Attention to Detail

From The Practice November/December 2017
Designing an executive education experience for lawyers

The lead story in this issue of The Practice emphasizes the importance of learning and leadership development after the J.D. One of the primary vehicles for this is through executive education. But what goes into crafting these executive education programs designed specifically for legal professionals? In this article, we consider Harvard Law School (HLS) Executive Education and take a deep-dive into their process for designing and running programs. We begin where they often begin, considering the needs of lawyers and the market as well as what the best research reveals about the critical issues facing modern legal professionals. The article then turns to addressing the major components of any executive education program, including the learning objectives, the use of case studies, the faculty, and the participants. From there, the story takes you behind the scenes into the development of a program, from how the curriculum is constructed to how the logistics of the program are carefully tailored to maximize the participant experience. We conclude with a glimpse at what such a program looks like from the other end, exploring a day in the life of a participant. Put together, the article highlights the incredible attention to detail that characterizes the development of executive education programs through the lens of HLS Executive Education.

Starting points

The starting point of executive education programs is more a series of questions: What are the critical skills, mindsets, and areas of knowledge that lawyers view as critical to operating in an increasingly globalized legal profession? What new problems are lawyers facing? What skills are lawyers in law firms looking to bolster? What about those in-house? How can young lawyers sharpen and develop their professional toolboxes to face tough challenges not only today but in the future of an ever-evolving legal profession?

To give meaning to these otherwise broad questions, HLS Executive Education spends a substantial amount of time listening to what lawyers are saying and investigating market needs from a variety of perspectives. Anusia Gillespie, senior manager for program development and a lawyer herself, offers perspective:

We spend a lot of time and resources making sure we understand the market in its entirety. For instance, Professor David B. Wilkins spends a lot of time looking at the market globally because what is happening in, say, the Chinese legal profession has significant impacts around the world. Similarly, Professor Scott Westfahl, who has a background in the professional development world, is tapped into that community and the needs of lawyers within law firms and in-house departments. I’m on the ground talking to lawyers across the spectrum. We have all these data points, and when they are all pointing in the same direction, that’s a good indication that we are on to something.

By being active in the field and listening carefully to practicing lawyers from a variety of positions, roles, and perspectives, HLS Executive Education is able to both develop new programs and refine existing curricula that have direct applications to the professional lives of executive education participants. For instance, Gillespie notes that countless conversations with lawyers from firms of all sizes, sectors, and jurisdictions revealed that law firms are ill-equipped to protect themselves against new cybersecurity threats. As a result, HLS Executive Education recently created an interactive workshop within its Leadership in Law Firms program focused on strengthening skills in precisely this area of knowledge. Although lawyers were initially skeptical, the relevance and application became strikingly clear following the widely publicized ransomware attack on DLA Piper this past June. The workshop has quickly become one of the most popular and impactful sessions offered (for more, see below).

We have all these data points, and when they are all pointing in the same direction, that’s a good indication that we are on to something.

Anusia Gillespie, senior manager for program development at HLS Executive Education

In addition to listening to the market, cutting-edge empirical research on the legal profession matters and frequently offers long-term perspective on market need—or to paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, on where the puck is going, not where it is. For instance, one of the major trends in the legal profession is the number of lawyers moving from firms to in-house legal departments. According to data from the After the JD research project, which surveyed a nationally representative sample of lawyers, 68.5 percent of respondents were in law firms two to three years into their careers, while only 4.2 percent held in-house positions at that mark. Fast-forward to eight to ten years into their careers, and the percentage of those in law firms drops to 48.5 percent, but those in-house increases 12.6 percent. In short, there is a steady migration of lawyers out of law firms and into in-house legal departments over time. Given this research, HLS Executive Education is currently designing a program toward increasing understanding of what this shift entails.

Research also helps broaden perspectives, incorporating fields outside of law and creating opportunities for increased interdisciplinary knowledge. For example, research into teamwork dynamics finds direct expression in the executive education classroom vis-à-vis breakout group sizes—research suggests teams of five function most effectively—as well as techniques for mixing individuals with different personality traits. Current faculty are also conducting research into how to give and receive feedback, the future of work, and how to nudge organizations in ways that will increase diversity—all of which flow back into the classroom.

