Learning Conversation with Nicola Atkinson

Jeevan: It is my pleasure to be talking to Nicola Atkinson.  Nicola is the head of Learning and Development at Blake Dawson, a prominent law firm in Australia with a presence in Asia.Nicola has a very interesting background. She is a lawyer by training and lectured in an interdisciplinary environmental science program at the Imperial College, London. Since 1999, Nicola has been with Blake Dawson and heads the learning function.  Let us have a chat with Nicola about her thoughts and  opinions about the world of learning and development. Welcome Nicola to Learning Conversations.

Nicola: Thank you. A pleasure to be here.

Jeevan:  This discussion is all about you as an L&D professional and how you got into it, what you’re doing at the moment and where you think things will go in the future. So tell me, how did you get into it? Was that something that you were trained for or did you fall into it?

Nicola:  I guess I fell into it. One of the things I love about learning and development is that people come to this profession from so many different directions, experiences and disciplines. For myself, as you say, I was trained as a lawyer. I did law as one of those things that gives you an excellent ground in critical thinking and to maximize my possible career options.

I did qualify as a lawyer and then decided to use law for a specific purpose so I specialized in environmental law. I went to the UK and did a Masters at a time when a whole new legislative regime was just coming into force.  So, an opportunity came up to teach at Imperial College in the foremost postgraduate program in the country and best of all, an interdisciplinary one! For me, the challenge- as one of a rather rare breed of lawyers in a sea of engineers and scientists at Imperial at the time- was to really step back and think about how lawyers think and how I might transfer that kind of knowledge (the different mental models that the law uses, the concepts, the language) to people who’ve been trained in quite different ways. Interestingly quite often at the end of the course on environmental law, students would often be intent on beginning a whole new career!

So, teaching at Imperial was about stepping back to look at first principles and also starting to think about the different ways in which you can change people’s behavior. What are the different types of instruments used in environmental law and policy, how effective are they relative to each other, in changing people’s behavior in the environmental area? That’s been something that continues to interest me. It seems incredibly obvious that we should do something to protect the environment in which we live and yet that’s not something that people necessarily want to do in the short term and those are the same sort of issues that we have to deal with all the time in learning and development. I then had an opportunity to go to Hong Kong and do some research in the university there, again on environmental issues, then Singapore and eventually to come back to Australia, to Blake Dawson where I’ve been ever since.

Jeevan: Fantastic. What is your mandate of your role at Blake Dawson?

Nicola: My role is Head of Learning and Development here at the firm. We have a small team who design and deliver a high proportion of our training internally. So, I see our main mandate as being to deliver a professional development program to lawyers which will support them throughout their careers whilst helping the firm realize its strategic ambitions. This means building our lawyers’ capacities to build relationships with their clients, manage teams and deliver excellent products to their clients.
So, it’s about continually reinforcing the idea of continuous learning and improvement for lawyers in their practice so that they can constantly meet the higher and higher standards expected of them. In many ways, I consider our mandate to be supporting our lawyers to make the very shifts needed throughout their careers to enable them to perform at these higher levels. There is a psychological component to it as well as being able to identify what lawyers need to learn and then provide them with the opportunities to do so, whilst helping them to integrate that knowledge into their practice every day.

Jeevan:  Lawyers are obviously highly qualified professionals and I guess, have a mind of their own about what they need to learn. What are the current learning and development challenges that Blake Dawson and the industry in general, is facing?

Nicola:  Well, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in some ways. Lawyers are highly qualified, intelligent and tend to” get” stuff very quickly. So, one of the challenges is to deliver learning at the right level and at the right speed. That challenge also follows from the fact that lawyers. They are time poor because our business model assumes that they need to meet certain utilisation targets.  This can make it difficult for a lawyer to choose to make time for their learning, except to the extent it is immediately relevant to their work.   We are constantly challenged to deliver our programs in smaller and smaller bites and two hours is pretty well the norm for the programs that we would deliver. Anything shorter than that is absolutely fabulous. This is a challenge faced by all the law firms.

Another challenge is that traditionally lawyers have learned through an apprenticeship type model. In a knowledge business, your key learning is about understanding how people arrive at the decisions they make in a particular situation. So, the idea that you acquire expertise over the course of 10,000 hours is one that is just as relevant for us in a law firm – understanding not only the law but how to get the best outcome for your client in a particular situation depends on many years of experience. What we are trying to do is to accelerate that process as much as possible. So the challenge for us is to be able to get into the minds of our experts, the partners, and to be able to work out ways to transfer that knowledge to lawyers, who can sometimes feel remote from those people from whom they most naturally learn.

