It took just a few days at the University of Pennsylvania for then 18-year-old Jody Rosen Knower to decide she no longer wanted to be an engineering major. It took about a year of law school at New York University for her to decide she didn’t want to be a lawyer, and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University to decide she didn’t want to join the press.
While she took a roundabout way to learning and development, she said she always knew what she wanted.
“I enjoy work most when there’s a balance between the left brain and right brain,” said Knower, Sidley Austin LLP’s chief training and professional development officer. “I need the intellectual stimulation part coupled with a helping people part.”
After completing her major in economics with minors in math and English, Knower joined First Manhattan Consulting Group. In an analytical role that placed a premium on writing, she was challenged intellectually, but the role was too siloed. Knower craved more collaboration.
Confused about what to do next, she asked those closest to her, many of whom were lawyers or law students, to advise her. They told her she’d enjoy the academic rigor law school requires, and they were right, but Knower wasn’t satisfied. Although she completed her law degree and passed the New York bar exam to keep her employment options open, she was confident early on that she wouldn’t practice.
“I got the strong sense that being a lawyer can be solitary,” she said. “Practicing law is a team sport; there’s no doubt about it. But there’s a lot of thinking, researching, writing you have to do alone. That’s not an ecosystem I like to work in.”
Knower attended the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, a nonprofit scientific research and educational organization, shortly after law school graduation and completed tests designed to study human abilities and provide people with knowledge of their aptitudes to help them make decisions about school and work. What the tests confirmed gave her confidence.
“The tester said, ‘You’d be a great lawyer, but you wouldn’t be happy doing it.’ That gave me a lot of peace to hear that from somebody who had no stake in my future,” she said. “I really liked the intellectual engagement; I just didn’t see myself liking the work itself.”
From there the path became clearer. Knower followed her passion for theater and worked on the business side for a year before going back to her law alma mater, NYU, to serve as the associate coordinator at the Public Interest Law Center. There she counseled current and former students, coordinated career symposiums, created career development programs and guided students through practice interviews.
Moving Toward Development
Just as she thought she had finally found her niche, she packed her bags and moved across the country so her husband could start a master’s program at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Still, Knower stayed in law schools. She became the director of student services for UC Berkeley’s School of Law, a role similar to the one she left in New York.
“I’ve always enjoyed the intellectual environment of academia and working with students,” she said. “I love seeing how different people learn and exploring different learning styles. I love the creative elements of instructional design, using an array of approaches to devise programs and resources that engage learners and accelerate learning. It’s a puzzle, and there’s a lot of creativity involved.”
Two years later Knower moved to the law firm side as a professional recruitment coordinator for Heller Ehrman LLP. She was initially responsible for entry-level lawyer hiring. “It was a natural, easy bridge for me, having spent five years working with law students, to now be in a role recruiting them,” she said.
During the next two years her role expanded to recruiting more experienced associates and later all partner-level lateral recruiting. After Knower’s husband, Zachary, graduated, she stayed in her role but moved back to New York.
“I really loved this position,” she said. “It was much more strategic than what I was used to. I got to play a key ambassador-liaison kind of role with the incoming lateral partners to help them get integrated, and I really loved that part. That was the people part.”
Shortly after the head of the firm’s attorney professional department retired, Knower was asked to move into her role as director of professional development. It was her first time leading a team, and she was doing it nationally. Her boss asked her to attend a three-day management skills program at the American Management Association in New York.
“That was 11 years ago, and I still remember it vividly,” she said. “I learned how to focus on doing the best I could for the people on my team, invest in their development, build trust with them, learn what they liked about their jobs, what they didn’t like, what they were good at, what they wanted to do more of, what they wanted to do less of, what resources they needed.”
After more than three years in that role, a trip to Florida where she volunteered as a poll watcher sent Knower on a detour. Dissatisfied with how the press covered the election, she enrolled in journalism school at Columbia University. Still, she never took off her learning and development hat.
“I went to the vice dean of the school one day and said, ‘Hey, I have some feedback about the classes here you might be interested in given my background,’” she said. “He thought I was a little cheeky, but we had a good conversation, and he made me a student representative on the faculty appointments committee.”
Knower graduated with her master’s in journalism in 2008, what she describes as the best time to not go into journalism. Publishing industry magazine Folio reported that from September 2008 to September 2009 journalism industry cuts included 24,511 jobs in newspapers, 8,333 jobs in broadcast and 1,172 jobs in magazines.
Before she had a chance to look back, she was recruited as one of the first hires on Sidley Austin’s new lawyer training and professional development team as the West Coast director of training and development. Nearly four years later she became the company’s chief training and professional development officer in January 2012.
“Food is the fuel we have for our bodies, and I think learning is fuel for the brain,” she said. “I was a tutor in high school and college, a teaching assistant in law school, taught a program for high school students at the same time, volunteered with a writing-focused mentoring program, WriteGirl, in Los Angeles. I’ve always felt most at home in those types of settings and roles. I took the scenic route, but learning and development is where I belong.”
