Trends in Legal Placement and Lawyer Development
Ari Kaplan is an attorney, author, and leading legal industry analyst. As the host of his own long-running Reinventing Professionals podcast, he has interviewed hundreds of leaders in the legal profession since 2009. Read transcript
Attorney and Legal Industry Analyst
Ari Kaplan is an attorney, author, and leading legal industry analyst. As the host of his own long-running Reinventing Professionals podcast, he has interviewed hundreds of leaders in the legal profession since 2009.
Traci Mundy Jenkins
Director of Career Development, Venable LLP
Welcome to Legal Tech Matters, a Litera podcast dedicated to creating conversations about trends, technology and innovation for modern law firms and companies big and small.
Welcome to Reinventing Legal. I'm Ari Kaplan, and I have the privilege of speaking today with Traci Mundy Jenkins, the Director of Career Development at Venable, and the President of the National Association forLaw Placement. Hi Traci, how are you?
Hi, Ari. It is a pleasure. Thank you.
Oh, it's so nice to speak to you. I'm excited for this conversation.
Tell us about your background and your role at Venable.
I am a lawyer by training, although I am not a practicing lawyer right now.And at Venable, I started a career development program that spans firm wide for our associates, and that essentially includes direct one on one career advising; it is resources, so helping them to identify internal and external resources; also discussing how different components of what they do have an impact on their development, both within the firm and to theextent they want to be engaged with external community organizations. Bar associations. We talk about that.
I also help them with a self-assessment. We call it a career development plan to help them really understand where they are, where they want to go.Set goals, so it's pretty comprehensive.
You spent 15 years as a member of the career services team at American University's Washington College of Law, most recently as the assistant dean in the Office of Career and Professional Development. How have you found the transition from a law school to a law firm?
That's been very interesting. I joined the law school back in 2003, and between that time and the 15 years I was there, I was overseeing the career development office and we had the recession, which obviously had an impact on law students, their choices where they could possibly end up in terms of employment.We also saw during that time that there was an evolution that law schools with professional development - in fact, my office used to be called the Office of Career Services, and we changed the name to the Office of Career and Professional Development to reflect that sort of shift in mindset about the need for law students to havea professional identity.
I do see a lot of parallels there. So you asked about the transition from a law school to a law firm? And I see so many parallels. So I see a dean at a law school versus a chair at a law firm.
I see faculty on the law school side and partners and counsel on the firm side. You've got your law students and then you have your lawyers, you have resources, you have the tools to try to effectively navigate the landscape and to take advantage of all the support that's available.
So I feel very strongly now. My transition was a bit different because I returned to a place I knew, but I feel very confident that it is an easy transition in terms of all these parallels in terms of the structure, using that the things that you have developed at the law school in a law firm setting.
How did your work in a law school affect your approach to career development at the firm?
It's very interesting because I knew the basics right of how you interact, what catches people's eye in terms of here's a program howdo you best market bad? How do you bring resources to life? But the questions I found are very different and the function is different. So at a law school, you're very focused on resumes and cover letters and conducting mock interviews and doing programs, maybe with faculty or alumni. At a law firm you're really focused on how will an associate best function where they are in their practice? How will they best develop? How is their workload? Are they too busy or are they not busy enough? How are they going to create internal networks that will serve them well?How are they servicing their internal clients? They are very different conversations, and I find that to be really fascinating. You're still providing the support, but now it's just in a very different way.
As a former associate with the firm, this is really a full circle moment.You worked at Venable for about seven years after law school and then returned about 20 years later. What aspects of law firm life have remained the same and what's changed?
I can primarily talk about my current situation. I mean, my firm grew tremendously while I was away and was a Baltimore firm initially and then turned into a Washington, DC based firm, and then there were a lot of geographic expansions that took place into New York and on the West Coast. So that certainly was a change. When I was there initially, and the only reason I left was because I did not want to practice law any longer.There weren't business professionals back at the time when I was an associate, so either I was going to be an associate or I have to go, because there weren't a lot of opportunities where you could still stay at the firm and use your skills in a different way.
So certainly the development of bringing on individuals who have that business background, because after all, law firms are businesses, so they're bringing on people that have business backgrounds and professionals that can really help and support the lawyer's work and their clients.
That's also been a huge change. I will say that what stayed the same is just the general expectation that associates are going to hone their skills and they are going to be a support for their internal clients. They must produce good quality work.They need to develop their brand and become go-to associates that many of the partners counsel senior level associates really need on their team. So I will say that change, at least what I've experienced, is a change in structure, but I think some of the expectations still remain.
And one other thing I should note is the technology, you know, now associates, all of us are 24-7 connected. When I was a lawyer practicing, I don't know, once I left office, it wasn't as easy to get in touch with me.So that dynamic certainly has been a big change.
You mentioned a distinction between law students and lawyers. What are the most common career development questions that you received from professionals at the firm?
