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A note from Stasia: Pipeline to the top

A catalyst for best practices

An inspiring example of proactive pipeline development comes from the legal department at Prudential Financial, where general counsel Susan Blount and her senior colleagues are leading initiatives to identify and nurture legal talent inside and outside the company.

Internally, the focus is on carefully evaluating each lawyer on the in-house team to determine ways to help each develop and advance her or his career. The department conducts a tailored consideration of each individual and which next move makes the most sense. Is it a lateral move that may not appear to be a step up but in fact will be a distinct career enhancer with strong skills and profile boosting potential? How about a geographic relocation—or a deliberate step out of a comfort zone? Whatever the move, the assumption of risk taking is part of the deal—something I cannot underscore enough. To move ahead, you have to be courageous.

The outbound program involves identifying and reaching out to lawyers in private practice—especially at firms serving as Prudential’s outside counsel—who are considered to be at an inflection point in their careers that might lend itself to a move in-house. What I like about this program, which can also include mentoring, is that it also enhances Prudential’s dialogue with client firms on the question of diversity hiring. Statistically ahead of law firms in diversity hiring, corporations have a real opportunity to influence the firms they work with. This was one of the key tenets of the Call to Action signed by more than 100 general counsel in 2008: that companies “actively look for opportunities with law firms that distinguish themselves in diversity issues.”

I also applaud these initiatives because they represent model examples of taking action to maintain the all-important pipeline of women for leadership roles at a time when the pipeline is in trouble again. As the National Association of Women Lawyers found in its latest “Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, ”published this past November, there has been a slight drop in the percentages of women entering law school and then entering big-firm practice. With associate hiring down and looking to stay that way as firms continue with post-recession “new efficiencies,” the pipeline is getting a double pinch right at the start. And then there’s the perennial issue of “female flight” for firms, which the study notes, “gains momentum at each level of seniority, ultimately shrinking the percentage of women lawyers in the partnership pool.”

General counsel are extremely busy people, and matters such as pipeline development, talent management and succession planning do not always find the top of the agenda, if they get on the agenda at all. As at Prudential, though, there are distinct steps that law department leaders can take to fix leaks and fortify the pipeline further upstream.

Project 5/165 is a place for sharing ideas and learning about the best practices for catalyzing change. Please tell us about your own pipeline-building efforts, both those that succeeded and those that didn’t. I’ll report on some of those in future columns.

Contributing Author

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Anastasia Kelly

Anastasia Kelly, currently a partner at DLA Piper, has served as general counsel at four Fortune 500 companies: Fannie Mae, Sears, MCI and AIG.

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