Throughout the year, Milbank whisks mid-level associates away from their desks around the world and sends them to Cambridge, Mass. for a one-of-a-kind, intensive professional development program, Milbank@Harvard. Every associate completes a week-long module once a year over the course of four years, with sessions led by top Harvard Business and Law School faculty, alongside Milbank partners.
Recently, partner David Wolfson, who helped develop and manages the program, sat down with recent Milbank@Harvard “graduate” Anna Thomander, a senior associate in London who has recently completed the four-year program, and Laura Larsen, a New York-based fourth-year associate, to talk about the program.
From Left, David Wolfson, Anna Thomander, and Laura Larsen.
David: Laura, you recently finished your first Milbank@Harvard module. How did it meet your expectations so far?
Laura: I’d say it has met and surpassed my expectations. As an associate, you spend a few years hearing the buzz about the program from others going through it, but it’s hard to describe beyond that it’s “awesome” or “wonderful.” One of the things that I didn’t necessarily expect going in was the mix of topics we covered: hard business and managerial skills, and then career-planning, marketing and business development, understanding your value and the value of the firm. Learning about macroeconomics in-depth from Harvard professors is wonderful, but that’s only a part of it. Personally and professionally, the program also gives each associate a chance to self-reflect and to grow. I think that’s all part of the magic of the program that becomes clearer when you experience it yourself.
Anna: I agree, and from what I’ve heard from colleagues, I’m not alone in thinking that Milbank@Harvard is the best professional education experience I’ve had in my career. I haven’t heard of anything like it at other firms, especially geared toward mid-levels. You hear about programs for first-years or new partners, but not at this level.
David: I’m obviously biased, but I think the key reason why this program is so good is that we don’t begin until people have been practicing for three or four years; then it develops with them through their seventh or eighth years.
Laura: Yes, I had done a lot of MBA-oriented courses while in law school, but even the refresher business courses at Harvard were much more valuable to me now that I can apply them in context. I’m at a point in my career where I’m getting more involved in the harder pieces of deals, where there are problems that you have to actually solve and advise clients on – rather than just taking the solutions and turning them into effective legal documentation, which you spend a lot of your first couple of years doing!
Anna: Many of the lessons can be very concretely applied to our day-to-day work with clients. I’m a restructuring lawyer. We did a session on valuations, which tends to be an issue more in restructurings in the U.S. than here in London, but that was really interesting, directly relevant to what I do. And I found the sessions where we looked at where things went wrong like case studies on Enron, Jérôme Kerviel, and General Motors, extremely thought-provoking; they helped me reflect on the reasons things go wrong in business, allocating responsibility, and ethics. On top of that, there’s much more that’s a lot more subtle, like learning how to assess and work with different personality types.
Laura: That has been valuable for me as well – learning how to communicate across various personality types in a group, and how people approach problems differently. I remember very vividly a class in which we had to survive in the Alaskan wilderness following a plane crash. You’ve been stranded, you have a list of supplies available to you, and you have to survive. And I remember that class in large part because we all died.
Anna: My group all died, too, Laura!
David: Yes, I can tell you that everyone always dies in that session! [Laughter]
Laura: But that’s the lesson, right? We learned that you have to think about the prejudices you have approaching situations, why you think you know more than you do, how to be aware of your own blind spots, and to value other people’s knowledge. These types of classes also help people to bond, network and talk across the offices and across the cultures that we come from – they also taught me a lot about myself.
Another big takeaway was the focus on marketing, learning about the firm as a business. They help make you aware as an associate of the need to build a personal brand, to understand the brand of your practice group and your firm. It makes this whole exercise of practicing together more productive and cohesive.
David: You know, as we developed the program we were thinking that we might need to tailor sessions or break off groups to cater separately to our lawyers who do transactional work and our litigation and financial restructuring lawyers. But once we fell into it, we realized that it does not matter which practice area you’re in, it’s all relevant, pretty much, to everybody.
Laura: It’s actually helpful to look at issues from the perspective of someone in a different practice.
David: It’s interesting, here we have Laura, a young lawyer in New York working in leveraged finance, and Anna, a more senior lawyer in London in restructuring, and they’ve had the same training, on numerous levels, in terms of leadership and feedback and various skills, and in each of their class groups they know everyone in the firm worldwide as a result of this. I’m very confident that if they’re ever working on the same deal, they would approach things quite similarly, or would at least have a way to communicate, because of this common experience. And so I think the program has had a really significant impact on our culture. This wasn’t something we initially focused on, as we were focused on excellent training and so on. But I think it’s one of the most profound things that have come out of it.
Anna: Having come in as a lateral, the opportunity to spend time with peers from our different offices, as well as partners from all over, and to absorb the culture in this way, was really valuable. Beyond that, it’s a great thing to have on your C.V. – I get asked about my Harvard experience all the time. To be able to spend time learning from top professors at Harvard for four weeks has just been a phenomenal privilege.
David: Harvard’s executive team is fantastic. One of the reasons Harvard got into this is it wanted to understand what it should be doing in law schools to teach people who actually practice, to have interactions with young lawyers and learn what they find interesting and effective. So we’re pleased that they’ve found it valuable as well; we could not have asked for a better partner.
This is a sponsored blog post from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP. You can view Milbank's Vault profile here.
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