It has shifted. It's not about getting the job, which I feel in a career services office.You're trying to make sure that the students have the tools for that internship or that summer associate position or that judicial internship or clerkship and say you're helping them with all of the components of that so they can secure those positions. At a law firmIn this capacity, you're really focusing on their functionality as an associate at the firm. And are there any challenges? Do they need resources or other support? How can we best support them and make sure that they stay with us?
Because ideally, we'd love for them to be first year associates that turn into counsel and eventually partners? I do feel that the discussion points are different, but it all is in the same bucket of career development. Where is your career headed?And you have to ask those questions as a law student as well as a professional when you start your work at a law firm?
And how do those questions vary by experience level?
So in my role, I meet individually with all the new associates.We just onboarded new associates, many of whom were coming directly from law school. So I meet with them individually to understand how things are going, their integration if they need any assistance. And then I also meet with all of our laterals, and I can say that just comparing this two groups, I do find that the new associates, these are generalizations, but for the most part, they're just trying to understand how does all this work? What are the expectations? How do I communicate effectively? How should I be responsive? They're just trying to figure out how to really function in this environment.
For the lateralsIt could be similar in that they're trying to understand how to function at this particular firm. But for many of them, they've been hired because they do have expertise in a particular area. So for them, it's more creating the inroads in the new environment.And then for all of this, obviously, the remote work at this point in time does add another layer, but I do see that there is some variance depending on the level of the associate.
Have the career development challenges for your professionals changed as a result of working remotely?
Yes, I do think that more intentionality is necessary at this point. As we know in the past, if everyone was in the office, you'd have that chance meeting and be able to pop into someone's office. It has returned for some, but not fully. You have to be really focused on what you're doing. You have to do the outreach. You have to be proactive. You have to have positive visibility. That's what we call it at our firm. Just because now things are remote and it does take more effort. I do see that. You develop in your career at a law firm by getting work, doing good work, getting more work, getting different work, progressing to do all that remotely does take extra effort to make sure that that is something that's going to keep you ontrack.
How is the competitive market for talent affecting your work?
It is affecting my work because I also conduct exit interviews and onboarding. We know right now the lateral market is just on fire. There are so many transitions happening across the board for firms, and I think that aspect, again, for me, it's very impactful because of myrole. I know for recruiting. It's also very prevalent. This is something that is really, really affecting their work and how quickly things are moving. I would say, you know, to get the talent, to keep the talent, this market is definitely impacted.
You are currently serving as the president of the National Association for Law Placement. How has the role of the organization's president changed in light of the pandemic?
And now when you began your journey as president and you start as president elect for a year?
So for me, that started in 2020 into the spring of 2021. Now I'm in my president year until April of 2022, and then I'll be immediate past president the third year. Obviously, my time span is directly correlated to what's happening in the world in terms of the pandemic.
What we've certainly seen, as with many others, is that the last 19 months have required so much flexibility, creativity, resilience. We haven't had many typical in person meetings, although that is starting to come back a little bit. But certainly our conferences where we all get together and learn from each other and learn from others just haven't happened.And the president typically does a lot of traveling with our executive director, and that also has basically been the Zoom meetings. I would say certainly it has changed the dynamic, but it's also forced us to be thoughtful and creative and try to figure out what our members need.And so that certainly has been a positive.
In what ways are law firms improving the career development process?
I think I'm a good example of that. My role is under our professional development and training department. The recognition that once a law student becomes a lawyer and is working at a law firm that they’re career development doesn't stop, and that we make sure that they are adding the value that's expected of them and they are developing the way they want, having their interests aligned with their goals and the work they're doing all coming together. I mean, that's a process that's ongoing.It doesn't stop when you enter the doors of a law firm.
And I do think that my position is an example of firms wanting to improve the career development of their associates and certainly my university associates. But I'm sure these positions are happening in other spaces as well in terms of the people with whom they're working.I think they recognize the importance of keeping that process going.
Are law schools making similar changes?
I can speak primarily from learning from our members, the law school members, as well as my time at a law school.And I know that there's always been a recognition that we're preparing law students to really be effective lawyers in whatever field, private or public sector that they want to pursue. But at the same time, we know that trying to capture their attention can be difficult. For law schools, I know a lot of them because they understand the importance of professional development and making sure that law students do develop professionally, particularly if they do not have that experience in between undergrad and law school, a real working experience working at a job.
We know that it's very important for them to develop that professional identity. Now, some schools are really successful and have mandatory programs, and some are not able to do that. I think trying to get the attention of law students so they understand the importance is certainly something that my colleagues at law schools constantly are dealing with. And then on the law firm side, I see that we're also trying to make sure that they can really thrive in our environment. I think the law schools are definitely trying to make these advances.
But of course, we have other interests, i.e. faculty who rightfully so academics are very important in that. Setting said there's sometimes going to be some areas where it might be difficult to advance the initiatives.
What role does technology play in this transformation?
