From left: Sidley Austin’s Eilish Cahalan, East Coast director of training and development; Gene Gilmore, West Coast director of training and development; Jody Rosen Knower, chief training and professional development officer; Keisha Channer, CLE manager of lawyer training and professional development; Rob Randolph, director of business development training.
There are several inflection points in a lawyer’s career. The transition from law school to law practice is one of the first. There is also a transition from midlevel to senior associate, and then another significant move from senior associate to partner.
LearningElite winner Sidley Austin, a U.S. law firm with global reach, focuses a great deal of its time and resources on supporting its lawyers with a variety of targeted development options created to give them what they need during each transition.
“Stated very simply, we invest in our people,” said Jody Rosen Knower, the firm’s chief training and professional development officer.
New lawyers coming out of law school get extensive onboarding and orientation with mock first assignments, skills training in writing, drafting and accounting, and finance. There’s scenario-based learning to develop their judgment muscles by presenting them with challenging and realistic situations they are likely to face in their first year of practice, and then coaching on how to handle themselves in those scenarios.
This onboarding lasts about a year with the majority of support and resources spent in the first six months. Check-ins follow to make sure people are on track. “We give them opportunities to hear directly from our clients about what client service means to them and much more,” Rosen said. “They have some programming in their own offices, and we bring everyone together for a global, two-and-a-half day in-person orientation.”
Midlevel associates also have a global two-day conference that focuses on leadership and management skills, career development and planning, client relationships and business development skills. It’s an intense development opportunity for busy lawyers around their fifth year of practice who’ve mastered most of the technical skills and acquired the know-how they need to be excellent.
At this stage, however, the firm encourages them to take a step back from practice to think big picture about their futures and the additional skills they need to acquire to be successful in more senior roles: leading teams, having more contact with clients and eventually developing new business. If they intend to become partners, Rosen said they know what expectations the firm has for them, and then Sidley Austin equips them with the learning they need to meet them.
During the midlevel associate’s global conference, there’s a concentrated focus on career planning, which includes developmental sessions on mentorship and sponsorship as well as how to create a career action plan. Small group discussions with partners follow the sessions to deepen the dialogue that began in the action planning session. Rosen said these sessions help spur midlevel lawyers to consider and assess their futures, their strengths, what skills they may need to build and what relationships they’ll need to charter a long-term path forward.
“Being a lawyer is a demanding and challenging job,” she said. “That tends to attract people who want to be in demanding and challenging environments, and that’s fantastic. But it does mean that if you’re not prompted to do it, you can sometimes not take the time to step back and do that reflecting.”
She described this transition in a lawyer’s development as almost like counting backward from the partnership decision process. Part of it is seeing where there’s a natural break when people start becoming supervisors and take on greater leadership. It’s not the same structured, lengthy, formal process as when a student transitions to practitioner, for instance. Nor is the role shift from being an associate who’s an employee to being a partner who’s an owner of the firm the same. The midlevel transition is more nuanced. Rosen said it’s very real, but developmentally it’s not as cut and dry, though no less critical.
Newly elected partners also have a yearlong onboarding process, one that was implemented in 2014. It includes a global, in-person orientation event, individual business development coaching and structured internal networking opportunities.
“The firms’ leaders have a significant presence at all three of these global events, as speakers as well as in networking and social settings,” Rosen said. “We really recognize how critical these transitions are. They’re critical moments in a lawyer’s career, and we have a vested interest in ensuring they succeed in making those transitions. So, again, to state it simply, we invest in our people.”