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Scott Westfahl

Professor of Practice and Faculty Director of Executive Education

Harvard Law School

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Past affiliations include associate Foley & Lardner

From associate to McKinsey to Harvard Law School

westfahl scott 5x7 photo scaled.jpg

On emphasizing the JD skillset when applying for business roles

On building on past experiences moving from law to business

On writing cover letters for nonlegal jobs

Listen to interview:

Part 1:

Part 2

Full Transcript

ex judicata: With us today is Professor Scott Westfall, who’s Professor of Practice and Faculty Director of Executive Education at Harvard Law School. Professor, thank you for being here. We appreciate it.

Professor Westfahl: It’s a pleasure.

ex judicata: Our core mission at ex judicata goes to redefining what it means to be a JD, providing lawyers with viable alternatives to the practice of law, and making these job opportunities accessible to many for the first time ever. Your background is a perfect example of the total versatility of a JD degree. I’m very much looking forward to hearing about your journey. So, it begins. You got out of law school and went to work for a large firm. Which firm?

Professor Westfahl: I was down in the Washington, D.C. office of Foley & Lardner, which had only, I think, 22 lawyers in that office when I joined. I wanted the early responsibility and collegiality you get in a small office, while still having the challenging work you get at a big firm. I wanted to be in D.C. because it’s such an interesting place to practice law.

ex judicata: Foley & Lardner, based in Milwaukee. Did you spend much time there?

Professor Westfahl: I did a number of deals and different kinds of work with the Milwaukee office. I also led recruiting for the D.C. office for about six years, so I made many trips back to the main office with summer associates and for recruiting committee meetings and things like that. My mom and dad grew up in Milwaukee, but since my dad was a nuclear submarine captain during the Cold War, we never lived in the Midwest, since there’s no ocean there. I have a lot of family in the area and I was able to get to know my cousins for the first time.  It was a lot of fun.

At the time, I remember us saying in recruiting that Foley was “the firm you can bring home to mom” because of its midwestern values and down to earth nature. 

ex judicata: At that time, Professor, what was your goal? Was it to work in a large firm toward partnership or did you think early on of other options, other ways that you might utilize your law degree?

Professor Westfahl: There was so little information out there about alternative career paths or what those paths even looked like. Firms weren’t transparent about what partnership was or what you were supposed to do to make partner. When I got out of law school in 1988, it was right at the beginning of the transition period when law firms started thinking more intentionally about career paths, human capital, and talent management processes.

I can’t say that I had a plan. I wanted to go to Foley. I thought I’d encounter some interesting clients and some interesting work. I wanted to learn some things, and D.C. seemed to offer an interesting mix of work. I thought maybe someday I would go into government. But it was all very uninformed. I was a student who came straight from being a government major at Dartmouth right into law school. Most of my law school classmates came straight through the same way.

Now, it’s completely different, which has huge implications for what you are implementing with your company.

ex judicata: What are some of the differences you’re seeing?

Professor Westfahl: So, 80% or so of entering Harvard Law School students have at least one gap year between college and law school and 65 to 70% have two or more years in between. Our current students arrive with a broader set of skills than we had when we came to law school and they’re more open to working in different careers. For example, I just met yesterday with on of my first-year law students who was at McKinsey before law school. She’s doing a joint degree with the business school, and she already knows she doesn’t want to practice law.

We have an organization called the Harvard Law Entrepreneurship Project, which was formed many years ago with the idea that law students could help business school students and entrepreneurs by offering legal-related advice. Now, interestingly, a lot of our students want to BE the entrepreneurs. The students don’t fit the paradigm the way they used to, and we need to adjust to help leverage their experiences and strengths and help them towards a more diverse set of career paths, which I know they are seeking.  I think a lot of our faculty and the marketplace haven’t acknowledged this change yet.

ex judicata: That is exactly what ex judicata is about. The JD is a starting point for myriad opportunities having nothing to do with the practice of law.

Professor Westfahl: I have three students who graduated 3-4 years ago and immediately started Evisort an AI-driven contract management platform that they built while they were still Harvard Law students.  Last year Microsoft gave them something like $100 million for their series C financing. We need to do more in legal education and legal practice to acknowledge the prior experiences and capabilities of our students and help guide them towards opportunities where they can leverage their strengths and their legal education to accelerate their impact in the world.

