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Sara Gross Methner
Nilan Johnson Lewis has appointed Sara Gross Methner to be chief attorney talent officer.

Talent officer brings broad experience to Nilan Johnson Lewis

Appointing diversity, equity and inclusion officers at large law firms has become standard practice over the last few years. While it has received less attention, many large law firms have also developed the role of chief attorney talent officer.

Last month, Nilan Johnson Lewis announced the appointment of Sara Gross Methner to that post. This C-suite role includes overseeing attorney development, professional formation, attorney integration into the firm, practice management, and holistic well-being.

Keeping and recruiting good attorneys has become increasingly challenging. Staffing issues plague all sectors of the economy, and law firms are not immune. Then, there is the fact that being a lawyer is simply a tough job—evident by mental health and substance abuse issues that are ever-present in the profession.

Before she joined Nilan Johnson Lewis, Gross Methner’s work experience spanned government, legal and financial services, and higher education. After receiving a law degree from Stanford, she was a U.S. House of Representatives legislative assistant and a law firm lawyer. She joined Piper Jaffray Cos. (now Piper Sandler) in a series of roles that included moving to Hong Kong to help manage the firm’s Asia business and serving as the firm’s international general counsel. She later became the University of St. Thomas’ first general counsel.

Gross Methner spoke with Minnesota Lawyer about what her new role as chief attorney talent officer will be. Drawing from her wide background of both professional and personal experiences, Gross Methner seeks to build on the existing culture of the firm while challenging it to evolve alongside a new generation of lawyers.

Q: You’ve occupied a variety of leadership roles throughout your career. How is this leadership role different from all of the others?

A: This role is simply more personal — in multiple ways. For starters, I have a long career as a practicing lawyer who experienced many of the struggles and tensions that plague our profession and that we’re trying to address. But the nature of the work is also more personal, and in some ways vulnerable. We can improve as a legal profession in supporting attorney development and well-being through effective organizational policies, programs and practices, and that’s part of my role. But to fully achieve our goals, I think we need to help attorneys engage in self-reflection and candor as to their personal values, motivations, comfort zones and styles of engagement.

Q: What will your main duties be in this role?

A: As chief attorney talent officer, I will help recruit attorneys, and I’m responsible for ensuring that our firm effectively supports their development, progression and well-being throughout their careers, and that our attorneys feel a sense of belonging and connection. My ultimate goal is to help our attorneys build fulfilling careers that can sustain the ups and downs that occur over time. Not only is that good for them personally, but it’s good for our clients because they stand to benefit by working with lawyers who are both highly skilled and highly engaged.

Q: What will you do to enhance diversity through this role?

A: We will continue to grow diversity through our recruiting efforts, but of course we can’t do that unless we also continue to retain the existing diversity of our firm. We must demonstrate that we are a firm where the attorneys we hire feel they belong, are valued, and will be effectively supported in their progression along the career paths they choose to pursue. That will be a key performance indicator for my work.

Q: The stresses of legal work are widely known, and to some extent cannot be avoided. What sorts of solutions are you looking at to help keep people satisfied in their positions and avoiding burnout?

A: There’s a lot about legal work that is out of our control, so we need to focus on what can be controlled. This ranges from providing a supportive work environment to making sure we have structures in place that allow and encourage attorneys to take personal time without disruption and develop effective time and stress-management practices. Beyond these things, we are thinking about how to identify and support a variety of career progression paths and being more intentional in helping attorneys figure out where their skills, interests and values align with our practice options and client needs, so they can pursue and secure enjoyable work.

Q: The COVID pandemic has caused changes in the courts as well as where legal work happens. What does the next-generation legal career look like in light of this?

A: I think legal careers will be characterized by greater flexibility and customization to personal circumstances, with more resources devoted to helping attorneys build and manage practices that work for them, using more structured attorney development models. The old apprenticeship model, in which senior and junior attorneys match up for work on an ad hoc basis, has resulted in a lot of inequities and imbalances, and firms have been moving away from this even before the pandemic. It’s not sustainable for our profession, and ad hoc development doesn’t work as well in hybrid environments.

Q: You built the legal department at the University of St. Thomas. What were some of the main challenges there? What is the legacy?

A: As one of my colleagues used to say, we were building the plane as we were flying it. We had a small team, and the biggest challenge was making time to do the strategic but not urgent work, while meeting day-to-day legal needs that crossed the full range of university operations. I think the legacy is that our team created an Office of General Counsel that is deeply rooted and respected across the university community, and that is a well-oiled machine in many areas of recurring work.

Q: How does your volunteering background make you a good asset for this firm and in this role?

A: Between my paid work and volunteering, I have had the opportunity to look at organizations from the perspectives of a board member, officer, administrative leader, legal adviser, strategic adviser and policy adviser. I know what it’s like to be in smaller and larger organizations, to have varying levels of resources, and to approach issues from an industry-wide lens as well as from an organizational, departmental and positional lens. My wide-ranging background helps me to be strategic — scrappy when necessary — and to see opportunities for leverage, collaboration and integration that may not be as apparent to others. I believe all of these attributes will be helpful in this role.

Q: Why study Chinese language and literature in college? You also lived in Hong Kong — how do those past experiences translate into the work you do today?

A: I have a background in music and theater that helped me become conversant in German and French in high school. I love challenges, so I decided to choose a different language in college that involved a different writing system. Two of my siblings are adopted from Korea, which contributed to an interest in Asia, and Chinese seemed like the obvious choice since it’s so widely spoken. I loved it, and it was a lot of work, so I made it my major.

I’m so grateful to Piper for offering me the opportunity to work in Hong Kong and use my Chinese studies. It was a rich experience with lots of interesting challenges. I had to build a position and network from scratch, in a business about the same size as Nilan. I was a woman leader in a male-dominated industry with few women in leadership and was not a member of the majority culture. At the same time, I was aware that I had privilege and power arising from my race and position. On top of wrestling with those issues, I had to figure out how to provide good support for my husband and kids, who all were living abroad for the first time. All these experiences help inform my current work.

Q: Any other comments?

A: The camaraderie and support I already have felt from colleagues within and outside the firm have been amazing, and I think speak well to the importance of being persistently intentional about development and well-being in the profession. This is work we all have an interest in, and I think we are most likely to succeed by making a collective commitment and working together.

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