Law Firms Hire Chief Talent Officers

By Laurel Brubaker Calkins, Big Law Business

Big law firms are stealing from the playbook of technology and private equity companies by adding Chief Talent Officers – a mashup position that combines human resources, recruiting and some aspects of den mothering.

The Chief Talent Officer’s goal: Create a happy, healthy stable of rainmakers and foot soldiers that drive profits while minimizing turnover and wear-and-tear on the managing partner.

The CTO title is just catching on in legal circles, but two firms added Chief Talent Officers on May 15: Bracewell LLP added legal consultant Jennifer Queen to its Dallas office, while Winston & Strawn LLP signed noted author and recruiting expert Susan Manch for its Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Both women ran us through the challenges and goals of their jobs, in separate interviews that have been combined and edited for length:

 

Big Law Business: What does a Chief Talent Officer at a law firm do?

Manch: I help align the firm’s business strategy – the things it wants to do with its talent, the way it recruits, the way it trains, develops and retains its very best people. The most critical asset at any law firm is the intellectual capital of its lawyers. So it’s all about the people, how we recruit and retain the right people. Some firms don’t know what to do with them once they get them. You need to engage them and get them excited about being here. Because most senior partners need something different than our summer associates.

 

Queen: My four main areas are: recruiting, training and development, diversity and inclusion, and alumni. I go in and assess where the firm is in these areas and why they’re there. Our firm is in a growth mode, so lateral partner hiring is taking a front seat for me right now. But I take a holistic approach to the whole process because what I do touches all phases and stages of a lawyer’s career from law student to alumni.

 

Big Law Business: What is your biggest challenge?

Manch: Diversity is first and foremost in our minds; recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce so we have diverse perspectives and reflect our client base. But our biggest across-the-board challenge is retention. We get great people, but it’s a tough job to be a lawyer. It’s also critical that we retain our professional staff because we’re constantly being recruited from by other firms, just as we’re happy to steal their people.

Queen: At different times there are different priorities. Our summer associates start next week, and we just flew our lateral associates to Houston for an orientation program so they could get to know each other. We’re working on what professional development and training for our associates and partners should look like. And in diversity and inclusion – every day, every way, you want everyone to feel respected, important and valued.

 

Big Law Business: Your job sounds like a mashup of HR, talent scout, CPE enforcer and den mother.

Manch: You’ve got to make sure they know there are people here that care about them. Sometimes you have to do some coaching, or recognize those people who might be falling through the cracks or have super-high potential that may not be recognized.

 

Big Law Business: Limiting wear and tear on the managing partner is also part of your job?

Manch: That’s certainly a goal. Managing partner is a tough job that’s only gotten tougher. You can have 300 partners who all have opinions on how to run the firm, and the managing partner has to sift through all that. I’m not going to make those decisions, but I’ll give the managing partner all the tools to make the right choices, such as the right information, structure, best practices, market knowledge.

 

Queen: I serve as a conduit that creates some efficiency in the process. I can let the managing partner know what’s going on.

 

Big Law Business: The position of CTO is relatively new in legal circles.

Manch: There’s a very small number of people who have sole charge of this array of responsibilities. Many of these functions grew up separately, with the lawyers in one silo, the staff personnel in a different silo and diversity often off in another direction. All these things need to be grouped together.

Queen: It’s a very small fraternity. I think it’s a great idea, but one size doesn’t fit all. You have to consider what’s best for your firm’s culture. That said, I don’t think it will be a trend that goes away.

 

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