Helping Lawyers Learn New Skills

Unconscious competence?

There are stages to our personal development and learning.

We all start off being unconsciously incompetent. As a very young child, for example, we don’t know we can’t ride a bike. Then we get on a bike and realise it’s a bit tricky – we become consciously incompetent.

Then with somebody’s help, we become consciously competent, having to concentrate hard to stay balanced. Now, most of us are unconsciously competent and don’t give the process of riding a bike a second thought – unless you’re negotiating traffic in London!

Breaking this process down even further and applying it to lawyers, I think we can recognise the following stages to their personal learning and development process:

  1. We know something is important but don’t believe it relates to us. Partners might be saying ‘I’m doing ok – it’s the other partners that need to do that’.
  2. We know we need to change our behaviour but still don’t do it. We might lack conviction because it’s difficult, inconvenient, or we judge the risks or effort involved outweigh the benefits.
  3. We know we need to change and want to, but lack the skills to do it.
  4. We know we need to change and do it but inconsistently. We might get lazy or forgetful or distracted.
  5. We know what to do and do it consistently. We’ve formed a good behaviour that we consciously cultivate.
  6. We know what to do and make it second nature – it’s become part of who we are and has become a good habit.

For example, when it comes to giving constructive feedback to staff, most professionals know they should do it (ie they have got past stage 1) but relatively few have made it through to stage 6. Many get stuck at stage 3, lacking the skills. If they ever get past that, stage 4 isn’t much of a problem but stage 5 can become another sticking point.

It seems to me that there are two parts to the answer to this challenge.

The first is pretty obvious – it’s to provide training and coaching, so lawyers can see frameworks for a successful approach and can see someone demonstrating how it’s used and give it a go themselves in a supportive learning environment. This can get lawyers only up to stage 3 or 4.

The second is less obvious, but probably even more important – it’s to provide a culture in the firm which allows people to give it a go without any recriminations and to provide ongoing support, perhaps through internal mentors. Without this in place, it’ll be hard to get lawyers – or anybody – up to level 6.

After all, there’s no such thing as failure – only learning!

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