We’re not doing very well at that.  I have students who go into big law firms right after graduation who spent 3-4 years on Wall Street or in management consulting before law school.  The law firms they join consistently fail to leverage their prior experiences.  One former student of mine with four years of investment banking experience told me about how ridiculous it was to find herself as a first-year lawyer being lectured on finance by second-year associates who were “senior” to her. I have a former student who was captain of a U.S. Navy warship before law school.  She called me nine months after graduation when she was a first year BigLaw associate doing nothing but document review, and she wanted a way out.  She should be leading something. She was feeling trapped.  My advice to her was to find something – anything – to lead as soon as possible, and then to chart a path out of BigLaw if she wanted.  With a couple of weeks, she checked back in with me to tell me she had proposed and was organizing/founding a veterans group at her law firm, which she ran until she left.  The firm didn’t take into account any of her prior experiences or try to leverage her strengths, and I’m convinced that if they had she might have stayed a lot longer.

ex judicata: It sounds like there should more opportunities for students to interact with the business school and other Harvard schools, too.

Professor Westfahl: Oh, yes, absolutely. We have some cross-registered classes. There’s a course on deals taught by one of our professors who has tenure at both the business school and the law school, and he deliberately sets it up so the class has half business school students and half law school students.

Over the past decade, the laws school has brought in more clinical professors and professors of practice like me to expose our students to more possibilities.  The founders of Evisort, my former students Jerry Ting and Memme Onwudiwe, are now teaching a reading group at the law school for entrepreneurs.

ex judicata: Wow, that’s straight from the horse’s mouth.

Professor Westfahl: But back to your original question, I didn’t have a plan and you know, it’s funny, when I talk to law firm partners now they’ll say, well, this generation doesn’t want to make partner.  I think for my generation of graduating law students – the late 1980’s —  all we wanted to do was keep our heads down, do good work, see if we liked it and see what would happen.  Full partnership at most firms was six years out at that point, and it wasn’t as difficult to meet the bar.  So I don’t know that many of us wanted it and had a plan – it was more likely to happen and other options were not very transparent to us.  The in-house revolution hadn’t happened yet, so in-house jobs were less interesting and prestigious, and paths towards business roles were even less available.

ex judicata: And other options were few and far between.

Professor Westfahl: I try to teach about human capital and consult a lot on that. One of the things I tell senior leaders, both in-house and at law firms, is that in all of human history, the market for talent has never been as global or as transparent as it is now. So, law firms are competing with so many other types of jobs and positions for students trained in law.

When I was a young associate in D.C., there was no transparency in the labor market about other opportunities. There was one newspaper called Legal Times. It would come out on Friday, and we’d sneak a look in the library because in the back pages were wanted ads for in-house jobs and government legal jobs. There was also an entrepreneurial guy who created this attorney jobs newsletter. You paid him like 30 bucks a month. And once a month you got a brown envelope, no return address with a mimeographed set of like five or six pages of in-house or government legal jobs that he had accumulated and printed out for us. It was very mysterious, but many of us did it.

ex judicata: Similar to that,we earlier interviewed a managing director at Marsh McLennan. He was an attorney, and he answered a blind ad in The New York Law Journal. It turned out to be a nonlegal job at AIG, which was the beginning of an illustrious career for him in insurance.

Professor Westfahl: We’re very fortunate and blessed as a law school in that any student here at HLS who wants a job will get a job. That’s true every year. Is it the right job is my question. And do students have transparency to be able to look at different paths? We’re now starting to support our alumni more when they come to the career center looking for options. In the last seven days, I’ve gotten four different emails or LinkedIn requests from former students and alumni who want to talk to me about possible paths for them outside of the world of Big Law.

ex judicata: Well, now you can point them in our direction. I am thrilled to be able to say that we have the first job board for non practicing attorneys. 100% of the positions are nonlegal but they all want the JD skill set that our candidates bring.

ex judicata: Going back to your own career, Professor, how did you come to go to McKinsey?