What should an executive education program offer? The answer depends on a handful of interdependent variables: the learning objectives, the faculty, the methods of instruction, and the participants themselves.

Finally, there is a virtuous circle in which those attending programs offer important feedback in their own right. Not only do they fill out extensive surveys at the conclusion of their programs, but staff are also always on the lookout for cues during sessions—whether and how much participants are on their phones during sessions, whether they are attending all sessions, even if and when they are leaning forward in their seats. After a program, once all these data points are collected, the cycle repeats. What does the market say? What does the research say? What do the participants say? The new program is refined and executed, and then the cycle repeats again and again, with changes from one iteration to the next ideally becoming smaller and smaller.

The core components

Once an emerging need is identified, the process truly begins. From this general conception of what lawyers need—say, tools for senior lawyers in law firms to become more effective leaders—the question turns to what, specifically, the executive education program will offer and how to deliver it. The answers to these questions depend on a handful of interdependent variables: the learning objectives, the faculty, the methods of instruction, and the participants themselves. These core components—closely related to Westfahl’s four key elements that shape how executive education is taught (see “Executive Education for Lawyers”)—determine the substance and texture of an executive education course. We consider each in turn:

  1. Learning objectives. Of critical importance to any executive program are its learning objectives. Learning objectives identify the knowledge, skills, and experience that program participants should gain and take with them back to their organizations. As such, the learning objectives are often linked to market need. For instance, research has revealed that the core skills needed to lead major organizations—whether a law firm or an in-house legal department—are often not taught at law schools and are quite different from what is required in the day-to-day practice of law (see “Professionalism in the 21st Century”). As a result, a core learning objective for many of HLS Executive Education’s programs is leadership development (as opposed to technical legal know-how). For example, the learning objectives of its flagship Leadership in Law Firms program are aimed at providing law firm leaders with frameworks and strategies for balancing professional responsibilities, navigating the strategic planning process, improving organizational alignment, managing growth and change, and motivating people and teams. Similarly, the objectives of the Accelerated Leadership Program are designed to meet the leadership development needs of early- to midstage partners and leaders of smaller legal organizations, centered on client leadership, practice leadership, people and team leadership, and personal leadership. Irrespective of the specific course, the common objective that cuts across all executive education programs is a focus on specific, practical skills that translate into the busy lives of working professionals. Put differently, the overarching theme of any executive education program’s learning objectives is that they ensure the connections between the classroom and a participant’s day-to-day professional life are self-evident and impactful. (For more on the impact of executive education, see “The Impact of Executive Education Programs.”) Indeed, as we see below and further explore in “From the Classrooms,” that is why real-world case studies written specifically for lawyers form the core of most legal executive education programs.
  2. Faculty. The second critical piece—or rather, pieces—of any executive education program are its faculty. “Everything is faculty driven in the executive education world,” says Rebecca Coyne, executive director of HLS Executive Education. “Executive education is about taking the frameworks and ideas from the very best faculty and putting them into practice.” Faculty are, first and foremost, subject-area experts who bring the subjects to life in the classroom. They are also world-class teachers—and teaching is an art. Being located at a law school situated within a larger university—as opposed to, say, a business school or a consulting forum—also offers particular advantages. Being at a university means that there are ample opportunities for engaging with faculty from across different disciplines and from different schools—each of whom are, as noted, leaders in their field. At the same time, as Westfahl says in “Executive Education for Lawyers,” being rooted at a law school (as is the case with HLS Executive Education) means that core faculty are versed in teaching to lawyers. This is critical, Gillespie explains. “We know how to design curricula for lawyers because we understand how lawyers process information. That includes knowing how to overcome their initial skepticism, which is ubiquitous since lawyers are trained to poke holes in everything.” Executive education faculty have been likened to jazz conductors, defining the tone and overall goals of the session, but also allowing the participants to work off one another in combinations that together create something impactful. (For more on this comparison, see “Jazzing up the Classroom.”) The best ones do it all with precision and poise, seamlessly integrating the various parts to produce one integrated show that accomplishes the larger learning objectives.
  3. Case studies. Having defined the learning objectives, the question becomes how best to teach those objectives to participants. (For a full discussion of the case study method, see “Jazzing up the Classroom.”) Unlike methods in traditional law school curricula, in which “cases” are often viewed through the lens of judicial precedent, case studies in the executive education context are tools that allow participants to analyze a factual situation confronting an individual or organization. Case studies, which are most often historically accurate, address topics such as the evolution of an organization’s business model and cooperation within a team and construct thought-provoking scenarios like a corporate lawyer navigating his turbulent career or a difficult merger between two law firms. Critically, however, cases are not meant to provide definitive answers. Instead they show multiple points of view and highlight the complexities and ambiguities of particular situations, leading to highly interactive classroom discussions. At HLS Executive Education, these cases are most often written specifically in legal contexts—for instance, strategy development at Linklaters (see “Selling a Strategy”), innovative processes at Herbert Smith Freehills, or reorganizing an in-house team (see “What Else Should We Do?”). As Gillespie notes, “Lawyers need content that is directly relevant to them, so having cases that play out in law firms and in-house legal departments, ones in which lawyers are the central actors, is absolutely critical.”
  4. Participants. If the faculty is the conductor, the participants are the rest of the jazz ensemble, and thus they will make or break any executive education program. Who is in the room matters because a significant part of the learning experiences comes from participant-to-participant interaction. Again, as Westfahl stresses in “Executive Education for Lawyers,” there needs to be a careful balance between similar and different, familiar and new. On one level, it is critical to ensure that those in the room are similar enough such that there are common points of reference and experiences. For instance, at HLS Executive Education’s Leadership in Corporate Counsel program, everyone in the room has “general counsel” in their title. They are all senior lawyers within companies and therefore share similar vocabularies, experiences, and, presumably, challenges. Little to no time is spent “translating” between professionals from different industries—a common challenge in more-generalized settings. On another level, diversity remains key to the program’s depth and impact—diversity with respect to gender, firm/organizational size, country of origin, sector, and so on. This combination of similarity and difference means that participants have both a baseline of common experiences (and challenges) that allows them to identify with one another as well as enough variation such that distinctly different perspectives have a voice in the room. These intraparticipant exchanges are at the core of the learning experience. And, as we explore below, staff often put a lot of thought into how best to optimize the participant experience and give everyone in the room the best chance to learn from one another. (For more on participants and, in particular, the development of custom programs, see sidebar below.)

