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A Chat with Don Smith, Director of Professional Development at Fried Frank LLP and Chair of the PDC

In this PD Profile, we talk with Don Smith, the Director of Professional Development at Fried Frank LLP and the current Chair of the Professional Development Consortium (PDC)

Hi Don. Thanks for doing this with us. The first question is an ice breaker – can you share a fun fact about yourself that people may not know?

I played college football at the University of California, Berkeley, and am a character in some late 90’s college football videogames.

That’s pretty cool. I’ll have to try to find a copy of that game. So now back to legal – what did you do before you got into PD?

I was a corporate lawyer at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP.

Why did you move into PD?

I kind of fell into PD. After a few years practicing law in New York, I moved to Washington, DC to support my wife’s wish to be closer to the public policy world. At the same time, I was looking to go in-house as an attorney. While conducting a job search, Fried Frank contacted me and asked me to help in their Attorney Development Department. The rest is history. As a lawyer at the firm, I was always involved in recruiting, development, and participated in associates committees, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to make the initial transition.

What’s the makeup of your firm (how many lawyers and offices)?

We have approximately 425 lawyers in 4 offices (New York, Washington DC, London, and Frankfurt).

How’s your team structured?

In addition to my role as director, the team is comprised of a manager, two coordinators, and an assistant. We look forward to hopefully adding another manager to the team soon.

Can you tell us about some trends you’re currently seeing in legal PD?

One of the most significant trends I see is the focus on just-in-time training and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of information delivery. Time is money, and our attorneys are very sensitive about how we ask them to use their time. Ensuring that our programs are effective and efficient is key. These types of trainings also address other recent trends that we’ve seen, including adjusting to the demands of millennials and embracing technology to innovate, build efficiency, and improve client service.

As a provider of digital learning, that’s certainly good to hear. Speaking of learning, what areas of training are your lawyers most interested in these days?

In addition to traditional subject matter training, our attorneys express significant interest in business development. A few years ago, we created a Business Development Training Series that was well received. Our training and development curriculum is designed to help empower our attorneys and give them tools to fully engage in their work to maximize their professional potential. That approach really resonates with our group.

Can you tell us about a new or interesting program you’re working on for this year?

We’re in the process of creating a new e-learning platform for our lawyers and staff to supplement our existing training curriculum. The platform will support the full range of talent expectations in our competency frameworks for all of our firm’s employees, lawyers, and professional staff. We will be able to offer a combination of quick trainings as well as more traditional-length programming available on-demand for our community.

Can you tell us about a training that was particularly successful and why it was successful?

As I mentioned earlier, we offer a business development training series at Fried Frank that continues to get great feedback. The series offers programs for our attorneys at various levels, spanning from our junior associates to our junior partners and special counsel. Providing level-specific training is very effective because we can speak more directly to their current experience and provide more focused support. We have also discovered that peer coaching and small group discussions are particularly effective in this area as it encourages and facilitates internal networking while we deliver program-specific content.

Any predictions on the future of legal PD?

I actually think legal PD will continue in its same direction. There has been a lot of focus on innovation in the past few years, but I see the real key to some of our innovation as finding ways to simplify our processes. I think the speed of technology and the increasing competitive nature within the legal market constantly threatens to strip the humanity out of one of the most important part of our attorneys’ jobs -- client service. Training our lawyers on substantive law is relatively easy, but helping them most effectively apply and deliver their services in a helpful and humane way is often a more difficult challenge.

In addition to your full-time job, you’re also the chair of the PDC. How are you finding that role? Is it as expected? Any surprises?

Chairing the PDC board is a very fulfilling experience. It is a true privilege to serve my colleagues and help an organization that was instrumental to my early professional development. As a former lawyer, it’s also a cool way to continue to contribute to the legal profession. At times it can be a lot of work, but I have a great board full of extremely talented individuals, a great staff at Fried Frank, and PDC members are really fantastic people so they’re always fun to interact with. When I first joined PDC years ago, I found sitting in the room with all those senior administrators a bit intimidating, but the culture of the organization was, and continues to be, extremely supportive and collaborative so working with the PDC has always been one of the highlights of my job.

What’s the direction of the PDC for the future?

The PDC continues to strive to be the premiere professional development organization for the legal industry. We seek to further our mission of developing and providing world-class content, be a forum for exchanging innovative and effective programming ideas, a source of leadership and direction in the legal community, and a place where learning professionals can go for support, guidance and fellowship.

Thanks for participating in this, Don.

One final thing - You know the game Two Truths and a Lie? We play it with our PD friends at Hotshot dinners and we ask people that participate in these profiles to play. Can you share two truths and a lie about yourself?

  1. I biked 256 miles in 3 days to honor a random commitment made over Sunday afternoon beers.
  2. I played piano for over 10 years.
  3. I tried out for two NFL teams before going to law school.

People can cast their vote on this LinkedIn post.

Past PD Profiles: Jennifer Little