In the past, you may have sat in the same room as the partner that you’re working with and you got to listen to the phone calls that they were making, the difficult conversations that they had. You watched them put together the brief that they would then send off to Counsel. Today, it is very difficult to get that same level of immediate feedback on a document that you as a junior lawyer might be preparing.

Jeevan: That is quite interesting. My experience in the healthcare sector has been similar. In the past a senior doctor used to mentor the junior doctor on the rounds but that is decreasing as work volumes increase. I suspect you are facing a similar issue.

Nicola: Yes and interestingly, I find that lawyers are not naturally reflective, partly due to the constraints of time and the need to produce quick results. Our challenge is often encouraging that reflection and helping people to walk through what happened in a particular transaction before they’ve moved on to the next transaction  – to ask themselves “How could I have performed that task better and  how might  I apply that learning to a future situation”. As Learning and Development professionals, we need to facilitate that reflection not only in a training environment but also during a particular transaction, almost running alongside our lawyers to help them to learn.

So, it’s this notion that’s perhaps driving law firms towards better use of learning technology. Up until about 12 months ago, law firms generally were pretty committed only to face to face learning but now, we’re beginning to explore how to use online training more effectively to meet these emerging needs.  It’s an interesting time for us.

Jeevan: That is interesting to hear that you are exploring using technology to deliver that learning or performance support. Do you have any concerns about using technology in place of the existing face to face methods?

Nicola: I don’t have any concerns yet about it. I think we will always continue to use face to face learning in any case and the value of those face to face sessions for us in particular is that you bring people together to give them the opportunity to share their experiences or to get to know different people who could become buddies and mentors.

That said, what would be even more valuable would be to be able to use technology to facilitate that really powerful learning that occurs in a partner-lawyer exchange. So far, we’ve used wikis as a kind of collaborative learning tool. The challenge then is how to engage partners, say, who are incredibly busy and who are obviously of that generation to whom this sort of learning and interaction may come less naturally.

Jeevan: I know that you are presenting at LearnX coming up in September which is a great conference and the topic that you’ve chosen to speak on is the “Chrysalis Effect”. So, please tell us a little bit more about what that is. That sounds really interesting.

Nicola: Absolutely.  It’s only a 15 minute presentation and at the time of being asked to present,   I was thinking about something quite different from what we’ve been talking about. I was thinking about the kinds of demands we place on our staff – in many organisations, not just in law firms – to be reflective and self –aware.  In law, it’s so important because of the way lawyers operate which depends so much on collaboration. To be effective, we must work well with others, and yet this is something that lawyers don’t naturally think about or understand at the beginning of their practice. By nature and training, lawyers are highly autonomous. When a graduate first joins the firm, they tend to think it’s all about technical expertise.

In fact, it’s all about the extent to which you can work with others, influence a client towards the best outcome,  help the client to understand the value of what we provide, build trust in those who you will need to rely on to sustain your practice.  This means L&D needs to help lawyers better understand what drives their own behaviours and that of their colleagues and clients – L&D needs to really get below the surface of individuals and their preferences and think about how do we get them to make the shifts that we need them to make in order for them to collaborate more effectively.

What that raises for me though is a question about how far we can go. At what point am I overstepping the boundaries in the interests of developing the kinds of people best able to support the business – people who we know from the research will contribute to more flourishing teams and higher levels of engagement and productivity? It’s an interesting time. As the mother of teenagers, I’m very conscious of those boundaries and the extent to which social networking and social media is blurring work and private lives.  And my kids – far from saying to me that, as my mother, you should have the right to look at whatever you please in my personal life– or require me to behave in a certain way – want that boundary to be respected!  Now obviously, the view of teenagers has to be taken with a certain degree of caution, but their views have provoked me to think about generational views towards development and the implications for us as we begin to rely more heavily on emerging learning technologies.

So for the purposes of LearnX, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the shifts we’d made as a firm to get to the point we’re at now. What’s the path we’ve taken over the last 10 years to get us to a point in which talking about “who we are” is just as important as “what we’re doing”?   And at what point is the employee entitled to say: “let me be”?

Jeevan:  Looking forward hearing you at LearnX which is in September. So, good luck with the preparation. Thank you very much for your time. I know you’ve got a very busy schedule so I appreciate your time and I look forward to hearing from you more.

Nicola: Thanks.

Please note that the interviews are the personal views and opinions of the interviewee and not necessarily the views of the organisations they work for or represent.