This interview with Jane Rhee, Director of Professional Development at Perkins Coie LLP, was conducted and condensed by Gina Hogue.
What Drew You to Work in Talent Management?
After graduating law school, I worked in private practice for a short while doing family law, but private practice wasn’t the right fit for me. As is often the case in life, I happened to stumble upon a job opportunity in continuing legal education for a legal publisher. I tried that for a while and really liked it. Developing CLE programs married my legal background and training with my interest in helping others develop. I parlayed that experience into a job with the New York City Bar Association, then moved into professional development in a law firm. Since then, I’ve enjoyed a nearly 19-year career working in professional development.
What Were Some Early Lessons for You?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of communicating with a firm’s key stakeholders. Law firms are unique in some ways and communicating with lawyers can be complex. The way you communicate – using the right tone, conveying the right message in the right way – is critical to the success of whatever task or initiative you are driving. In my early days, I think I jumped into task mode without fully appreciating the importance of communicating in a more nuanced way.
How has Your Approach to Talent Management Evolved?
I am more focused on building relationships. Much of the work I do these days – and this goes for many colleagues working in professional development – involves influencing others and selling the value of the work. Deepening trust and developing a rapport with stakeholders is critical. Building relationships takes time. Trust has to be earned. Developing and refining these skills is an important part of working in this field. Relationships are key to the successes I’ve had.
In Your Experience, How has the Talent Management Landscape Changed?
From an organizational standpoint, the talent management field has grown rapidly in the last two decades. Early on, there were only a few firms that had dedicated professionals focused on legal talent management and now most firms have these positions. I think this change marks the growing importance of managing talent in law firms and the added value of professional development. It also speaks to a greater emphasis on the law firm as a business, and managing talent to align with the changing needs of that business. As a result, those of us working in talent management have greater responsibilities but also more visibility than perhaps we did previously.
In What Areas are You Seeing the Most Innovation? What Areas are the Most Ripe for Change?
Without question, technology has enhanced and improved the work we do and our ability to develop lawyers, for example in how we deliver training and how we manage the performance evaluation process. Technology will continue to play an important role.
At the same time, there is an interesting tension. People see the value of technology but also feel a desire to withdraw from it sometimes. Adding to this tension is the fact that there are clearly differences in the way different generations view and use technology.
One area of talent management I think is ripe for change is the traditional upward review process. Some firms continue to struggle with the process. In my view, data collection is only the beginning of the process. What a firm does with that information is just as critical, if not more. It’s also where the big opportunity lies – using the process as a development tool. Solving how firms can use the upward review process in a way to help develop lawyers is the key.
Perkins Coie is about to launch a pilot program this June that hopefully will address these challenges using a 360 feedback process. The objective is to get meaningful feedback and then use the feedback to fuel talent management. The feedback will be reviewed and weighed, shared with the affected partners, used to facilitate workshops and broader discussion and, ultimately, it will inform coaching for these partners. In this sense, we will be using the feedback to enable candid discussions about a partner’s professional growth and long-term career trajectory. I think it will be an invaluable tool – not only as a means to an end, but through the process itself we can change the current culture and mindset around feedback.
What Advice Would You Give Someone Starting Out in this Field?
I would emphasize the importance of understanding the culture of the firm that you are walking into. Understanding who the stakeholders are, understanding the needs of your clients (the firm’s attorneys), and quickly integrating into the firm culture are each important success factors. People just starting out in this field sometimes make assumptions. They assume they know what the problem is and how to solve it, but they go about it without first reading the firm’s temperature or appetite for change.
When I think about the more successful juniors I’ve worked with, they’ve gone about it differently. They take time to ask a lot of questions. They start building relationships. They are curious in a respectful way. (And it goes without saying they are also professional, responsive, and do good quality work). Every firm has their own power dynamic, culture and protocol. To unlock that puzzle is important.
How Can Talent Management Professionals Learn from Each Other?
Over the course of my career, I have served on boards, volunteered on committees, spoken on panels, and gone to countless conferences. All of these are good ways to meet people, share insights and learn from each other but, in my opinion, the best way is still through one on one conversations. Pick up the phone. Make time for coffee. Personal connection is so important, as is building trust. I have received a lot of mentoring over the years, from more senior and experienced colleagues and from my peers. It’s one thing I deeply appreciate and rely on still. And it’s important to do the same for others. We are all very busy but having a generous spirit and being generous with your time is both more meaningful and rewarding in one’s career.