He was attracted to the prospect of joining a firm that was going places."

IIP involves the continuous training and assessment of every member of a firm, Ms Bruce explains. "It sets in place a system which, once we have learned to operate it, should then ensure that business goals are targeted in line with training and other staff activities.

"One of our main business aims is individual specialisation. That is how we are targeting training. IIP puts you on the track of looking at your business in a strategic way. It filters into the subconscious and becomes a way of thinking that will forwardthe firm."

Nobody, she says, gets out of it. "IIP is a rigorous standard. That's why it is so important that the senior partner is totally committed, otherwise it won't work." She has now moved into the second phase - learning the art of delegation.

It takes perseverance, she says. "It's no good sitting back and saying `I've done that now' and leave it at that. You've got to keep at the assessments and training and sometimes they don't work and you have to think again."

One rethink followed a "disastrous" attempt to introduce video learning.

"The tapes sit unwatched on the shelves," Ms Bruce says. "We're far too busy during the day and the last thing we want when we get home is to watch legal videos. So we are having to think again. But the IIP assessors don't mind that. What they do mind isif you don't acknowledge failure or look for alternatives."

All this is carried on against the backdrop of working in a busy law practice. And, says Ms Bruce, business has grown, in large part due to IIP.

"We are more efficient and we are attracting more business. Our profits have increased and so have those of each fee earner. The use of their time is more efficient, they are more accountable and they understand why. We opened our books to them so that they could understand our financial targets."

She admits to some initial resistance to importing what she saw as confidential information to staff, but this was quickly overcome. "As a result, staff feel very much a part of things and there has been a substantial effect on staff turnover."

The firm took just a year to acquire the IIP standard. "A lot of people think it is only for big firms, but it is easier to implement in a small firm," she says. "There are fewer layers of managers and decision makers and fewer staff. It's not a panacea for all ills, but it certainly creates a net through which fewer errors fall, and, hopefully, a happier working environment."

The sentiments are echoed by Pauline Daubney, the training manager at Irwin Mitchell, who is responsible for co-ordinating its IIP programme. The firm has some months to go before acquiring accreditation, but says Ms Daubney, many of the necessary standards were in place already.

"We have BS 5750," she says. "That, if you like, is the strand of commitment to systems for the provision of legal services. From a business-needs point of view it is probably the best. Now, we are demonstrating the quality of our people.

"The overriding factor is the provision of services to the client. The second major factor is motivating the people who work for Irwin Mitchell. Motivation is the key that makes us focus on our business goals, what our business plan is, and what factors will affect people."