Part of the growing managerial team at law firms over the last decade or so has been the addition of the Professional Development or Career Development Officer. The goal, according to one firm, is happier, more productive attorneys who in turn are less likely to leave. The trend began several years ago, when large firms, such as Paul Weiss, whose current Director of Professional Development is David Cruickshank, realized the benefits of actively directing and supporting their attorneys’ career development. 

Over time more firms have signed on to the concept, such as Chicago’s Gardner Carton & Douglas (soon to merge with Drinker, Biddle & Reath), which in 2004 appointed their first Chief Career Development Officer, responsible for the summer associate program, orientation of new associates, assignments and feedback, mentoring, training and formal performance reviews. Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal also hired at that time its first Chief Learning Officer, as have Holland & Knight and Arnold & Porter. Each position is tailored to the individual firm’s goals and requirements– some focus primarily on providing targeted training to associates and partners, some attempt to manage quality assurance or reach out to alumni, while others take a more free-wheeling approach. Cordell M. Parvin, the lawyer at Jenkens & Gilchrist who became their first official Attorney Development Officer a few years ago, said at the time that his firm was moved to formalize the position in order to help their lawyers make for themselves a career that they love. “We’re in an era where young lawyers have never been paid more money, and they’ve never been more unhappy.”   

Adding Internal Coaches

A recent twist has been the inclusion of individual coaching responsibilities in the Professional Development officer’s role, or, as in the case of some firms, such as Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe (soon to merge with Dewey Ballantine), Arnold & Porter and Fenwick & West, the addition to the team of an internal full-time coach. Like the Career Development position, the coach’s role can be defined in many different ways, depending on the values and goals of the firm. And the coaching methodology could differ significantly depending on which of the myriad coaching approaches are used.

The Challenges of Coaching Lawyers

Dr. Martin Seligman, the Fox Leadership professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, founded the school of Positive Psychology, which focuses on factors that make for professional and personal success, instead of following the traditional diagnostic model of addressing weaknesses. His work identifies optimism particularly as producing sizeable psychic benefits. A widely successful coaching program based on Marty’s positive psychology model encourages “learned optimism.”  

According to Marty’s research, however, lawyers are strongly pessimistic– so much so that law appears to be the only career where pessimism is a career enhancing attribute. So the question arises as to whether changing lawyers’ pessimism to optimism will kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Ideally, such coaching would give lawyers the ability to switch out of their day-job mindset, not only when socializing or in family situations, but also when engaging in non-lawyering professional activities like managing their firms and courting their clients, producing bottom-line benefits.