A Peer Assist program is a methodology for group problem solving conducted in a formalized manner. In many ways, it mimics what took place in the past when people gathered together by chance in an informal setting (e.g. the firm library), talked about what they were working on, and helped each other in solving issues that stymied one or more of them. Peer Assists attempts to create those interactions. Question: Will something like this work in a law firm?
In the past (5-10 years ago), people working in organizations socialized more. At the very least, they spent more time in a collegial setting where interactions with each other happened more often and spontaneously. Those interactions often evolved into problem solving sessions. Today, we find ourselves working more in a solitary setting (our office or cube) where much of the interaction with others happens using email, social networking tools, and other technology available to us.
Email serves a purpose but solving problems or identifying and dealing with issues, isn’t it. Social media takes us further into the type of interaction that allows us to communicate with each other in a group setting. LinkedIn Groups is a great example where someone can submit an issue to the group and, in many cases, create a discussion where several individuals provide suggestions. I’ve participated in many discussions where one suggestion led to another and another and the outcome was far different than it would have been with one person trying to solve a problem.
Yet, I can’t help but think that a face to face discussion among a group of people could be more productive. The question is, in a culture, like that of a law firm, where the billable hour keeps lawyers and staff tied to their desks, how can they benefit from the knowledge that their peers possess? The development of client, industry and practice teams is one of the steps law firms can initiate to bring smaller groups together but, is it enough?
Peer Assists work by formalizing what’s been lost as technology became more pervasive in our lives. As an on again, off again pessimist, I think it has a place in law practice but the culture in law firms may create problems for the program before it gets started. Here’s an outline of the structure of how it works provided by the University of Ottawa Centre for e-Learning:
Prior to the Peer Assist session, the Peer Assistee (the individual or team facing a challenge or problem):
- Sends an invitation to his/her peers asking them to participate in the session.
- Identifies a facilitator and works with him/her to ensure that the session moves in a positive direction by supporting the dialogue and recording the ideas generated on a flip chart.
- Arranges a venue for the session and organises the space with chairs in a circle around the flip chart.
During the Peer Assist session:
- The Peer Assistee presents his/her situation to the group. The problem or challenge should be summarised on the flip chart in point form and articulated as clearly as possible in less than 5 minutes.
- Participants are encouraged to ask questions bringing out details of the situation.
- Participants are then invited to make suggestions based on their experiences of how the situation might be improved.
- The facilitator (i) keeps track of the discussion on the flip chart, and (ii) provides an environment conducive to sharing experiences.
- Towards the end of the session, which generally lasts anywhere from 20 – 45 mins, the facilitator may invite a final suggestion or idea from each participant. A summary of the ideas is then presented.
- The Peer Assistee informs the group how s/he will follow-up with the group.
Watch the following video/animation created by the University of Ottawa Centre for e-Learning and Bellanet.org is based on the peer assist methodology as outlined in the book Learning to Fly – Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organisations by Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell (Capstone Publishing, 2001, 2004) to learn more.
Going back to my initial question, can a Peer Assist program work in a law firm? I would love to get your feedback whether it answers the question or not.