Professor Westfahl: I teach a class on leadership fundamentals in the January term. On the last day of class, I talk about networks and network theory, and my path toward where I am now is a beautiful example of some key elements of what we know about networks. The first is that the best opportunities don’t come often from your first-order contacts. They tend to come from second- and third-order contacts. So, you let people in your first-order network know what you want and what you’re looking for and they can broadcast it or be on the lookout on your behalf. For example, say I’m looking for a job in the computer sector. I know Kim is not in the computer sector, so I don’t mention this to her. It turns out her brother is the CEO of Oracle or something and in a position where he can help me get hired. But we censor ourselves and don’t think that way. I don’t mention it to Kim, and I never get a job at Oracle. 

In my case, I was figuring out how to leave my firm but wasn’t sure what to do.

I met my friend Deborah Knuckey at a D.C. political reception. She had been at McKinsey in the early nineties and knew from our discussions that in addition to practicing law, I played a lot of other roles in my office – like running the summer associate program, hiring, the United Way charity campaign, the softball team – and that I mentored a lot of junior associates. She also knew that I was frustrated that the efforts that I put in—500 or 600 hours a year at times–weren’t ever going to be appreciated fully in the big law firm world.

One day she called me and said, “Look, you know, I’m a McKinsey alum. They called me and said that their Washington, D.C. office was looking for someone to take over professional development who was thoughtful and cared about talent development.”She said she told them, “I’m not interested, but I know a lawyer who’d be really good at that.” At the time, I didn’t know anything about McKinsey or consulting. I knew that she was super smart and that she mentioned McKinsey very favorably from time to time.  So, as a courtesy to her I went over and interviewed with McKinsey’s DC office.

And all of a sudden what I am hearing is like the other side of the moon. The job entailed everything that I’d always wanted to be doing in a large law firm: providing feedback, mentoring, leadership development, coordinating staffing assignments that made sense for people’s career path and tracking — all of that. They were offering me a full-time job at the same money with no weekend or evening hours. They were the best organization in the world for what I wanted to do. It was just such a no brainer. And I had a lot of people asking me at the time, “What are you doing? You’re throwing away your 10 years of practice and your law degree.” I’m like absolutely not, because I knew I could leverage my experiences to do well on that new career path.

I think for your project, ex judicata, one of the most important things is that people need to know you’re always building on your past experiences. And this idea that I’m throwing away a credential if I’m not applying it currently is wrong. What good is a credential if it’s not making me happy and fulfilled and I’m not doing what I want to do? But again, there’re a lot of counter voices. There are people in your family or friends who start to raise concerns, like “Have you lost your mind? What are you going to do?” “You paid all that money for your J.D. and aren’t even going to use it?”

Six months after I took the professional development job at McKinsey, I was really loving it. I went back to my old law firm office, and I ran into one of the partners who was always difficult to work for.  His question for me was “Oh, you’re at McKinsey in that HR job now. Do they ever let you do anything substantive?” That was his question. It wasn’t worth it, but what I wanted to say to him was, “No, I’m only managing human capital, the most important and only real asset at the most important consulting firm in the world.” There are always going to be people who don’t understand your next step.

ex judicata: And, unfortunately, law is one of those supposed golden occupations where family and friends will question your judgment when you leave that for something you actually want to do.

Professor Westfahl: Yeah. and you just have to let that go.

ex judicata: I also find it interesting that the ABA doesn’t appear all that thrilled with the notion of lawyers doing something besides lawyering. It totally upsets the apple cart. They have a chance to be the thought leader here but it’s highly unlikely.

Professor Westfahl: That’s really interesting. I can understand how they miss seeing the forest for the trees. You know, the traditional legal organizations are really stuck that way. In the same way, most law schools and law firms are not considering the fact that more and more students come with interesting pre-law work experiences.

Understanding this makes us a more robust school educationally and would make us a more robust profession. Why wouldn’t we be curious about how legal education is shaping other fields and businesses? Ideally, bar associations would be involved with this.

ex judicata: Absolutely. It still has time to get in front of this but that calls for steering the ship into uncharted waters.

Going back to your career, you had this wonderfully fulfilling job at McKinsey in human capital, which was exactly what you wanted to do, at probably the most elite place for it, but you left after a few years to go to Goodwin Procter (full disclosure, Goodwin is ex judicata’s corporate lawyers). Why and how did this come about?

