Development and assessment centres

Our extensive experience gained from working within law firms in previous roles, coupled with supporting a wide variety of firms from the outside, means that we are very well qualified to design and deliver development and assessment centres across all levels of fee earner. We think of it as one of our sweet spots!

Development and assessment centres explained

Typical development centres consist of a series of practical exercises designed to challenge participants against the firm’s expectations of someone at their current level and usually also the level above. Participants are observed taking part in these exercises, individually or in small groups, and afterwards receive detailed personal feedback on how they performed.

Areas of strength are clearly identified as well as areas where further development may be needed. For many participants, taking part in development centres offers them all too rare opportunities to receive feedback in such detail. We then work with each participant to help them translate their feedback into a personal development plan to focus their ongoing development.

Assessment centres can be a very valuable addition to the assessment process for candidates for promotion e.g. to partner level. The exercises used provide opportunities for candidates to demonstrate their abilities against specific promotion criteria which can help to level the playing field and provide a consistent basis for comparison.

We have also designed assessment centres for firms seeking to identify their top talent at an earlier stage by assessing readiness for promotion which can lead to the discovery of potential candidates who may otherwise have been overlooked.

How we work

We work closely alongside our clients to identify specific performance areas for testing within the development / assessment centre and to articulate what differentiates a strong performer from someone who is meeting but not exceeding expectations at their level.

Working in tandem with partners and HR and L&D professionals we design exercises, case studies, assessment criteria, feedback processes, moderation systems and final report formats. We have helped to prepare participants for the development / assessment centre experience as well as providing training for internal members of the firm to enable them to be part of the observer faculty.

For some firms we have supplemented the development centre support with 1:1 follow-up coaching.

Examples of our work

  • We worked closely with a European firm to introduce development centres for the first time and for four different levels of fee earner. The four different development centres we created had to meet the expectations of a number of culturally diverse offices across the firm’s network and have credibility for all participants regardless of their office and practice group. The development centres have been shown to have had a positive impact on the retention of staff at that firm.
  • We were selected to work with a top 50 law firm to introduce development centres for the first time at both associate and senior associate levels.
  • We have also created a new development centre for senior associates in a top 50 law firm to assess readiness for promotion as part of a broader talent management process.

Development and assessment case study

Delivering new development centres for an international law firm

We were selected to work with an international law firm to design and deliver a suite of new development centres for their junior, mid-level, senior associates respectively. The firm’s objectives were:

  • To invest in the development of their associates across all levels, all practice groups and all offices
  • To support the retention of talent
  • To promote cross firm networks at associate level by developing peer groups at these levels and to use those networks to foster collaboration between offices thereby increasing opportunities for client development

The challenges

The development centres needed to be seen to be for the immediate benefit of the associates as well as for the long-term benefit of the firm. They also needed to reflect the firm’s innovative spirit and the values that the firm wanted to retain as it continued to grow. It was also important that the development centres were seen as relevant to associates qualified in jurisdictions outside of England and Wales and were not regarded as “London-centric”.

Setting our clients up for success

Working closely with our clients in the HR and L&D teams we established other groups to help inform the project and champion this new initiative. These included:

  • A steering group consisting of members of the firm’s senior management (including the senior and managing partner) to lead from the top, demonstrate the firm’s commitment and champion the project internally
  • A focus group of partners to advise on performance expectations at different levels of associate and a focus group of associates to cross check the expectations of the partners, both of which also sense-checked the exercises to ensure relevance, face validity and firm fit
  • A design and delivery team consisting of members of Sherwood and the L&D team within the client

What we did

We worked throughout with the firm's L&D team to co-design and develop the exercises which included a mix of written exercises, team-based practical exercises, and individual roleplay exercises.

With the help of the steering group, we identified current strategic or operational challenges of the firm which we used to design the group exercises and which then produced valuable outputs from the development centres that were subsequently shared by the associates with the firm’s management committee.

We created qualitative assessment criteria and scoring grids to enable us to provide objective feedback to the associates and help them to benchmark their own performance against the firm’s expectations.

We included different psychometric tests at each level to support an increasing level of self-awareness amongst the associates. We included reflective sessions at the beginning of each development centre to encourage the associates to articulate and share their learning objectives for the centre, and a 1:1 coaching session at the end to help the associates assess what they had learned and help them to translate their feedback into a personal development plan.

The impact

Feedback from the associates (who were generally sceptical at the outset) was exceptionally positive. “I have learned more from this programme than any other training course” was a typical comment and this for a programme that included no teaching!

A year after the programmes were introduced it was also demonstrated that the retention rate of associates amongst all of the groups that had benefited from the development centres was higher than amongst those associate groups who had, by then, not had the same opportunity.

A number of the outputs from the group exercises that were shared with the management committee were implemented in the business with considerable impact. One such initiative was even recognised by an industry award!