November is Practising Law Institute’s third annual PD Appreciation Month. Changes in the workplace over the last three years, including remote work and the return to the office, the great resignation, and the newly coined concept of quiet quitting have highlighted the importance of business and career development training for law students, attorneys, and other professionals in the legal industry. In partnership with Legal Marketing Association (LMA), PLI has developed a series of timely, relevant programs addressing challenges, best practices, and opportunities: You can find the on-demand recordings of this year’s webcasts — focused on business development — available at no cost on PLI.edu.
Kirsten Talmage, PLI’s Senior Director, Product Strategy & Customer Experience, sat down with Program Series Chair H. Sandra Bang, Founder, Sable Group LLC, to learn more about Sandra’s impressive career arc from lawyer to member of the C-suite at a major law firm to successful business owner and strategist.
You began your career as a litigator, working both for major law firms and the government, in Canada. Can you share about that time in your professional career? What drew you to litigation? How long did you spend practicing?
Advocating in service of clients by doing research, gathering evidence, persuasive writing, and oral argument were all things that were — and still are — compelling to me; that is what drew me to litigation. I spent a year completing a clerkship of articles, and then about three years practicing. Working as a provincial prosecutor was the best “on your feet” and “on the job” learning I ever experienced. It pushed me to learn how to think on my feet quickly and get over public speaking fears. During my time practicing, working long and demanding hours was the norm. Working alongside prominent Canadian litigators was thrilling and I learned a great deal and got to work on special matters, such as an Aboriginal land claim file.
And what prompted your career change into the world of professional development in law firms? What drew you to the space and what was your first role? How did your skills as a prior litigator foster your success?
I’ve always made time to reflect upon my career at regular intervals and I got to a point where I was no longer heading in the direction I wanted to go careerwise. A clear career path was not visible to me, nor did I have access to sponsors and mentors that I knew I needed to advance to the next level. I did not come from a family of lawyers, and role models that looked like me were rare. I remained serious about my career, and I wanted to add value in a different way.
As I explored other career options, I kept in mind that I liked working in law firms, and I had knowledge through direct experience of what it was like to go through the legal recruitment process and practice as an associate. I knew I wanted to support the associate development process, and ultimately the success of a firm as a business (talent being any organization’s most valuable asset) by creating better development and support resources for professionals. At this point “professional development in law firms” became a research topic for me. Seeking out informational interviews and doing research to learn more about this burgeoning profession became my goal.
In Toronto during this time, there were a couple of law firms that hired former practicing lawyers to lead their professional development and legal recruitment initiatives. While on an interview for one firm, the interviewer — with whom I am still connected — referred me to another law firm that was seeking a new Director of Student and Associate Affairs. It was the law firm Aird & Berlis LLP (“A&B”), and after meeting with the Managing Partner and others at A&B, I got the job offer. It was my first role, and I had the opportunity to work very closely with the Managing Partner, and she showed me what management was thinking about with respect to various aspects of hiring and retaining and developing talent. She also was very transparent about issues law firm management faced and the processes and politics behind making business decisions. I had terrific sponsors and mentors along the way at that firm and I got to learn, do great work, and create and execute strategic plans for hiring and developing talent and leaders. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had the privilege of doing. And I am still in touch with many of the people with whom I worked.
My skills as a litigator were spot on to be successful at this job. I had to manage my “clients” — everyone at the firm. I had to line up my evidence, do my research, and present compelling reasons for funding or moving forward on certain projects or certain hires. I had to present and represent the firm’s best interests. I had to be detail oriented and demonstrate excellent communication and interpersonal skills. As Director, I successfully drew from all the things I learned as a litigator.
At what point in your career did you know that you wanted to achieve a Chief Talent Officer title? What were the steps you took to ensure that you had the support of colleagues and firm management?
I was very senior and far along in my talent development career before I knew I wanted to achieve a “Chief” title. For a long time, I did not know whether I wanted to be “Chief.” Having a certain title or reigning over many “jurisdictions” were not priorities or goals for me. Being of value, making impactful and positive contributions, building new collaborations, supporting the development of others, executing new initiatives, and loving what I was doing were my priorities and what drove my career.
It was while working with executive coaches to figure out where I wanted my career to go next that I learned that indeed, I wanted to be “Chief.” I had to unpack, understand, and define what being “Chief” meant for me, my career, and the business organization. I wanted the opportunity to leverage all that I had learned and done in the field of talent development and inclusion, to create vision and strategy, to lead a team of talented professionals in executing a plan, and work alongside senior leaders. This meant being a part of the C-suite. My coach helped me articulate, and literally say out loud, my goal of being Chief.
The first step is making others know — for example, the decision makers in your business, your sponsors, your mentors, your contacts — that you want to be a Chief. You must also demonstrate that you can and will be a powerful Chief that will bring results that are positive for the organization, their business, and their people. Demonstrate your additive value.
When you were promoted to Chief Diversity & Talent Strategy Officer at Shearman & Sterling, what were your major responsibilities? What did your day-to-day look like and how was it different than you expected?
As Chief, I was responsible for creating a vision and strategic plan to refresh and accelerate the firm’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives firmwide. Integrating and employing a holistic approach to legal recruitment, professional development, and inclusion for lawyers and business services personnel was also a responsibility. I had the privilege and pleasure of working alongside teammates and colleagues who were also dedicated and passionate about advancing inclusion, equity, and diversity, as well as creating new initiatives to better support people’s development and career experiences while at the firm.