Playing by Her Rules
Knower said her golden rule in learning is “one-size-fits-none.” That’s why she has made it her priority to find the right balance between broad-based programs and individualized resources for the 1,700 Sidley Austin lawyers she serves.
“Our mission is to help Sidley lawyers become more skilled, more self-confident, more satisfied, more successful and feel more supported throughout their Sidley careers,” she said.
Knower’s team of 20 accomplishes this mission in a variety of ways. Junior lawyers who recently graduated from law school are given mock first assignments to give them the opportunity to work directly with more senior lawyers. More experienced lawyers participate in discussion-based programs to learn from peers in different practices. The company also hosts several conferences at which senior lawyers teach.
“One of the best ways to learn is to teach,” Knower said. “It hones presentation skills, gives exposure and builds the lawyers’ internal reputations.”
Sidley Austin’s conferences include a new associate orientation held each fall for the incoming class of associates just entering the practice, and Corporate College, held annually each fall for second-year transactional associates and clients. The conference is produced in-house by the company’s Chicago and New York offices with the two locations connected via video conference and with presenters in one or both locations throughout the three days. Sidley Austin also holds a Mid-Level Associates Conference each spring for fifth-year associates; an annual partners meeting each year; and an Asia-Pacific Lawyers Conference every two years.
“Knower has been an integral part of revitalizing each of these large-scale programs, working with our Training and Development Committee to increase interactivity, refine subject matter and improve overall program quality,” said Teresa Wilton Harmon, a partner with Sidley and co-chairman of the firm’s Training and Development Committee, composed of Sidley partners across the firm who want to be involved with its learning and development initiatives. “She has earned the respect of our firm’s most senior partners, who actively seek her advice and follow her lead on learning initiatives. By articulating a clear vision for our firm’s future learning and development efforts, informed by her active role in the learning profession, Jody has helped our firm create a culture of learning that sets us apart.”
Knower said these offerings are becoming more necessary to better acclimate new lawyers who have the education they need to begin their careers, but not the experience.
“There used to be a saying that law school teaches you to think, but not to practice law,” she said. “Law schools pride themselves on being academic and not trade schools, so students come out highly educated, highly credentialed, highly intelligent, but there are skills they need that they can’t receive in a purely educational setting.”
Tough Times Call for Learning
Last June the Wall Street Journal reported that at least 10 law schools were cutting their class sizes, or considering it, largely in response to a weak job market for lawyers and a dwindling number of applicants. As of May 17 this year, 55,760 people had applied to American Bar Association-accredited law schools for the 2013-14 school year — down 13.4 percent from 2012, according to data compiled by the Law School Admission Council.
Those who do attend law school are often not practice-ready upon graduation, giving teams such as Knower’s a big responsibility.
“Smart firms are starting to see development not as a nice to have, but as a strategic imperative for the success of their firm,” said Nick Petrie, a senior faculty member at consultancy the Center for Creative Leadership. “If you don’t develop employees, you won’t execute your strategy, regardless of how good it is.”
Petrie said one of the greatest challenges law firms face today is they are creating strategies that require high degrees of collaboration and teamwork — an interdependent, collaborative culture — yet the culture they have is mired in silos and a winner-take-all mentality.
Knower said she has made it a priority to smooth the transition for incoming associates and those they will work with. Regardless of their experience level, she said it is important for all associates to become more savvy in business without necessarily going to business school. Law schools and firms have experienced seismic shifts in the past 10 years, and she said it’s important for her team not to remain static.
“In the past, if you were an excellent lawyer, that’s all you had to be,” she said. “Now you need a wider suite of skills, and that’s my job … to figure out what those are and help our lawyers build them, grow them and teach them to others.”
SIDLEY’S GREATEST HITS
Voices of Sidley is an audiovisual resource that provides virtual mentoring to Sidley Austin LLP’s 1,700 lawyers by sharing wisdom, personal stories and career advice through an album-themed format.
For the past four years the firm’s lawyer training and professional development team has conducted recording sessions with partners across the firm, eliciting insights and capturing them on individual audio tracks that comprise the albums. Each album focuses on a specific theme, which is later illustrated by original cover art.
The themes and album titles include “Notes to Self” — lessons learned at pivotal moments in contributors’ careers; “Overcoming Mistakes” — guidance on how to do just that, based on specific experiences related by members of the firm’s Training and Development Committee; and “Lateral Lines” — advice on making the transition to Sidley and integrating into the firm.
All albums are produced in-house. Team members conduct the interviews, edit the audio recordings, design the albums, sequence the tracks, record the voice-over introductions and, to complete the album concept, compose original instrumental music. Tracks range from less than one minute to 3 minutes. The albums have liner notes from each contributor, including favorite quotes, noteworthy interests outside the office or reflections on a professional path not taken. These provide introductions to colleagues a lawyer may not know and facilitate connections based on shared experiences and interests.
— Ladan Nikravan