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Partner Scott Miller and Associate James Shea Discuss S&C's Career Development Plan

In response to associate feedback, S&C recently introduced an innovative career development plan.

The plan has been integrated into S&C’s existing associate advisor program, which pairs each associate with two partner advisors who help the associate create action plans to achieve their career goals. Conceived as an ongoing conversation, rather than as a rote checklist, the career development plan helps associates fashion a career based on their strengths and interests, with plenty of flexibility to accommodate changes in priorities.

General Practice associate James Shea and his partner advisor, General Practice partner Scott Miller, discuss their experience working through the plan and explain how the Firm helps associates achieve their goals—even if they’re not sure what they are yet.
Scott D. Miller
Partner, New York
Mergers and Acquisitions
James M. Shea Jr.
Associate, New York
Corporate & Finance

James, how did Scott come to be your partner advisor?

James: We started working together pretty early on in my career at S&C. At the end of my first year, I began to work with Scott on matters for Chrysler, a very interesting client of the Firm’s, which had a complicated strategic alliance with Fiat. We still work together on Fiat Chrysler matters. When it was time to select advisors at the end of my 18-month unassigned period, Scott was a natural choice.
Scott: A nice thing about the career development program is that associates have plenty of time to select among possible advisors. It’s fairly low-key; people don’t feel like they’re pressured to choose an advisor they already work with, nor do they feel slighted if it doesn’t work out with whomever they choose. These relationships work best if they develop naturally from working together.
For James and me, the plan serves as a starting point rather than a rigorous system. But others may want to follow that structure. In our case, we meet together relatively informally in ways that flow naturally from the work we are doing together. I have had other advisees, who sometimes prefer a more structured approach.
James: Most of our meetings are informal. But when this new plan was introduced, we made time to have a big-picture conversation. We spent about an hour-and-a-half just talking about how, at this stage in my career, I’m really not sure where I see myself going. 
Then how did you begin to plan for a goal when you’re not sure what it is?
Scott: The virtue of the plan is its flexibility. I speak from personal experience when I say that the path you imagine your career taking as a first-year associate is much different than the way it’s going to go. The plan doesn’t ask you to pick a goal for 10 years from now and stick to it no matter what. That wouldn’t be realistic or even helpful. Instead, it encourages you to build on the things that you’re good at, the things you enjoy doing, and to get better at them by using all the resources the Firm can offer.
James, how are you using this approach in your own case?
James: One of my strengths is the ability to communicate with people outside my area of expertise about a variety of issues. It’s probably the personality trait that drew me to the law in the first place. Scott and I have made that strength the centerpiece of my plan.
Right now, I’m still figuring out what that means: Do I want to be someone who is out there on TV talking about legal issues? Do I want to be writing about them in the press? We have partners here who do both fairly regularly—it’s something that might become a part of my practice at Sullivan & Cromwell. Or I might pursue options outside the Firm.
Scott: We want our advisees to feel free to come to us and say, “You know what? I see myself doing something else in six months or a year or four years from now. Can you help me figure out how to get there?” Our partners are adult enough to say “Yeah—that’s great.” I don’t take it personally if you don’t want to be like me. My kids don’t want to be like me, after all. They’re all going into medicine, it seems…
James: They’ll be helping people in a different way.
Scott: Not everybody wants to be a partner at S&C! And the Firm recognizes that. By building on personal strengths, the plan helps an associate to determine whether there is a place within the Firm that plays to those strengths, or satisfies those career goals. Or not. Either way, S&C provides support and training in addition to long-term career advice. There’s a huge amount of substantive learning to undertake, whether you want to be a partner, a public servant or an in-house lawyer. The same holds true if you want a career that involves the law but doesn’t necessarily entail an active practice.
James: In my case, I want my career to involve communication—thinking about, writing and commenting on, and presenting legal topics and issues. Can I satisfy that while having an active practice in law? I’m not sure yet; it’s a question that I will answer for myself over the next couple of years. If I can, being at Sullivan & Cromwell long-term is particularly attractive to me.
And Scott is there to help me think through my options. What are the pros and cons of my choices? What do each of those options look like? Not just in terms of my day-to-day responsibilities but in terms of my life as a whole: What will it look like as a result of my choices?
How do these insights lead to a concrete plan?
James: The first step for me has been to develop an expertise on the issues I want to talk about. Within the Firm, that means diving into the areas of law that I’m going to discuss with or present to clients. The second step is to become an effective communicator of that information.
