The Rise of the Professional Development Director in Law Firms

In reading your monthly NALP Bulletin, you may have noticed the frequent addition of Professional Development Directors in law firms nation-wide. The rise of the Professional Development Director is coming from two directions. The first is the result of the tremendous growth firms have experienced over the past few years. New attorneys need to be integrated successfully and become productive immediately, hence, the hiring of Professional Development Directors. The second direction is due to the retention issues firms are facing. A Professional Development Director added to a Firm’s ranks helps to attract and retain the best talent in this very competitive market.

Having worked with firms to help them hire Professional Development Directors as well as in speaking with NALP members who currently hold these positions, it is clear that the goals for the job vary from firm to firm. In addition, the titles for this position are as varied as its goals. For example, at some firms the position is called Associate Relations Manager while at others it is called Director of Associate Development or any number of similar titles. Professional Development positions can encompass a variety of different areas including: attorney training, work assignment distribution, evaluations, career development, mentoring, outplacement, client development training, and retention issues. Therefore, before hiring a Professional Development Director, it is critical for each Firm to establish a clearly defined job description that those in charge agree upon and to have a vision for the priorities that need to be accomplished.

For those who get promoted into the position, beware of the strong possibility that everything can end up in your in box. After spending over ten years as head of Recruiting at Baker & Botts, Joan Schwartz took on the role of Director of Attorney Development for the Firm. Her three years in the position has taught her that while “recruiting is defined…professional development is not as clearly defined.” Therefore, she cautions, “you must make sure that your Firm has a vision and commitment for this position.” For example, clearly define goals for the Professional Development Director to achieve in the first year in order for this role to be successful. In addition, having a committee of respected and influential partners will help the firm to achieve its goals.

For firms considering adding this position, Joan advises that the firm be realistic about what results can be achieved and “make sure not to promise more than can be delivered. Start with baby steps and identify key issues that can be resolved.” For example, send a survey to all of your attorneys and inquire what the firm can do to make the work environment most comfortable and productive. Based on the feedback, identify five goals that will be addressed over the next year. It is important to include associates’ in the solution process so that buy-in happens from the start. By asking for the associate’s input and involving them in the problem-solving and implementation process, the firm will have the best chance of resolving issues of greatest importance to the associates.

Joan Schwartz views her main role as the Director of Attorney Development as the facilitator of communication and translator of information between associates and partners. Laura Schacter, a former associate, who has been the Director of Associate Development & Legal Personnel at Chadbourne Parke in New York for the past year-and-a-half, agrees. Laura’s goal “is to know all the associates and find out what they need and want.” Being the liaison between these two groups, and an advocate for both sides, can be a challenging role. To be successful in this position, Joan advises that “one must have excellent listening skills and know how to manage sensitive information.” Credibility is critical. Therefore, Joan adds, “providing Partners with examples that illustrate Associates’ concerns rather than just reiterating complaints helps one to be most effective in this role.”

Many Recruitment Directors play the role of the Professional Development Director without having the formal title. After 23 years with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Leslie Ripley, the National Recruiting Manager, recently inherited the functions associated with the role of professional development when the person in this position left the firm.

Leslie’s main goal in her new role is to help associates integrate into the Firm. This is particularly critical at Gibson, Dunn because the Firm operates in a “free market system” where associates are required to go out and get their own work assignments from day one. Having hired hundreds of lawyers over the years, Leslie says that it is “critical to teach associates how to manage their own careers and maximize the opportunities available to them.” Because the skills necessary to do this are not necessarily taught in law school, training is key.

As the liaison between associates and partners, Leslie has two very specific goals for 2000. The first is to formalize the Firm’s training programs. To help her achieve this goal, Leslie recently hired a National Training Coordinator who will administer and monitor training firm-wide. One of the functions of the National Training Coordinator will be to communicate all training programs via the firm’s intra-net. The second goal, in which she is working very closely with the Associates Committee, is to develop and implement a new Mentoring Program for associates.

Many of the Firms who have hired or promoted Professional Development Directors are large national firms. There are however, smaller firms who have committed their resources to this area. O’Sullivan Graev & Karabell (OGK), a 100-lawyer New York firm, is a prime example. The Firm has been and continues on a track of explosive growth. The Partners, who are in charge of attorney hiring and retention, saw the need for assistance in managing associates’ expectations and to remain competitive in a very tight job marketing. Their consensus is that the main goals for the Director of Professional Development is to facilitate communication between partners and associates as well as the implementation of attorney training programs that will help associates to be effective practitioners. In describing the characteristics necessary to be successful in this position, Jill Mersel, the firm’s Director of Recruitment says, “you have to be a cheerleader and a problem solver, someone the associates can trust and confide in.”

In searching for a Director of Professional Development for your firm, you may want to look for a candidate who possesses strong administrative skills, commitment to associate development, sound judgment, discretion, and the right personality fit for your firm’s culture. As for areas of responsibility, they may include:

  • serving as a liaison between partners and associates and actively participating on the Associates Committee
  • establishing and implementing new attorney orientation programs
  • conducting associate training needs analysis and designing training curriculum
  • managing the attorney evaluation process
  • coordinating and monitoring mentoring programs
  • managing attorney outplacement programs
  • conducting exit interviews and identifying needed policies and procedures
  • counseling attorneys on career development issues
  • researching and reporting attorney remuneration packages
  • heightening diversity issues
  • determining and administering human resources policies
  • implementing and coordinating partner evaluations
  • planning firm events, retreats and conferences

For some NALP members who are looking for their next professional challenge, the role of Professional Development Director may be the perfect step. However, if you are considering taking on the role of Professional Development Director, please remember that although showing results is important, it is often difficult to point out all of your achievements in this position. For example, there are many hours spent counseling attorneys on career development issues such as outplacement and drafting confidential memos on associate morale issues that can not be publicly acknowledged.

Undoubtedly, you will see many more firms hire Professional Development Directors over the next few years. To make this position successful from the start here are five tips to consider:

1 – Establish a job description and priorities for the position;
2 – Survey associates to lean more about their needs and concerns;
3 – Identify five goals to be accomplished in the first year;
4 – Involve associates in devising and implementing solutions to issues of concern;
5 – Keep those in charge informed of the results accomplished.

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