My day-to-day was unique — I would never know what a particular day might demand of me! In addition to planning for an upcoming presentation of results, or progress made, to both internal and external stakeholders and clients, or developing new initiatives, typical days would consist of having conversations with external clients about what the firm was doing, or with internal clients about what was on their mind or concerns they may have had about something happening — or not happening that should be taking place. It was all about addressing people’s concerns, offering support, and helping them or the firm do better. Frankly, my day-to-day as Chief was not different from what I expected!
I know that advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the legal industry is an issue that is of utmost importance to you. How were you able to leverage your position within the firm to further DEI?
Representation matters. It mattered to many people that there was a C-level position for a DEI professional at this esteemed, historic, “Wall Street” law firm. DEI had a seat at the table; it was in the C-suite. It was a signal to everyone in the firm and to the firm’s clients that DEI mattered at a very senior level. I was the firm’s first C-level DEI and talent executive, and I believe I was the first person of color to hold a C-level executive position at the firm. I took this role, this responsibility, this privilege very seriously, and leveraged the position both internally and externally to raise the firm’s DEI profile, its progress to date and the work that was being done, and the teams involved in executing new and established initiatives.
Interrupting bias, championing DEI efforts, amplifying historically underrepresented voices, and supporting DEI education opportunities were leverage points for me in my position as well. Regardless of whether “DEI” was in my title, I have always been passionate about advocating for inclusion. Some of the most impactful achievements included the team and I developing new processes and analytics to track DEI progress and achieve Mansfield Certification (Plus).
How would you advise other professional development leaders who want to advance DEI in their firm(s) to be more actionable in their intent, especially those who might not have a Chief Diversity Officer within their firm?
Think about goals — what is the result you want to see? What would be of benefit to the firm? Then consider who you can collaborate with to get buy-in, to get things moving, and to ultimately work with you to achieve the desired result? How can you communicate progress? How can you celebrate small and big wins along the way? I think collaborating with others — within and outside the firm — to advance, step by step, the goal you set out to achieve is an effective and engaging way to shift things. Pooling resources and getting other people involved helps with buy-in and taking action efficiently.
Within the last year, you made the decision to leave big firm life and founded your own consulting, advising, and coaching firm, Sable Group, LLC. What considerations did you weigh when making your latest career move, and what are some of the challenges you have faced in managing your own business while also helping other businesses and individuals to succeed? How have you overcome them?
Running my own consulting, advising, and coaching firm has been a career goal of mine for some time. I’ve been thinking about and preparing for this move for the past eight years. The pandemic was the catalyst that helped me pull the trigger and make the leap. I reflected on what I’ve accomplished to date, the experiences I’ve had, the lessons learned, and ultimately, how I wanted to support others and add value going forward.
I have always been very intentional about my career moves, and I reached a point where time felt more precious than ever. If I wasn’t going to make the leap now, then when was I going to do it? I worked with a coach to figure out what success would look like, what failure could look like, and how I wanted to create transformation and value for clients. How do I best crystalize my desire to support clients in finding clarity, increasing self-awareness, reframing, and setting and achieving their goals? How can I better serve clients and serve more clients outside the boundaries of one organization? And how can I continue to be engaged and have positive energy about my own career?
I always strive to be efficient, organized, and self-disciplined with my time and work, while continually making connections and networking. I have done these things my entire career, but it is different when working interdependently versus being accountable to oneself. Setting up a schedule of to-do’s and being methodical and strategic has helped me deal with feelings of having too much to do, or not enough!
What has been most rewarding about owning your own business, and how are the ways in which you are making an impact in the legal industry different than when you were serving in a Chief role at a large law firm?
Being able to put forth fully my own professional value proposition has been very rewarding. I fully own my brand and my voice. Not having a “large law firm” behind me, so to speak, can perhaps leave one feeling vulnerable. However, I am being impactful on a bespoke level and for a broader, wider range of business and people now; it is not for one firm and its people only. I find I can now dive deeper into projects I choose to work on. There’s also a wider variety of people with whom I am collaborating, which is incredibly engaging and interesting. While I am grateful for my experiences working in law firms, recognizing those experiences helped prepare me for today, and I am fully enjoying this season of my career and the impact I am making.
What advice would you give to other professional development individuals in law firms who are thinking about a change in career, be it upwards movement in leadership, a move into the corporate or government sectors, or opening their own business like yourself?
Think broadly and do not place limitations on yourself about what you can do next careerwise. Sometimes it helps to get clarity about what you want to do with the help of a coach. Exploring where your strengths lie, what you do and do not enjoy doing, and what is of value to you is important. We get in our own way sometimes and can have internal thoughts that prevent us from advancing. It is worthwhile to get support with clarifying wants, aligning your career with your values, planning next steps, and executing at your own pace.
Most importantly, have fun and stay engaged. If you’re not learning new things or feeling challenged and engaged, then it is time to make a career change.
To hear more from Sandra, you can find the on-demand recordings of this year’s PD Appreciation Month webcasts — focused on business development — available at no cost on PLI.edu.