I mean, I mentioned just basic things like cell phones and laptop computers that keep us connected all the time, but also looking at things like artificial intelligence and data analytics and how those play into the recruiting process. Are they able to take out implicit bias that might be there when a candidate's credentials are reviewed or they arein an interview? And and I know now recently had a very interesting program last month on this topic, and we're trying to understand how does this new technology play into the legal profession, play into our roles as recruiters in professional development?
How does it play into diversity, equity and inclusion? Technology and its advances - we're trying to understand how those can be helpful in many of the roles that we play,
How do you see that usage evolving?
In our personal lives?Technology definitely has an impact, and I think it's just going to be what's the right tool or tools that are good for you? Do you need a tool that's going to be helpful in your recruiting process? If so, what does that look like?What are you trying to achieve with that? And so much of this technology, a lot of it is can you design what you want? Does it already exist? What information do you need to input to get out what you need?
Like anything else, you know, the legal profession definitely needs to be mindful of what's happening around it in terms of the technology advances and using it to their advantage.
What are the most effective ways that firms are improving their approach to hiring and retaining diverse talent?
Those two distinctions are so important because we are seeing an uptick in terms of the number of diverse students and all use diversity very broadly diverse students who are having the opportunities to work at firms as summer associates or laterals.So that is increasing. But then the question becomes What's the retention look like? How do you retain that talent? How do you make sure that they are supported? And I think that's where the conversation may shift a bit.
I mean, it's great that you might expand your reach to more broadly attract a diverse talent pool. You might go to different schools, you might have different diversity initiatives and scholarships that play into that pipeline. But at the end of the day, you can get all of that diverse talent in.
But if you're not able to retain the talent and it goes elsewhere, then it's almost like going back to square one on both ends certainly important and focusing on the processes. But at the end of the day, we need to make sure that we have some effective tools for retaining that talent.
How does the timing of on campus interviewing impact hiring?
It's so interesting. I mean, this past year and a half, we actually had two recruiting cycles. And again, I'm being pretty specific to law firms. Some other types of employers of smaller firms, public interest judicial are often on different timing tracks.But just thinking about a larger law firm in its recruiting, I mean, because of the pandemic, there were two recruiting cycles within the span of this period. So having one that was in January, February of 2021 for those students who usually would have been doing recruiting much earlier and then having another set of OCI recruiting this past summer. For those who are typically rising 2Ls and all of that does come into play, I mean, certainly just the ability to be perhaps a little more prepared because you will have three semesters under your belt when you did the first round of recruiting and then the second round was more traditional.
On a law student level was there significant change? I think the cycle sort of got back to where it was, but certainly thinking about how you're recruiting outside of that cycle or the ways that you're recruiting in that cycle had an effect on how law firms were able to attract their talent
Beyond grades in law school.Are there specific skills that law firms are looking for new hires, depending on the practice area?
I have seen a shift, for example, with corporate associates certainly having some type of business background, knowing how businesses operate certainly is a plus.Now do all law students who want to start in a corporate practice group need to have that? No. The hope is that they have some interest in gaining the skills, but reading a balance sheet, trying to understand the business, those things, while not directly legal skills, certainly can help a client.
And so when thinking about additional skills that law firms are looking for, I do think being able to bring to the table things that will ultimately help the client is very helpful. Now again, we understand a lot of graduating law students may not have had some of those experiences, and I certainly don't think that means that they can'tbe successful. But I do think having is additional skills is a plus.
This program is called Reinventing Legal. How is your work impacting that objective?
Two ways, and I'll start with the law firm in this role. These things that we've been discussing.
You know, if you look back many years ago just weren't in place, and I do believe there is a real focus now on making sure that the talent that's being brought in to law firms really has a chance to succeed.
And putting support in place like my position can help with that. I do think from that standpoint, we are trying to change the paradigm a little bit in terms of how our in my case, associates viewed. How can they be the most successful? How can they best service their internal clients, the partners of counsel and senior level associates? So in that way, I do hope that there is some type of reinventing that's taking place.
And then with now I can say that certainly we are so known for so many things supporting our members for the information that we collect aboutlaw students and where they go and what they're focusing on can be very impactful. And we notice that certainly there's an intersection between diversity, equity and inclusion with all these other things like remote work and wellbeing and all these things that really do play into what I said initially, which is how can we make sure that associatesare operating in a way that's good for them and good for their internal clients?
I do think in that way again with what NALP is taking a look at and what we call closing the gaps, being able to show with our data.We just started collecting data for first generation students. How does that impact the talent? What other support might be needed? Are there disparities between what they're achieving versus what others are achieving? So really shining a light on all that is incredibly important.And I do think it will go to hopefully impacting and reinventing our legal landscape.
This is Ari Kaplan, and I have been incredibly fortunate today on this episode of Reinventing Legal to speak with Traci Mundy Jenkins, the director of career development at Venable and the president of the National Association for Law Placement.Traci, thanks so very much.
Thank you so much, Ari.
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