Professor Westfahl:  Well honestly I never thought that I would go back to the law after McKinsey because it was so much better run and organized than a law firm and there was so much more care and concern for people there than in BigLaw. But there was also a glass ceiling at McKinsey in their professional development roles. If you hadn’t been a line consultant earlier in your career, you could only go so far. I had a wonderful time running professional development in D.C. for six years. I learned a lesson, too, about career paths and tracks that I now see much more clearly. Law students and lawyers are typically oriented toward being the agent, not the principal, to being in service to others, putting the client first before thinking about themselves.That leads to us being the least self-reflective of professionals and the most likely to get kind of trapped, not questioning assumptions, and kind of going with the flow for many, many years without ever thinking how we can step out of this.

My role at McKinsey, in part in professional development, was to control all associate assignments. A partner could not give work to an associate without going through professional development. I controlled all of that. The law students and lawyers who came to McKinsey as new associates had the “what do you need me to do?’ mindset. The MBAs from Harvard, Stanford and Wharton who joined McKinsey would come in tp my office and say, “This is what I want to do. This is what you’re going to make happen for me in my time here. And then I’m going to go be a CEO.” It was a much more directed, purposeful path that way. With my legal training and service-of-others orientation, I had never thought about it like that.

I’d been at McKinsey for about five years when one night out with some of the consultants one of them looked at me and asked, “Why are you still here? Haven’t you maxed out your learning curve?” She was right. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I spoke to Mark Weber, who runs Career Services here at HLS.  He pointed me toward two different opportunities. The first was being Dean of Career Services at George Washington School of Law. I told him that there was no way someone who hadn’t worked in a law school could get that job. He said, “Trust me, you’ve got so much experience helping people with their careers you could do what I do.”

ex judicata: So, you applied?

Professor Westfahl: Yes. And this is where I learned an important lesson that has stayed with me. I met maybe four of the 15 qualifications needed for that GW job.

I wrote a cover letter that explained how my McKinsey experience and my law firm experience qualified me for the job and how I would transform it. They said, “Normally, we would never have considered you, but your letter was compelling we wanted to talk to you.” I wound up being offered the job, though I didn’t take it. It was all about turning things around, explaining why my skill set made me a fit as opposed to trying to match criteria for criteria. I was thinking about taking the job when Mark connected me with Goodwin Procter concerning a job to lead professional development.  Goodwin’s job  description was really forward-thinking for a law firm and I was intrigued and met with their Chief Human Resources Officer, Allison Friend.  She had been a lawyer but then had been head of HR in a major business unit of a public company.  I took the job because she clearly  understood McKinsey’s approach and wanted someone to help her transform lawyer professional development.  At that time, 2004, professional development in a law firm was can you manage our CLE program?

ex judicata: Wow, that’s really enlightened thinking from a law firm at that time.

Professor Westfahl: Definitely.  So I met with Allison and it was clear that she knew her stuff and would be fun to work with. I then met with Regina Pisa, the Chairman and Managing Partner of the firm.

ex judicata: Yes, Regina is a wonderful person. We know her well, going back 25 years. She was the first woman to head an Am Law 100 law firm.

Professor Westfahl: Yes. She was amazing. Regina is the closer. There’s nobody better. She comes in and says, “You are going to come here; you are going to write a book and I’m going to give you the chance to build a team and make a difference.” At the same time, I happened to interview at another law firm for the same kind of position. I met with like 25 different partners. They lacked a consistent view of what professional development meant.  They had no idea.

ex judicata: That’s a night and day difference. So you went to Goodwin.

Professor Westfahl: Exactly. I went there and Allison was my political ally. She cleared the path and took the heat from those partners that didn’t get what my role was, the kind that said, “What does Scott know? That’s all just consultant speak.” She explained that I’d practiced for 10 years, ran professional development for a McKinsey office, and that I actually knew what I was talking about. It was so important to emphasize that I was a lawyer because, sadly, a lot of partners just don’t respect professionals at their firms who don’t have law degrees and didn’t practice law.

ex judicata: Yes, it’s much better today. But that bias does still exist depending on the law firm. We had a wonderful interview with Katie Creedon who is the Chief Legal Talent & Inclusion Officer at Fish & Richardson (full disclosure, Fish is ex judicata’s IP counsel). She happens to be a JD/MBA, but it was clear at her firm that all professional staff with and without a JD degree are highly valued and regarded as professionals.

