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Very quietly, a burgeoning breed of legal specialist has been convening regularly to refine, define, inform, and inspire its members. Since 1990, members of the Professional Development Consortium have assembled in the cause of smoothing the careers of tenderfoot attorneys. What began as a group of about 30 colleagues, mostly from big firms, is now a professional association of 150 with semiannual conventions drawing law firm administrators from the United States, Canada, and Britain. “I define my position as Switzerland,” declares Anita Zigman, a former litigator at New York-based Proskauer Rose and now the firm’s director of associate affairs. That is, she is the neutral party in a place where competition and conflict are not unknown — in other words, the typical law office. “We’re all playing the role of safe harbor,” says Zigman, 46. “We want to make sure our people climb the skills ladder as quickly as we want them to.” Attorneys fresh off the campus surely need advice and counsel for life in the real world, she says. What they do not need is the pressure of internecine politics, or being made to feel like the class dunce. Young lawyers on the climb at the New York office of San Francisco-based Pillsbury Winthrop have Valerie Fitch as their director of attorney development. Fitch, 44, is a former litigator at Pillsbury. She also teaches advanced legal drafting at Brooklyn Law School. Pillsbury associates rate her as “very approachable” and “very much in the loop” of the firm’s upper pay ranks. (There is also the attraction of a perpetually bountiful candy dish on her desk, they note.) AVUNCULAR COUNSELING Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy, an Atlanta-based firm with a D.C. office, recently hired a firmwide director of professional development. Mary Anne Walser will work solely on recruiting, hiring, training, and developing associates and nonlawyer staffers, according to the firm. At New York’s Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, there is Burton Lipshie. As managing attorney for litigation, his formal title sounds nothing like that of Fitch or Zigman. No matter; he is in charge of Stroock’s training and development of young lawyers. As such, he is informally known as Uncle Burt. “Every organization needs an Uncle Burt,” says Lipshie, 57, who is also an adjunct professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. “Someone who every associate knows you can go to and ask stupid questions without being judged.” The three of them — Zigman, Fitch, and Lipshie — enjoy talking about their jobs as much as anyone else. But since nobody on the job at their respective firms does quite what they do, daily fraternal chat is virtually impossible. “So we formed this little secret society,” says Fitch, referring to the Professional Development Consortium. “Well, it’s not secret to us, but if you ask around you’ll find that we’re really pretty much under the radar.” The consortium’s current top officers happen to be Fitch as secretary, Zigman as vice chair, and Lipshie as chair. “The consortium is a place where those of us largely engaged in training and development can speak to each other about new ideas in our field, about which consultants we like-all sorts of sharing like that,” says Lipshie. “It’s one of the few areas where firms cooperate rather than compete.” At the same time, Fitch stresses, the law firms represented in the consortium have distinct corporate personalities. Ideas generated at the get-togethers will not, therefore, be universally applied. “We’ll all do our own thing,” says Fitch. “We don’t share bell, book, and candle.” Nonetheless, says Zigman, “I can’t tell you how valuable it is to have this consortium. We come back from our conferences really energized.” The next conference is set for late February-early March in Atlanta. In recent years, the professional development field was given major boosts: mandatory Continuing Legal Education requirements, effective in 1999 in New York State, and the demands of associate committees for improved mentoring and on-the-job training. “But the firms themselves recognized that you need a strong program to retain associates,” says Jennifer Foster, director of associate development at New York’s Debevoise & Plimpton. “Associates are very expensive to lose. “And to spend partner time focusing on this important group is also very expensive. You need someone operating full-time as an advocate [for associates], as an ombudsman,” says Foster, 47. “You need someone the associates can feel comfortable with speaking to the partnership in their stead.” Firms may have decided that professional development administrators are cost-efficient, but such things as titles and job descriptions have come about in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. “Some of us are lawyers, some of us are not; some do development along with human resources things, and some do recruiting,” says Lipshie. “But the essential thing we all do is training.” Foster, a nonlawyer who holds a Ph.D in adult education and who served as the consortium’s immediate past chair, was the first manager of associate training at New York’s Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. When she joined Debevoise in 1988, her job quickly grew larger. “In addition to training and supervision and CLE,” she says, “I’m now also responsible for our evaluation system, associate staffing, and any other program or activities that relate to associates.” Says Lipshie of his own broad duties at Stroock: “The pieces of my empire sort of grew as time went by.” NUTS AND BOLTS And in time — especially over the past six years, says Foster — firms have either hired full-time training and development administrators, or assigned such full-time responsibility. “The big firms started the trend, but even the smaller firms are joining it now,” says Fitch. “Training and education is something that all people coming into the profession are expecting. The consortium’s efforts seem to have paid dividends, in the form of approval from associates. “Law school teaches you how to think, but it doesn’t do such a great job of teaching you how to take a deposition,” says Claude Szyfer, 33, a seventh-year associate at Stroock. “School doesn’t really put an emphasis on the advocacy skills. I got that tool at Stroock. “In my first year, I recall the weekly luncheons with Burt [Lipshie],” says Szyfer. “Each lunch was on a different subject — how to draft a complaint, how to take a deposition, how to draft a document request. All those nuts-and-bolts things. “Getting such information at a young age was invaluable,” says Szyfer, who as a senior associate passes along invaluable tips to juniors. One such tip: “I still recall the wisdom of a partner telling us what it means, exactly, when you draft a complaint. “It’s a promise you make with the court. Don’t oversell your case, don’t undersell it — just make the promise.” HANDS-ON TRAINING “We constantly have seminars that give us hands-on training in deposition, trial advocacy, and ethical issues,” says Carolina Fornos, 30, a graduate of Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans and a second-year litigator at Pillsbury Winthrop. “We have tons of mentoring, a structured program, a junior associate looking out for us — plus a senior associate, plus a partner. At any time, I can go to them.” Lia Pistilli, a first-year in the corporate department at Proskauer Rose, considers herself lucky to have a strong associate development program.”I have friends at other firms where I don’t think they have a very strong program,” says Pistilli, 28, a graduate of Hofstra University School of Law in Hempstead, NY. “They’ll get a call at five o’clock on a Friday with orders to have such-and-such by Monday morning. Then everybody leaves. “I knew the academics when I came here, but I was worried about whether I’d be able to do the actual work,” she says. Speaking of the Proskauer Institute, the firm’s training program for first-years, she adds, “The way it’s set up here, your fears just dissipate.” Ultimately, says Lipshie, the ongoing training serves a greater good. “It’s good for the clients,” he says. “You don’t need to have young lawyers out there spinning their wheels.”

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