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Creating a Career You Love: The Value of Professional Development for Attorneys

Throughout their careers, attorneys develop their skillsets in a myriad of ways, often simply by taking on more work over time. Continued exposure to different scenarios helps challenge their ways of thinking, encourages broader research and ultimately helps make them better at their practice. But professional development—intentional work toward growth—is also critical from the time their careers begin to later stages marked by greater experience.

We connected with Estelle Winsett, Director of Professional Development at Butler Snow, along with two Butler Snow attorneys, Ashley N. Wicks and Fred E. (Trey) Bourn, III, to discuss the importance of professional development, barriers to growth, the role of mentorship and more. We’ll also take a look at professional development at Butler Snow specifically and review how younger attorneys can get involved and take meaningful next steps.

Why Invest in Professional Development?

“Professional development is all about creating the life you want,” says Estelle. “We want to give our attorneys the skills and tools to be the best attorneys in our firms.” Winsett also points out that professional development goes beyond the work itself—it’s about connection, fulfillment, friendships and ultimately going after what you want in your life.

In any career, there’s a risk of becoming stagnant in your work, and investment in professional development is a key way to combat that risk. “It can prevent burnout because it broadens your horizons and takes you out of your silo,” Ashley says. “Professional development can put you on the track you want to be on—and definitely on the track towards being your best self.”

Trey notes that professional development also helps attorneys hone in on the type of law they’d like to practice. “Finding a niche or expertise that is uniquely yours and for which you can become ‘known’ as an expert, both inside and outside the law firm, can result in a steady stream of work without having to rely on others to provide it to you,” he says.

It’s important to remember that professional development is crucial throughout an attorney’s entire career. However, those just starting out may face unique challenges as they learn the ropes, so ensuring they participate in growth opportunities can help them adjust to their new roles.

“Young lawyers are drinking from a firehose the first six months out of law school,” Trey says. “Educational courses about work/life balance and emotional wellbeing are very helpful in letting young attorneys know they are not alone and also in laying the foundation for the beginning of their law practices.”

Professional Development at Butler Snow

For Butler Snow, integrating professional development into the firm’s priorities and routines began when Estelle started at the firm. An attorney by trade, she sought ways to use her law degree differently and found her passion in helping attorneys grow. Today, Estelle ensures that younger attorneys are being continuously trained, know what it means to be a lawyer and benefit from access to mentorship.

Butler Snow’s training program is available to everyone at the firm, not just those attorneys at the beginnings of their careers (though it is mandatory for younger attorneys). It helps students coming out of school into their first roles by integrating them into the firm but also includes notable training sessions that attorneys with more experience can also benefit from.

The program boasts fireside chats, deep dives into unique topics, panels, courses, relationship building and much more. “We try to make these trainings valuable and are always seeking input to make sure our teams have what they need,” she says.

“Butler Snow’s culture is different than other firms,” Estelle mentions. “We’re not competing with each other—we’re a team. We want everyone to know that the firm is here to support you, so come with questions and get the tools you need to thrive.”

Overcoming Barriers to Growth

Most everyone would say they want to participate in professional development courses and trainings, but there can be a few barriers that get in the way. “We know everyone’s busy so we’re sure to record all our panels and webinars to send out,” says Estelle. This simple accommodation can help make professional development more accessible.

Practicing law is also very fast-paced, so it can be easy for attorneys to slip into a reactive mindset, taking each day as it comes and not thinking of the big picture in terms of growth. Becoming comfortable in that routine is also a risk, but it can be mitigated by being proactive in professional development.

“You have to push yourself outside your comfort zone,” says Trey. Ashley adds that you have to work around client work, but “professional development makes you a better person and a better professional.”

The Role of Mentorship

At Butler Snow, intentional direct mentorship remains a priority. Every young attorney in the firm has a mentor assigned to them. “Each mentor-mentee team creates a yearly plan for topics of conversation,” says Estelle. “They meet once a month and serve as a resource for the really tough questions while keeping tracking of core competencies and certain goalposts.”

“It can have a tremendous impact, but in the end, it’s up to the mentee,” Trey adds. “If you have a growth mindset, everyone you meet will be a mentor in some way.”

Serving as a mentor can also be rewarding. Ashley says, “Giving other attorneys opportunities helps you out, but it also helps others grow their careers. Good mentorship improves the quality of the legal profession as a whole.”

Advice for Younger Attorneys

For those at the beginnings of their careers, Estelle recommends taking advantage of any and all resources that are available to them along the way. And if there’s something you need and can’t find, don’t hesitate to ask your community.

“Start small with something you find interesting and write two or three paragraphs on it,” Trey suggests. “Expand that into an article and volunteer to speak on the topic.” With so many opportunities to get your name out there, “the next thing you know, you’ll be known as an expert in that field. You’ll be surprised at how many cases will come your way just from being known as an expert in that area.”

Ashley suggests being willing to take on different types of assignments. “It may not be exactly what you want, but it can open doors you didn’t expect,” she says. She recommends participating in professional development in your practice area as well as getting involved in organizations, both within and outside the world of law, that mean something to you specifically.

Professional Development Outside of the Office

Trey and Ashley are heavily involved in various professional and industry organizations. From local, regional and national bar organizations to national practice-specific organizations, both are proponents of being involved outside of the office not only because of the educational opportunities provided, but also the extensive network you can build with others in your practice area.

Attending conferences, webinars and other events “to see and hear how these ‘leaders in the field’ practice law will benefit one’s professional development more than just about anything,” adds Trey. He also touts the opportunity to build the firm’s reputation as a leader in its practices, whether that is through speaking and writing engagements or a leadership role within the organization.

The End Goal

“Create a life you love,” Estelle concludes. Professional development is, of course, about improving as an attorney and becoming an expert in your practice area. But beyond that, growing in your work extends quickly to growing in your life. The connections you make through professional development can quickly lead to rewarding relationships and meaningful work.

“Some of the most productive and valuable time you have as a lawyer isn’t billable at all,” Ashley notes. When attorneys view professional development holistically, casting a wide net to broaden and develop their experience, their best selves emerge—and everyone benefits.