Professor Westfahl: In a lot of other firms, you still have partners that will say, “Oh, I can do that job. No problem.” It’s astonishing sometimes.

ex judicata: Okay, so you go to Goodwin.

Professor Westfahl: And it plays out exactly as Allison and Regina said it would. It was a great experience.

ex judicata: I have the same question as I had about your time at McKinsey. Goodwin was this wonderful experience, but you moved on. Walk us through how that came about. I know another lesson about growing one’s career comes into play.

Professor Westfahl: Sure. While I was still at McKinsey, I used to get the DC Bar magazine every month and I’d aggressively throw it in the trash because I didn’t think I’d ever go back to law.  But one month I see that David Wilkins, the one Harvard Law School professor who really cared about me as a student, was on the cover of the D.C. Bar Journal.  He was giving an interview comparing professional service firms to law firms and talking about the changes going on in the legal profession. He was my absolute favorite professor at Harvard. So I find his email address and I write him one of those classic emails. “Dear Professor Wilkins, I read your interview in the DC Bar Journal. You probably don’t remember me, but I was your student 12 years ago. I’m at McKinsey now and it’s so much better than any law firm. I’d be happy to talk to you for your research.”

He writes back within a few hours saying, “Of course I remember you. It’s great to hear from you. Why don’t you come up and speak to my class next week? Your experience will be valuable to the students.” So, I do that, we remain in touch, and I start at Goodwin. David calls me a couple of years later about a new team-based, mandatory class that Harvard was putting in place for all first-year students during the three-week January term. 

He said, “Hey, I’ve got this team-based course. You were at McKinsey. You know all about teams. Why don’t you do this with me?” Regina and Goodwin were very kind and let me teach that class for three weeks every January for four years.

ex judicata: So, that was your lead into working at Harvard Law School.

Professor Westfahl: Exactly. Four years later I got a phone call from Martha Minow, who was then Dean of the law school, offering me a job to step in to lead Harvard Law School Executive Education and become a Professor of Practice at HLS.  So, that was the path. Earlier I referenced network theory in my getting the job at McKinsey. A primary contact leads to second- and third-level contacts, which result in a job.

The evolution of my job at the law school was another facet of network theory, dormant ties. I connected with Professor Wilkins. Our normal instinct is to think I haven’t spoken to the man in 12 years. He won’t remember me. It will be embarrassing, etc. But my reaching back to through this dormant tie made a ton of sense. He was the one professor who really cared about me when I was a student. I still felt this connection. I hoped he remembered me and there it was.

ex judicata: It sounds so straightforward. You have nothing to lose by reaching out to someone you feel you connected with from a past life.

Professor Westfahl: Yes. The idea is not to censor ourselves.

ex judicata: Right now, at the law school, do you have companies coming to interview students for nonlegal jobs?

Professor Westfahl: Well, the consulting firms do. So, McKinsey and BCG, maybe Bain, are definitely looking for our students, but I’m not sure about investment banks, the BigFour or others.  Remember that “coming to do interviews” now isn’t coming to campus – first interviews are all on Zoom and students are probably engaged in a lot of interviewing that we just don’t see and can’t easily track. 

ex judicata: So, I’d imagine you still don’t have traditional Corporate America, like Procter and Gamble, coming to the school to interview people for brand manager positions?

Professor Westfahl: Not that I see, but it is so much easier now for our students to figure out how to apply to those places themselves and get those conversations started. That’s the great news about the transparent talent market and how you can connect very quickly.

ex judicata: Now, the reason why Procter and Gamble came to mind was that we were talking with another attorney who had a year in a law firm and a year in the law department at P&G. He said something like, “I want to go into brand management. I don’t know anything about brand management but I’m a lawyer, I’m smart. and I can think on my feet. I can manage huge amounts of data, I present and write well, and I can issue spot.” Lo and behold, he was able to move into brand management and he was a star. That’s the message ex judicata is delivering to heads of HR around the country. We call nonpracticing JDs the hidden talent pool right in plain sight, and we are getting a lot of traction.