Designing the program

Designing an executive education program is all about creating an alignment across these components: the learning objectives, the faculty, the cases, and the participants. A significant part of this coordination rests in curriculum development. This means both picking and choosing which cases to teach and how to deliver them. For instance, teaching a group of managing partners of leading firms with thousands of lawyers and offices in 15 different countries requires incorporating cases around not only leadership dynamics and team building but also cross-culture competencies and diversity. Similarly, teaching about how to deal with new cybersecurity issues requires not only developing a plausible scenario in which the intake of new information is both rapid and unpredictable but also exploring the role of technology in the process. And, of course, teaching teamwork logically requires incorporating team-based scenarios. As David B. Wilkins, faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession and the Lester Kissel Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, notes, “The curriculum has to match the learning objectives. We spend a lot of time ensuring that everything taught in the classroom is taught in a way that best accomplishes those objectives, whether that means the entire cohort engages in a back-and-forth case study discussion or in a small group discussion.” Gillespie echoes Wilkins on the importance of incorporating different classroom experiences, particularly taking into account the different personality types of lawyers (see “Quiet Leadership”). “We’ll do this around innovation or design thinking,” she comments. “That way people are having conversations around these tough subjects in what may feel like a safer space because it’s five people and not the whole classroom.”

Executive education faculty have been likened to jazz conductors, defining the tone and overall goals of the session, but also allowing the participants to work off one another in combinations that together create something impactful.

