October 2003  Volume 29, Issue 7
October 2003 Issue
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Big Idea: Getting Invested in Professional Development
by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton
“Law school teaches you how to think, but it doesn’t do such a great job of teaching you how to take a deposition.” So says Claude G. Szyfer, a litigation associate in the New York office of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP. We can all recognize the wider truth in Szyfer’s comment: There are just some things that lawyers need to learn while in the field.

Arrested development? Continuing legal education, mandatory or not, has long been one way for young lawyers to build their legal skills and knowledge. However, as a senior partner in a big firm recently said to me, “The best way for a young lawyer to learn is side by side, shirt sleeves rolled up, with a senior lawyer.”

The problem is that there seem to be ever fewer good “teaching moments,” perhaps because clients are less willing to pay “double” for a senior lawyer’s and an associate’s time. Although the air in most law firms seems filled with talk about the need to mentor and coach young lawyers so they’ll grow into extraordinary senior lawyers … well, it doesn’t seem to be happening. Or, when it does happen, it’s a rare occasion when the mentor is well equipped or disposed to provide truly meaningful tutelage.

Here’s the good news. With little fanfare and a lot of determination, a number of firms have been doing something to reverse the trend. Over the past decade a new breed of law firm professional has taken hold: the professional development director. While the people in this role may sport diverse resumes and various titles (director of professional growth, lawyer ombudsman, director of associate development or legal resources coordinator), they are all, ultimately, involved in nurturing lawyers beyond law school. And their numbers are growing.

A consortium for full-time lawyer development professionals. Anita J. Zigman, director of associate affairs at Proskauer Rose LLP, is the chair of an organization called the Professional Development Consortium. It’s a loosely organized collection of professionals who are engaged full-time in smoothing, improving and developing the careers of lawyers at all levels. Members gather for well-organized meetings twice a year to learn from each other, spruce up their ideas and generally work for the legal profession’s betterment. (The next meeting will take place in Austin, Texas, in January 2004.)

“We started as 30 colleagues gathering informally nearly 12 years ago,” Zigman says. The membership list has now grown to more than 200 people.

They wear many hats, these new professionals. Activities in their job descriptions range from training programs, career development and performance evaluation, to staffing, orientation and integration of the firm’s new lawyers. For some, it means handholding those approaching the partnership derby.

As an example, Burton N. Lipshie, managing attorney for litigation at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, is in charge of the development and training of Stroock’s young lawyers. His activities range from having weekly lunches with new associates to implementing formal training programs.

Asked to describe her role at Proskauer Rose, Zigman likes to refer to herself as “Switzerland.” That’s because she’s most importantly a neutral party for young lawyers in a place where competition and conflict can sometimes rule the day.
Some firms created these new positions from scratch, working to meet an identified need. Other firms grew the positions over time, as critical activities were assigned to the best-suited individual--frequently a lawyer who gradually transitioned out of practice into firm management.

Many law firm professional development directors are lawyers. Some are not. Some, in fact, bring to the table academic portfolios, adult education or HR experience, or even counseling or psychology backgrounds.

And if you think only the New York megafirms are investing in these people, take note. The Professional Development Consortium’s members hail from places large and small across North America and beyond. Although it may seem easier to justify the job in a big multioffice organization, firms with 60 lawyers and fewer have made the investment and continue to value it.

Is this an idea with meaning to your firm? If you’re still trying to figure out how to turn that grumpy, irascibly introverted partner into a gangbuster mentor whom associates will beg to work with … perhaps it’s worth contemplated the big question: Who in your firm is in charge of nurturing--and keeping--the best and the brightest lawyers for your team? (Warning: If you say “all of us,” you’re only spreading the blame.)

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is Editor-in-Chief of Law Practice Management and a full-time management, strategy and leadership consultant to law firms.