Talent Management Perspectives

Elaine Bortman

Elaine Bortman

This interview with Elaine Bortman, Chief of Legal Recruiting and Talent Development at Choate Hall & Stewart, was conducted and condensed by Gina Hogue.

What Drew You to Work in Talent Management?

I always liked the idea of helping people. I probably should have been a psychologist!  Although working as a psychologist seems too solitary and the communication is all in one direction. I became interested in professional development as a career because it’s all about helping people get better on a professional basis. Professional development is a helping profession in a business environment. 

What Were Some Early Lessons for You?

Building trust is critical. You need to build trust with the people you are trying to help because sometimes it requires them to tell you things about themselves that are not flattering. They have to feel comfortable with you, and that takes time. Trust is something you have to earn over time.

The other critical piece is credibility. I segued into professional development at McKinsey & Company. When I started in that role, I was fresh from being a consultant there for many years. Because of this, I understood what it took to be successful as a consultant in that environment. It helped me relate to people and empathize with them. 

How has Your Approach to Talent Management Evolved?

I learned to listen more and talk less. When you are younger, you feel a need to prove yourself and that you have to keep talking to do that! When you start listening more, you gain insights and then what you say becomes more valuable. I think of professional development as “people consulting.” It really is focused on people. You have to learn about those people in order to help them solve their problems. 

In Your Experience, How has the Talent Management Landscape Changed?

For one thing, more people are drawn to it. As a field, professional development has grown.  Also, we have developed more talent management tools. There are more assessments like the MBTI, and a growth in certification programs. There is more training. There is greater professionalism. I realize there is some value in that, but I don’t necessarily think the training makes you good. I know some highly trained PD folks who aren’t very good at it, and conversely I know some really good PD folks who aren’t highly trained.

In What Areas are You Seeing the Most Innovation? What Areas are Most Ripe for Change?

I see a lot of opportunity for innovation within law firms. The legal industry is a structured and traditional environment. That said, there is a tremendous desire to innovate. That’s the exciting part for me.

One area that is ripe for innovation is empowering associates to take a more active role in ensuring their own success from day one. This is one difference between law and business. In the business world, early on, junior people are told they need to be responsible for the trajectory of their careers. One example of this is in the area of networking. As young business people, they are taught how important their network is. They have a LinkedIn profile as soon as they get their first job, or sooner. Business schools are teaching their students how to build and cultivate this network. As a young attorney, this has been much less of a focus. Law schools rarely focus on the softer side of the education of their students. As a result, it is less natural for young lawyers to think about the bigger picture of their career – they are much more focused on the nuts and bolts of serving their clients. While this is critical to their success, attorneys need to think more holistically. They need to take initiative and own their careers. And we need to help attorneys understand that and give them the tools to achieve it.

Helping associates play a more significant role in driving their careers requires clarity of expectations. Establishing clear competencies. Empowering attorneys to understand what good performance looks like and how to achieve it. Giving attorneys developmental direction that is customized, because it will be different for every person. Giving attorneys honest feedback. Creating opportunities for attorneys to learn by doing, borrowing from an apprenticeship model. Take business development, for example. I think we are missing the boat if we don’t start showing our more seasoned associates how business development works by giving them opportunities to get involved. Associates should be taken along in meetings, and given discreet roles in developing relationships with potential clients when appropriate. And they should be coached more actively on ways they can contribute, based on their level.

We are focused on all of this at Choate and I think we’re developing some leading edge programs. We just revamped our competencies and feedback processes. In my view, we have a structural advantage at Choate because we are all under one roof. We know each other well because we work face to face together constantly. It is a lot easier to want to invest in the development of others when you have developed a genuine relationship. As a result, Choate attorneys have a shared culture and commitment to providing associates with the best development opportunities in the legal industry. 

What Talent Management Issues Keep You Up at Night?

What keeps me up at night is the realization that creating organizational change is hard. It requires commitment across an organization at all levels. There is so much opportunity in the legal industry but no one person can make it happen. It requires a collective effort. At Choate, we work hard to ensure a shared sense of responsibility for associate development. The firm creates mechanisms for them to learn and grow; associates need to make the best use of these opportunities. Change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an evolution. Part of my job is to keep reinforcing that message and figure out ways to help people make that shift. The goal for attorneys (to drive their own success) is aligned with the goals of the firm. Everyone benefits.

What Talent Management Initiatives are You Most Proud Of? What Helped Enable that Success?

I’m proud of the journey that Choate is on: to help our attorneys, especially our associates, to continually advance the level at which they can contribute on their teams and to their clients. As I mentioned, we have redesigned our feedback system, clarified our competency model, provide individualized coaching for each associate, and are in the process of developing a stronger mentorship program. Our approach to professional development is not a traditional one, which I consider more passive (serving up training, managing the review process, etc.).  We are taking a more active role. 

What has enabled that success? Complete support from the top. The leadership at Choate was explicit when they hired me: they wanted someone from outside the legal industry to do things differently. They wanted someone who would ask hard questions and push the envelope. And they continue to push me, which is awesome. Another enabling factor is the firm’s partners. They are receptive to new ideas and approaches. They are open to new ways of doing things.

What Would Make Your Talent Management Initiatives Even More Effective?

More time! More time on the part of everyone – for me ,for my team, as well as for the attorneys we are trying to help. Our attorneys are incredibly busy. I wish we could carve out even more time for developmentally focused conversations. People do it because it’s important, but it’s on the margin of active client work. I am grateful for the time we have, and the fact that there is a shared interest and commitment to professional development.

What Advice Would You Give Someone Starting Out in this Field?

Figure out a way to build trust with whom you work. Trust is key. Also, pick something that you know well and build on that. Take ownership for incremental projects until you become more comfortable in that area and eventually become an expert. Use that expertise as a foundation from which to grow.