When Betsy Miller and Tory Nugent were appointed co-chairs of the Public Client practice at Cohen Milstein in 2017, their approach to cultivating talent and how they collaborate and innovate as co-chairs became inspiring models for the firm’s other practice leaders.
Moreover, it may have become a model for how the entire legal industry should approach talent because even though the industry depends almost entirely on human talent, it historically has not invested in developing the emotional intelligence required for effective leadership.
Miller says she was drawn to the law and public service because she wanted to make an impact “for the purpose of something just or good.” For her, it was never a question that she would be a litigator because of her love for language and the challenge of working with “words and their meaning to inspire people, to impact people, and to effect change.” Miller’s legal career evolved by going back and forth between the private sector and government service — from Capitol Hill, to a large defense firm, to the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C., and finally to the plaintiff-side powerhouse law firm, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.
Nugent’s path to the law was different but at its core, was very similar. After college, she joined Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy group, finding that her work as a lawyer was an incredible privilege and a way to “have a meaningful impact, aligning with my values and something that I’m proud of.”
One of the most notable similarities that Miller and Nugent share is their passion for problem-solving. Miller sees the art of inquiry and the ability to hold multiple perspectives as crucial to crafting the most elegant solution, and Nugent sees their public client practice as a problem-solving exercise writ-large. “Litigation is the tool that we use to solve problems, and there is no shortage of them in the world,” Nugent explains.
For example, both Nugent and Miller are heavily involved in litigation around the nation’s opioid crisis. “This is the most complex litigation and multi-party negotiation that this country has ever seen because of the number of government entities involved in prosecuting it and the vastness of the problem we are trying to address,” Miller says, adding that they are finding purpose and meaning in doing good and are also challenged in a way that they have never experienced because of the intricacy of the legal and public health issues to be resolved.
Leadership & Talent Development
Miller and Nugent’s strategy for leadership has been heavily influenced by several factors: i) collaboration in support of innovation; ii) prioritizing talent development; iii) coaching their people; iv) risk-taking; and v) dynamic equilibrium.
Collaboration is the cornerstone of their success — Collaboration has informed the way Miller and Nugent run the practice as co-chairs. Because they lead by example on partnership, it has filtered throughout their team and been something that the other members of the group have embraced. The complete trust Miller and Nugent have in one another allows them to think creatively and to encourage their team to do the same.
Going all in on developing talent — Both Nugent and Miller have an unwavering commitment to developing their team. Their (not so) secret sauce is the execution of a “regular process for providing feedback, guidance, and skill development to our team members in conjunction with recognizing that we are giving each individual a mix of things to do that both play to their strengths and help them develop in areas where they either haven’t had the opportunity to develop skills or where they haven’t really performed that well, but through experience, modeling and training can do better and then take great pride in that success,” Nugent explains.
Likewise, Miller sees her main strength (and passion) as a leader as having the ability to “learn something new, practice it as a stakeholder, and then teach and share it with others,” moving smoothly back and forth between a learner’s and a teacher’s mindset. This flexibility is essential to maintaining curiosity and openness to new ideas, Miller adds, and this is something they both cultivate on their team.
Coaching — Through coaching, Miller has been able to let go of the mindset that she had to have all the answers for her clients and her team. The coaching paradigm allowed her “the freedom to focus more on asking powerful questions and on giving people the space to find their own answers,” she explains.
Risk-taking through Personal Enrichment — Nugent started a personal style blog, The Directrice, after her husband encouraged her make time for a creative outlet and to learn something new. As a fan of fashion, she enjoys putting unique combinations of fabric, prints, and hardware together, “In my next life, I will be a textile designer,” she jokes. What fascinates Nugent about the whole endeavor is the risk-taking part of it; “it is important to put yourself out there to see what kind of response you get.”
Nugent’s fashion blog also brings a joy to the office and has a positive impact on morale, Miller observes. “Our clients are very serious people. Our cases are very serious cases. [To balance that], we’ve got to maintain a certain level of not just levity, but also joy.”
“Dynamic Equilibrium” — Finally, the pair’s understanding of “holding the tension between needing stability and transformation” is where they both thrive as leaders. Miller describes this leadership capability as “dynamic equilibrium” and says it allows leaders “to prepare their teams for continuous evolution.” Both Miller and Nugent “support individuals’ growth to step up and learn new skills, while helping them adapt and move beyond the loss of outdated skills or business systems, so they can embrace new ones.”
Further, leaders with this capability must have the resilience to shepherd their teams through challenging transitions, using a growth mindset. “Evolution is inevitable and should be embraced,” Miller explains. “At its core, this means constantly weighing which values and habits the profession should keep and which it should shed to make room for change.”
Today’s leaders owe a duty to the next generation of legal professionals to teach them how to be successful navigating the system as it exists now and empower them to pioneer something different, Miller says. “That is what we must do to thrive.”
You can read the second part of our interview with Cohen Milstein’s Betsy Miller and Tory Nugent here.