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WER Fall 2016 Feature 2
Volume XLIII, Issue II

About With Equal Right

In This Issue:
"Toot Your Own Horn: Career Development and Advancement"


MWL News


Upcoming Events

View all of MWL's Upcoming Events

2016-2017 Board of Directors

View all MWL Leadership

2015-2018 Strategic Plan


MWL Welcomes Your Comments

The MWL Leadership Project- Well Worth Your Time

By: Rebecca J. Bernhard

Rebecca Bernhard's experience spans traditional labor and employment, immigration, and federal contract compliance and audits. She supports clients with their corporate transactions, advising on all aspects of labor and employment diligence, negotiating with new unions and conducting effects bargaining, and assisting her clients with post-acquisition or post-divestiture integration. Rebecca is a member of the Health Care, Food & Agribusiness, and Banking Industry Groups. Prior to joining Dorsey & Whitney LLP, she served as Senior VP of HR and Associate General Counsel at one of the nation’s largest student loan guarantors. She is a frequent author and speaker on labor and employment topics confronting HR professionals, including legal issues related to talent management, succession planning, and compliance.

Rebecca Bernhard


Back in August, Laura Arneson asked me to write an article about how MWL’s Leadership Project can help facilitate career development and enhance self-promotion and development. I said yes, in part because she was a fellow Note and Comment editor on the Minnesota Law Review (albeit many years after my time there), but also because for MWL to be effective, all of us must do our part. On the other hand, I don’t actually enjoy writing articles. I would have found it far easier to speak about my experience (Yes, I am one of those strange lawyers who would rather speak than write). Then I remembered something I learned about myself during the Leadership Project – I need to welcome the projects that I don’t naturally gravitate toward.  When I look back at the accomplishments that have brought me the greatest satisfaction, they have occurred when I took on projects that I did not expect to enjoy. So, despite my reservations, I told myself that writing the article would be good for me, and that if I convinced one reader to sign up for the next Project, it would be worth it.

Before I can convince you of the benefits of the Leadership Project, I should explain where I was in my career in the summer of 2015 and why I decided to ask my firm to sponsor my participation. I had left an in-house position in the summer of 2014 and returned to private practice in January, and while I was enthusiastic about building my practice, I was also a bit overwhelmed with how to begin. One thing I learned while in a corporate environment is that non-legal professionals are more willing than attorneys to go to seminars and invest in their own development beyond their substantive skills. Sure, lawyers go to CLEs all the time – sometimes because they have to get their credits before they report and sometimes because the subject matter is vital to their practice area. But I did not have much experience with attorneys who invested in other developmental areas--especially leadership skills. Those training programs seemed reserved for the select few who might be tapped to take over the management of the firm. How can you even be selected for management if you do not already have the skills? Are firm leaders the only attorneys who need leadership skills? Aren’t all lawyers leaders of a sort?

As I considered the Leadership Project, wondering if my firm would be willing to sponsor me, I thought about what it meant to be an attorney and why leadership skills are crucial to a successful practice. A good lawyer is a problem-solver – someone who uses her intellect, her analytical skills, and her education to help her clients solve problems. Crucially, she cannot solve a client’s problem herself; the best she can do is lead her clients—or a judge, or jury—to a solution. She cannot force it upon them.

A lawyer is a leader in our society: she represents our civilization’s way of resolving disputes, of solving problems within the accepted rules of society. She abides by those rules and becomes a role model for others. And if the lawyer practices in a firm, like I do, then she can be a leader of and for other attorneys within the firm.

I felt I had a strong argument for the firm to sponsor me. And two of the project’s core concepts spoke to me: “Managing Change and Transforming Legal Careers” and “Professional Satisfaction: How to Thrive in the Practice of Law”. I was trying to jump-start my renewed career in private practice.  After a nearly five-year break from business development, I needed to market myself. I felt like I ought to get a better handle on my strengths and weaknesses if I was going to convince other people to hire me to help them solve their biggest problems.

What I did not realize until the program began was how valuable the other core concepts would be. I value self-improvement for its own sake, so I liked the idea that I would learn about emotional intelligence, authentic leadership, and mastering resilience. But I did not really understand how useful these skills would be to my practice development until I went through the learning modules and applied the concepts to my own successes and failures.

I was able to apply two key concepts immediately. First, I learned to understand my own learning style and to identify my colleagues’ and clients’ learning styles. This was extremely useful in assuring potential clients that they can trust me to solve their problems. It is crucial to be able to reach clients effectively. To understand the differences between the way I process information, and the way they do. In the context of a law firm, being able to recognize my colleagues’ learning styles means that I can more effectively put together teams that will meet my clients’ needs.

The second key concept was the importance of a strong network for feedback, not just business development. The Leadership Project taught me that having a strong network of trusted people to give me honest and constructive feedback is invaluable to my growth as an attorney and leader. Hearing direct criticism can be difficult, obviously, particularly for individuals accustomed to success. It was therefore exceedingly valuable that the Leadership Project required us to seek out feedback and practice truly hearing it; indeed, it taught me to seek out such feedback on a regular basis, in order to understand how my own perception of my strengths and weaknesses is the same (or different!) from the way others perceive them. A strong and supportive network of constructive critics ensures that I will be more confident as I reach out to new and prospective clients.

I am so grateful to have been a participant in the MWL Leadership Project. Discovering my strengths, learning how to overcome obstacles, and finding ways to work through challenges have been invaluable to my practice development. The connections I made have been rewarding – professionally and personally. I highly recommend applying to the MWL Leadership Project no matter what stage of your career you are in!

NOTE: Contact MWL for more information about the MWL Leadership Project and opportunities for future participation.



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