In our meetings, Scott and I are identifying opportunities to develop these skills through my work: I might lead conversations with clients, for example, which is great experience explaining legal issues to an audience that consists primarily of nonlawyers. We talk about ways I can take on more public speaking opportunities at the Firm and ways we might be able to translate that into opportunities outside the Firm.
For instance, I speak quite frequently at Fordham, where I went to law school, on a number of topics, mostly about the interview process. I seem to be drawn back there every summer to have that conversation. But I’m also thinking about ways that I can use what I’ve learned at the Firm to develop other outside opportunities, as well.
Let’s talk a bit about the technical aspects of the plan. What about the milestones you’re expected to meet?
Scott: Our practice group milestones are effective for helping associates understand the technical advancement of their legal careers—the things they should reasonably have worked on at this point of their careers: Have they taken a deposition? Have they drafted a defensive profile? They’re specific to the types of law one practices.
The milestones are not a checklist. They’re a guide that helps you assess your professional progress as you move forward.
James: The milestones tend to be more substance-driven: You should work on this type of matter; you should work on this type of deal. But Scott and I talk most often about soft skills that don’t appear in the milestones: How do you succeed as a lawyer? How do you negotiate? How do you talk to a particular audience? How do you coach your client through a difficult situation? The milestones tell you “what,” while we talk a lot about “how.”
How about training? How does it fit into the plan?
Scott: Since we’ve built the career development plan into our existing development framework, we’ve been able to leverage a lot of the great resources available to our associates and frame it as a way to achieve career objectives. The career plan leverages the Firm’s existing substantive training curriculum, which is designed to ensure that associates are receiving training that is appropriate for their class year and practice group. Again, these are general guidelines. But you’ll always have an informed sense of which topics you should be exploring.
The majority of our training programs are developed and delivered internally at the Firm; all of the programs and their materials are available to associates through recordings and video. This means that, if you need an introduction to any particular subject, that information is available to you when you need it. But our training curriculum is designed to introduce these subjects before you need to use them.
James: As a senior associate, I’ve attended all the trainings already, so now I work with Scott and others within the Firm to see which trainings I can lead. That gives me additional presentation experience, and it helps the Firm as a whole.
Scott: Younger lawyers often handle the training, and I think this is beneficial to the associates. A 20-year partner might lecture on a topic, but it may be far removed from what a particular associate may be doing on a daily basis. A younger lawyer will often have a fresher take on the more-specific topic because he or she has been engaged with it recently and can help the students relate to it.
Why did the Firm develop the career development plan?
Scott: One of the reasons was to preserve and replicate the kind of mentoring that always happened at S&C when the Firm was a smaller place. For instance, I started as an associate in a regional office with two or three partners, and I worked with them very closely. A natural mentorship developed out of this, and I still seek out the advice of some of those partners. One sits right down the hall from me today.
James: But when you’re sitting in a building with 12 floors of lawyers, it’s a lot more difficult for everyone to develop that organic relationship. So we created a structure to ensure there’s at least one person at the Firm who is available to each associate to help him or her think carefully about the future, whether or not the associate remains here. And building it into our existing associate advisor program allows us to get big-picture career feedback from partners who are familiar with our skills and abilities because we work with them on a regular basis.
How does this approach benefit the Firm?
Scott: It’s always been a hallmark of the Firm to give associates the freedom to carve out their own practice as long as they’re busy and productive. I’ve worked in four offices and practiced in every type of law, including getting involved in litigation. Nobody has ever said “Hey, why are you doing something outside your area of expertise?”
Having these career plans and implementing them in the right way helps foster that atmosphere of freedom—associates can chart their own course and create their own practice, while still remaining true to our generalist approach. Many of our peer firms have numerous niche practices, and they use training to funnel people into them. That approach is not, in my view, in the long-term interest of the associate, and it’s not in the long-term interest of the Firm. Who knows whether a given niche will be necessary in five, let alone 15, years?
Associates build their career plans around their strengths, rather than the narrow requirements of one practice area or the idiosyncratic approach of one partner. This allows the whole Firm to prosper, because our lawyers are flexible and can tackle any number of challenges from across disciplines. Given the type of novel and challenging work we’re entrusted with, we couldn’t succeed any other way.

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