Training, mentoring and otherwise helping young attorneys to succeed is a worthy mission for any law firm. But while those functions were often done informally and scattered among several partners, many firms now are combining such efforts into a coordinated program headed by a single employee. The result of appointing a career guru, experts say, is happier, more productive attorneys who are less likely to leave.
“This takes hiring and training–on which most law firms have been concentrating in the past–to another level,” says lawyer and seasoned career counselor Kathy Morris. Previously director of the ABA Career Resource Center, Morris is the first to serve as chief career development officer at Chicago’s Gardner Carton & Douglas. Morris says she will be involved in areas such as the summer associate program, orientation of new associates, the assignment system, feedback and mentoring, and formal performance reviews. “It integrates the career development processes and systems within a law firm,” Morris says of her new job.
For example, Morris says, a career guru can help a law firm tailor associate work assignments to address needs identified during annual performance reviews, or help attorneys develop career goals and then assign mentors with relevant expertise. While unusual, Morris’ position is not unique. Law firms have recently appointed career gurus under a variety of job titles. Chicago’s Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, for example, hired its first chief learning officer last summer. Holland & Knight and Arnold & Porter have created similar positions.
Rather than rely on informal mentoring or the old sink-or-swim approach to learning how to be a lawyer, it makes sense for firms to appoint an in-house coordinator, says Cordell M. Parvin, a lawyer in the Dallas office of Jenkens & Gilchrist, who last year moved from an unofficial role overseeing attorney development to an official position. “We’re in an era where young lawyers have never been paid more money, and they’ve never been more unhappy,” he says. “I’ve loved my career–I’ve been practicing 33 years–and I want to show young lawyers an approach that will increase the chances that they will love their careers.”
The idea is that helping lawyers maximize their career potential also helps firms maximize profits. Sonnenschein’s new chief learning officer, J. William Elwin Jr., is developing a quality assurance program, examining as models the medical community’s long-established peer review process and the military’s practice of after-action reviews.
Another innovation under Elwin is a plan this fall to bring in a business school financial expert to conduct a five-session accounting program.
“By carefully reviewing the associate performance evaluations,” Elwin says, “one of the things we discovered was that associates could very much benefit–and, indeed, lawyers beyond associates could very much benefit–from training with respect to accounting and financial statement analysis.”
Parvin at Jenkens & Gilchrist says it’s important to take a holistic approach to career development, and consider how work should meld with a lawyer’s life outside the firm. For example, Parvin is working with a “truly, truly outstanding” female seventh-year associate. But, as a mother of two young children who is devoting a lot of time to her work at Jenkens & Gilchrist, she could burn out, he says. “So my coaching with her is on energy and slowing down a little bit and how she organizes her time.”
Morris says she also anticipates working with law firm alumni.
“We’ll be reaching out to attorneys who have left the firm to invite them to participate in events and communicate with regularity,” she says. Such efforts “maintain strong goodwill and good relationships with Gardner,” she says. And that benefits everyone.