Professor Westfahl: That’s great.Similarly, when I’m advising young associates who are looking to change jobs, I tell them to recognize the broader applicability of their skill sets.

One of the things that stands out to me is that they write their resumes and cover letters for nonlegal positions and their assumption are that the only jobs for which they are qualified are ones that matched exactly what they have done as a litigator or as a corporate lawyer.

They don’t write their resumes or cover letters with the broader idea of how their skills can transition to the positions to which they are applying.  For example, “I have managed huge amounts of data and know how to pull out the most important themes. I am very strong at oral and written communication and analytical thinking. I am a great negotiator. I know how to juggle multiple projects under the gun.” The lawyers who want to move to business have all of these skills that they don’t even know how to describe. They don’t have the language for it, so I’m hoping your project will help them with that.

ex judicata: One of the things that we’re doing through Kim’s leadership is providing experts, that we have vetted, who specialize in rewriting resumes, redoing LinkedIn profiles to do just what you’re talking about, helping JDs capture their skill sets on paper.

Professor Westfahl: I told you about the experience I had in applying for the George Washington Law School Dean of Career Services job. I viewed my cover letter as an intellectual challenge. How does my skill set apply to this role? I put myself in the shoes of the person the law school was trying to hire and thought about the problems that person would be trying to solve. What challenges will the person in that role face?  Typically, we look at it the other way around. What are the job requirements? Then we throw the kitchen sink at it. That doesn’t make any sense.

ex judicata: That’s fascinating. Now, your current job is like the ultimate transition from practicing law to being a professor at Harvard Law School. It’s kind of like reaching the pinnacle.

Professor Westfahl: I’ve been in this job for nine and a half years. I still pinch myself coming to work sometimes.

ex judicata: That’s wonderful.

Professor Westfahl: It really is. It’s an amazing place. I never thought I would come back here. This place is like a big candy store, with so many opportunities, incredibly smart and wonderful people, and resources that no other law school in the world is able to provide. It’s truly an honor to teach here and to lead HLS Executive Education.

As you know, we run several programs for law firm leaders, General Counsel, and public sector leaders from all over the world.  Our programs are typically 3-6 days long and taught business school-style.  These courses are transformational and are filling an important gap in the legal profession. What I’ve come to appreciate because of my McKinsey experience is that every other profession you look at has a tradition of leadership development across the arc of the professional’s career. We don’t in law.

At Mckinsey, every year and a half to two years, you’re taken offline for a training program to prepare you for your next role. My dad was a Cold War nuclear submarine officer. Every couple of years he would advance in rank and they would put him through rigorous training.  He had to go to prospective commanding officer school for six months when he was promoted from executive officer to the captain of a submarine. We just have never had that tradition in the legal profession. So, Harvard Law School Executive Education is filling that gap. What’s so inspiring is that it is transformational for our participants and, ultimately, their law firms or legal departments. 

So, I mentioned earlier that I think lawyers are the least self-reflective of professionals. I’ll have a classroom full of 60 law firm leaders from 20 different countries. By the end of the week, they’re so emotional. This is the first time in say 25 or 30 years of practice that they’ve ever taken a week off to think about where they are in their career and how they can be more effective as leaders. It’s life-changing for them. To be part of that and also to have the ability to teach our law students who are the future of our profession is really exciting.

Then there are lawyers who come through some of our other executive programs and later will tell me they’re moving to a business role or they’re starting a new business. They have decided to do something besides practice law. They have that moment of self-reflection when they start to ask themselves what they want instead of what the system wants of them. What do my clients want of me? And again, in law, we have a humble, noble orientation toward helping others and serving clients. But that gets in our way.

I think there are a lot of lawyers who need that lesson in self-reflection and to put themselves on a path to really shine and use their best talents rather than stay in jobs that they’re good at but haven’t loved for a long time.

ex judicata: Sure. This is great. We’re speaking about the value of the JD degree and through self-reflection gaining an understanding of all the opportunities it can provide. But it begins with a concern for yourself. Before starting ex judicata I was a legal recruiter placing partners in law firms for 15 years. Before setting up my own shop, I trained with one of the leading legal search firms, which is now part of Korn Ferry.