On a deeper level, designing a program is about structuring all this content such that the curriculum fits together in a self-reinforcing way. One method of doing this is through what is called a “fan case.” Applying the metaphor of a hand-held paper fan that, when opened, has numerous lanes that extend from the center, each lane represents a granular topic within a larger theme. “Fan cases frame broad issues that then go deeper into each issue throughout the week,” Gillespie notes. “We open with these cases because it is essential that the first case study is clearly relevant to participants so that they are immediately engaged.” As an example of a fan case in operation, the Leadership in Law Firms program often uses one case in particular: “Cambridge Consulting Group: Bob Anderson,” which grapples with the tension of being a producing manager—someone who, in addition to being a partner who must produce business, also has a larger management role. Wilkins, who has taught the case dozens of times, notes that this tension is often immediately recognizable to the senior lawyers who exclusively comprise the Leadership in Law Firms program. (For more, see “The Impact of Executive Education Programs.”) Wilkins goes on to say that the process of debating the case reveals more-precise issues that the law firm leaders are experiencing: issues in management (How do I get the best work out of my associates and the more senior members of my team?), strategy (We’re doing all right, but what is the right way to scale up?), and even work/life balance (When did my kids start to feel like strangers?). The rest of the week is then spent unpacking these lanes, offering participants a chance to get in the weeds where it matters most to them amidst an engaged group of their peers.

Beyond the more apparent aspects of designing the program content and delivery, there is also a deeper, more detailed consideration of the participant experience as well. Gillespie notes that everything down to the seating arrangement is in play:

Everything about the program is thought through and designed that way for a reason—down to the seating arrangement and the reason we have the technology in the classroom. We incorporate technology into our curricula because lawyers are often behind the curve in that regard. By putting a tablet in front of them and teaching them how to use it so that by the end of the week they don’t want to give it back—that is designed and intentional.

The seating arrangement is another example. Having people from different countries, different genders—just making sure it’s a diverse seating arrangement that we then change every day so that people sit next to different people and are having different conversations. Every day is a new, different experience. It also pushes you out of your comfort zone and away from staking out the same part of the room all week—you have to be comfortable with change. You have to adapt to that. So, there are lessons even underpinning the seating arrangement.

Over time, these details may be refined or altered to better achieve the desired effect. At one point, for example, the team noticed that participants were not using the space provided specifically for group work—complete with advanced technology that facilitated collaboration such as digital whiteboards—when working in groups. There was plenty of seating around the technology, and the technology itself was a value added in these sessions that called for group work. To solve the problem, the staff worked with the tools they had available. “We actually ended up moving into the space where the coffee and tea were located,” says Gillespie. “We also brought in some high tops so that people could easily grab a cup of coffee, settle in at a table, and it would naturally bring them into that space. And that’s worked really well over the last few programs.”

Custom executive education programs

HLS Executive Education runs both open-enrollment programs, which bring together lawyers from a number of organizations through an open application process, and custom programs, which are created in collaboration with an outside organization and in which participants are limited to those specifically invited. For custom programs, HLS Executive Education works closely with the outside organization to understand their needs and the core learning objectives, whether that be teaching business skills to associates or helping management teams become better leaders and work more effectively together. An innovative example of a custom program is Milbank@Harvard. Since 2011, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, a major law firm headquartered in New York City, has partnered with HLS Executive Education to provide a multiyear training program to Milbank’s mid- to senior-level associates. Through this first-of-its-kind professional development program, 4th-year to 7th-year Milbank associates come to HLS for immersive six- or seven-day programs to bolster their leadership and business skills each year. Led by HLS and Harvard Business School faculty with the assistance of Milbank partners, the program covers topics such as business, finance, accounting, marketing, law, management skills, client relations, and personal and professional development.

Through the eyes of a participant

Imagine you are a participant in an HLS Executive Education program. You’ve enrolled in the program, planned your absence from the office, and just arrived in Cambridge. You’re ready to immerse yourself in a transformative, intensive experience. What is the course like from your perspective?

From the moment you arrive at the hotel, the program has begun. You check in at the hotel—where all program participants are staying and which is located within walking distance to campus—and along with your room key, you receive a name badge for your program. “You put on the name badge and all of a sudden you’re a part of this group and you can identify one another at the hotel,” says Gillespie. “It starts immediately upon check-in.” Shortly before scheduled programming is set to begin, you all walk over to the classroom, led by program staff. Apart from getting you where you need to go, this acquaints you with your surroundings, introduces you to the law school campus, and provides informal time to meet and socialize with your peers. Put differently, a sense of community starts to build well before the opening session.

Everything about the program is thought through and designed that way for a reason—down to the seating arrangement and the reason we have the technology in the classroom.

