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Podcast Ep. 33: The New Model of Professional Development With Harvard Law's Scott Westfahl

by Tim Baran • January 16th, 2018 • Podcast

In this episode we talk about the new model for developing lawyers, including the emergence of design thinking and creativity thinking principles, using networks for problem solving, and teaching law students to work in teams to promote innovation.

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Scott Westfahl teaches courses at Harvard Law School on problem solving, teams, networks and innovation within the law and leads the school’s effort to support and develop lawyers across the arc of their careers. He also oversees and teaches global leadership programs for law firm managing partners, law firm leaders, associates and General Counsel.

For additional information about the topic discussed in this episode, check out: Scott A. Westfahl & David B. Wilkins, The Leadership Imperative: A Collaborative Approach to Professional Development in the Global Age of More for Less (PDF), 69 Stan. L. Rev. 1667 (2017).

How do law firms go about developing lawyers?

In the rapidly evolving practice of law, traditional ways of law school and law firm training are not in sync with what lawyers need. It’s misaligned with the efficiency that the market now demands. It’s not good for lawyers and it’s not good for clients.

The drive has been to make lawyers more technically proficient in narrower and narrower areas and they’re not taking their head out of the sand to see how the profession is changing around them. The old model of very long apprenticeship until you become technically proficient and able to contribute is not a model that is efficient or good for the motivation for the people involved.

A slow development model that’s painfully out of step with the way younger people learn and want to get involved, and an increasingly transparent labor market contribute to a talent flight away from the profession, evidenced by the drop-off in applications to law school.

The new model of professional development

Start with: What are the components that make a great lawyer? Then create an ecosystem where everyone involved is contributing to lawyer development:

Technical legal skills and knowledge – Law schools and law firms have been traditionally good at this. 
  2. Professional skills (that’s professional skills not “soft skills” – language matters) – skills such as leadership, negotiation, teamwork, feedback, judgement, speaking & presentation, advocacy, Who do you want to be as a lawyer? A pretty good swimmer or Michael Phelps? To be Michael Phelps, you need a coach, mentoring, a program, discipline, investment. 
  3. Networks – networks are the way complex problems are solved. Pay attention to the way networks are built, map them, cultivate them, and leverage them.

On teaching law students to innovate

  1. Work in teams to leverage each other’s strengths and build relationships. 
  2. Introduce design thinking principles and creativity thinking principles to understand how legal services will be transformed by these principles to solve problems. 
  3. Use a Shark Tank type format to evaluate projects and promote feedback. 

Professor Westfahl offers an example of a proposal from his students of a Tinder-like application that unhappy mid-level associates in law firms can use to find alternative careers. As you swipe left and right, the app learns about their preferences to offer more relevant suggestions. 


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