I remember the first day the head of the company asked us to rank in priority who we serve first. Almost universally the sentiment was we first serve the client. “No,” he said. “We come first. You and your colleagues here.” That one statement was tremendously eye-opening for me. I thought, wow, that’s impactful.

Professor Westfahl: Yes.I was told once by a senior executive at Ernst & Young that there was a seminal meeting of the partnership back in 2000, I think, and they said, “We have this all wrong. We’ve been saying clients first, clients first, but it’s actually people first.” And that became EY’s internal motto, “People First.”

I’ve been teaching a lot lately about what I consider to be the four levels where we can find meaning and purpose in the law.  At the profession-wide level, we’re terrible at telling our story of how we improve the world. Our reputation as a profession is not very good as a result. It should be much better than it is. We are the foundation of democracy after all.

Second, we miss the mark at the organizational level. We did a study before the pandemic and I want to redo it. At that time, only 14 of the Am Law 100 law firms had a mission statement on their website. Of those, 10 read like they’d been written by the marketing department. Just fluff about how we serve clients and are entrepreneurial, wonderful people. But that is not really a mission.

At the project level, when any other profession launches a project, teams meet and talk about why the work matters.  At McKinsey, a team will get together and the leaders will talk about the client, why the work matters, what’s going on in the industry, and why this project matters to the key people at the client as individuals. Where are they in their career? How do we make them look good? There is a context to the work where even the most junior people are excited about their contribution to the cause.

During my 10 years of practicing law, I never once had a launch meeting. There were side conversations, sometimes with partners, but the team members were never in the same room together doing that. I talked to my dad, and he agreed. He never took his nuclear submarine off the dock without getting his officers all in the officers’ wardroom on the sub. Here’s the mission, here’s where we’re going, and this is why it’s important. Who’s going to cover what? How are we going to support each other in this mission?

So, we miss the mark at the professional level, the organizational level, and the team level. Finally, there’s the individual level, which is, again, one of the things I now teach about. It’s about the art and practice of public narrative and telling your authentic story about why I care about my work, why I do what I do, where I learned my values and what drives me and calls me to my work.  If I can’t articulate that, why should you care?  Why should any associate working for me care?  In 10 years of practicing law, I don’t remember partners telling me once why they deeply loved the practice of law or why they did what they did.

Now, in our executive programs and with my law students, I’m building that skill to help them articulate this: “Why do I love what I do?” It’s not a surprise that we have all these resignations happening and people leaving law firms because we lack a narrative about why our work matters. If I were on the business end looking for talented people, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Pull a lawyer from a firm, just give him or her some kind of mission and the lawyer will be excited about it. I think that’s one of the reasons why in-house legal departments have grown over 200% since the Great Recession in 2007.  It’s not just about a better work-life balance.

ex judicata: Somebody believes in me. Somebody has taken the time to make sure I understand why my role is important. This is another part of our work with heads of HR and talent acquisition. We tell them they will get the wonderful JD skill set and somebody who has been a top performer most likely at a place where they were never told how valuable they were. So, imagine what they can accomplish with an organization that articulates why their role is important. It’s powerful.

Professor Westfahl: Yes, it’s an awesome power. I was astonished when I got to McKinsey to see how fired up everyone was. The firm’s mission statement and values came up on my computer screen every day. I knew them verbatim. Harvard Business School has a mission statement, and it’s posted all over the school. The law school doesn’t because we just don’t orientate ourselves that way in the law.

ex judicata: Well, hopefully, Professor, when you have all these law firm leaders assembled, they will go back to their firms and try to get something done. I wonder, do you have any tracking of that, how their self-reflection has played out at their firms?

Professor Westfahl: We definitely stay in touch with alumni, and we have a lot of evidence of their efforts and often success in moving things forward back at their law firms. I know it’s making a difference. We’re doing a lot more work with in-house legal departments as well. There’s momentum building, which I’m excited about.

ex judicata: This is terrific. It’s wonderful having you here and hearing about all the initiatives you have underway, which really go toward reinventing the profession.

Professor Westfahl: I really appreciate it. Absolutely. I hope it’s been helpful. I look forward to staying in touch and hearing about your success.

ex judicata: Thank you so much.

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