Anusia Gillespie

You arrive at the classroom—where most sessions will be held—to find tablets at every seat and a large touchscreen at the front of the room. You find your seat, where a name tent has been prepared for you. Whether you find the wealth of technology exciting or stressful, a technology training session kicks off the day’s programming. The orientation teaches you not only the basics of navigating the tablet’s capabilities but also how to use its note-taking and interactive features within the confines of the course, and either your excitement is affirmed or your stress mollified. “The idea that this technology is something they can handle is new territory for a lot of lawyers,” says Gillespie. “They need to wrap their minds around it, and giving them the space and opportunity to do that is important.”

Once fully introduced to the technology, the faculty chair officially welcomes you to the program and offers a road map for the days to come. This road map—which breaks the upcoming sessions down by topic area such as strategy, leadership, and innovation—offers you a glimpse of all the ground you are about to cover and a sense of the thematic breadth of each individual day. You might glean that Tuesday is a heavy strategy day or Wednesday covers a wide range of topics, and this allows you to both mentally prepare as well as satisfy the analytic, lawyerly part of your mind that wants to understand how, specifically, the parts fit together to make up the whole.

From there, you dive right into your first case study that, as noted above, often touches on a number of issues you have personally experienced in your work and helps define the major themes to be explored in depth in subsequent days. You might notice that your peers are equally engaged, and the case discussion draws out an array of experiences that you thought of, consciously or not, as problems that were unique to you. Wilkins has taught this opening case discussion many times. As he puts it, “This initial case discussion not only covers a lot of ground, it tells these lawyers that we know what you live day in and day out. This is what we are researching and teaching every day.”

The first day, Gillespie says, is designed to get you acquainted to the area, to your peers, and to the basics of the program. But, she goes on, perhaps the most important aspect of the first day of discussion is to illustrate that the challenges you are facing as a lawyer are to some degree shared by others, and that there is much to gain from working through them with peers—peers similar enough to speak a common language yet different enough to illuminate facts and ideas that may never have otherwise crossed your mind. “Participants have described it as therapeutic in a way,” Gillespie explains. “And it gets you really excited for the rest of the week because the issues have been framed and you want to go into them.”

You learn as much from one another as you do from the professors in the classroom.

David B. Wilkins, a professor at Harvard Law School

If the first day is about immersion and overview, then the rest of the program (course lengths vary but are most often multiday) is about driving it all home with substance. Each morning you have breakfast at the hotel restaurant with your classmates, offering an opportunity to connect with one another before the day begins. And, each morning, you find that your seat in the classroom has moved, keeping you out of your comfort zone and obliging you to work with new people. The days are filled with course work from open to close of business, and the pace only accelerates with each passing day. Faculty from the law school and elsewhere give lectures and lead case discussions, which often segue into related lectures and case discussions, and the snowballing of relevant information rolls throughout the program.

Beyond the content presented in each session, you also hear plenty from the other participants in the room—your peers—who each bring their own experiences and backgrounds to bear. “You learn as much from one another as you do from the professors in the classroom,” says Wilkins. Perhaps at no other point in the program is this truer than when sessions break into smaller groups—when you are one of just a handful talking through a set of challenges. These group exercises offer a rare opportunity for many lawyers who are used to having to give make-or-break legal analysis: having a safe sounding board of peers to test out nuanced ideas and novel approaches. Then, back in the larger classroom, you work through cases together, engaging with both new and familiar problems.

By the end of the program, you have gone through as many as two dozen case discussions, lectures, and other interactive sessions led by law school faculty. On the last day, a faculty member will often bookend that initial case discussion with a challenge to take concrete steps in your own professional life—a challenge that begins the moment you step out of the classroom. You construct what is called a personal agenda—a list of professional (and, if you like, personal) goals for the short, medium, and long term. “But it’s more than a to-do list,” says Wilkins. “To-do lists often direct our attention to the easiest thing we can cross off or whatever is most urgent. And as the saying goes, the urgent overwhelms the important.” Instead, these personal agendas are about taking what you have acquired from the course and setting measurable goals that you intend to accomplish 6, 18, 30 months out. Not only does this make for a fitting close to the program, but it demonstrates how the lessons follow you wherever you go. That is why after you have sketched out your personal agenda but before you leave, you are asked to turn to the person next to you, exchange contact information if you have not already done so, and make a promise. In exactly six months to the day, you will send that person an e-mail that simply reads, “How’s it going?”