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Updated: May 5, 2020

Chief talent officers arm law firms for battle over top-performing lawyers

Photo | leokiru from Pixabay

After nine years of practice in white-collar criminal defense and commercial litigation, Catherine Duke was ready for a change.

The Yale Law graduate took a year off to do some soul-searching and consult with career counselors before embarking on a new path — law-firm management and professional development.

Catherine Duke, Chief Talent Officer, Robinson+Cole

Now Duke’s career has come full circle in her new job as chief talent officer (CTO) at Robinson+Cole, a 200-lawyer law firm with a major Hartford presence at 280 Trumbull St. As a CTO, one of Duke’s responsibilities is to advise firm employees about their careers, “to be a sounding board and resource for lawyers and staff,” Duke said. “I have personally had the experience of doing that sort of soul-searching.”

Borrowed from the tech world, the chief talent officer position is becoming more common at Connecticut law firms as competition for top performers intensifies. The role blends traditional human-resources management with executive-level recruiting and retention efforts that in the past might have been taken on by a partner.

Michael Orce, Chief Operating Officer, Robinson+Cole

“We need the partners to be focused on developing new business,” said Michael Orce, Robinson+Cole’s chief operating officer. “Having one professional … who can look at it from the top-down and create a coherent and consistent system that incorporates the firm’s culture and desire to take care of their people and develop their people makes complete sense.”

Duke, who is Robinson+Cole’s first-ever CTO, brings to the job 20 years of experience as a legal director at a major New York firm where she was active in recruiting and retaining talent. She jumped at the chance to apply her skills on a larger scale at Robinson+Cole.

“The firm-wide piece of it definitely appealed to me. I felt like I had done a lot of things in the prior role that I could bring together in this role,” Duke said.

Her past experience as a practicing attorney allows Duke to delve deeply into the firm’s different practice areas and better relate to the concerns of her colleagues.

“It gives you a certain amount of credibility because you have been involved in the practice of law,” Duke said. “You have been an associate, you know what it takes, you can speak their language.”

Keeping top performers at all levels happy is the focus of a law firm CTO’s role, said Christina Herrmann, the chief talent officer at Hartford-based Shipman & Goodwin.

“There is a true war for talent. If you are going to win that war, you have to be able to differentiate yourself and show how you are supporting your talent,” Herrmann said. “It’s incredibly competitive with certain parts of our practices, especially where we sit in Connecticut.”

Herrmann took the CTO post at Shipman & Goodwin in 2017, after years as a chief human resources officer (CHRO) at several other large firms across the country. Traditionally, law firm CHROs have focused on the business staff.

“The CTO has both sides of the house; you have someone with a global view of the organization and the business as a whole and appreciation for an overarching approach to talent,” she said.

As a CTO, Herrmann has helped launch “Shipman & Goodwin University” to give all employees a chance at professional development and continuing education. Law-firm technology whizzes in particular need a clear path toward advancement, she added.

“We are building more robust content so we can hang on to our IT professionals — they are so sought after that if we don’t have a mechanism to hold them to the firm, we’re going to lose them.”

Attracting and retaining a diverse legal workforce is another priority for CTOs, who have the ability to intensify those efforts at the executive level, Herrmann said.

“Most CTOs are coming out of CHRO positions where they’ve had a focus on [diversity and inclusion] and they’re bringing that focus on attorney recruiting,” she said.

More coaching and nurturing

Thomas Goldberg, Managing Partner, Day Pitney LLP

At the highest levels of a law firm, CTOs help focus strategy and coordinate the evolution necessary for success, said Thomas Goldberg, managing partner at Hartford-based Day Pitney LLP. Prior recruitment and retention efforts came up short when his 300-lawyer firm was reviewing its strategic plan in 2016, Goldberg said.

“We felt that in order to implement our strategy and to really show ourselves and our people that this was a high priority, we needed to have a position that had a lot more significance and clout,” Goldberg said. “We felt we would be better served by having someone who’s really looking at this more broadly.”

Laurie Mallach, Chief Talent Officer, Day Pitney LLP

Laurie Mallach signed on as Day Pitney’s CTO in Jan. 2018, and sees her role as a coach in addition to a manager.

“The coaching piece has been quite important at all levels … . You’re trying to help people work at their optimum potential,” Mallach said.

One of her initiatives has been improving communication within the firm with an emphasis on avoiding the pitfalls of relying on email and texting.

Another change Mallach has implemented is helping to bring a coaching element into the associate evaluation process. Instead of being given a one-time, top-down evaluation, Day Pitney associates instead are given regular feedback and are encouraged to improve performance on an ongoing basis.

“It’s a system that I think has been functioning much more smoothly,” Goldberg said.

Mid-level associates in prime practice areas have been the focus of intense competition between firms in recent years and are a main focus of retention efforts, said Robinson+Cole’s Duke.

“Recruiters are actively reaching out to mid-levels all the time; some recruiters are actually offering a piece of their fee to associates, which is an extraordinary measure,” Duke said. “That makes it really important at the firm level that our feedback and evaluation systems are good and also that our training and development opportunities are state-of-the-art.”

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