The Vital Role Curiosity Plays in the Legal Profession
On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Stephanie Spangler, Associate General Counsel at McKinsey. Stephanie discusses the vital role curiosity has played in her life and the ways in which she promotes the exchange of ideas to the betterment of herself, her team, and the legal profession at large. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
The views and opinions expressed on this episode are those of the guest only and not of any employer, affiliate, or any other organization to which she may be associated. Statements regarding any companies or organizations mentioned in this episode are not endorsements of McKinsey & Co.
Interview with Stephanie Spangler
On Graduating Law School During the U.S. Financial Crisis
Required Being Creative and Turning Challenges into Opportunities
It truly was a journey for me. And I still feel that my career trajectory is just the completion of a journey.
Post law school, as you can recall, it was a very tumultuous time in the job market. There was a lot of uncertainty. People were grabbing at any opportunity possible, right? Whatever opportunity presented itself. And there's different pressures that different people had. I personally had the pressures of school loans thinking, oh my gosh, what have I done? How am I going to pay back this very large sum of money that going into law school was just a number on a page or on a screen. And now it was a true and real obligation.
After law school, I joined Practical Law Company (PLC). It wasn't legal practice. It was just using my legal know-how in a way that made legalese translatable and transferable in a business context. So I joined the IP team. I got to translate materials and try to make products for lawyers, which was a very strange thing for me in the sense that I've never thought about productizing the law before.
At the time I thought, oh, I don't know if this is a great way to start my legal career. This doesn't seem to be the normal path, but I do remember, and I still follow this, telling myself you have to be creative. So things are not always going to be as you predict, as you prepare for. And truly things will not be that way. That's what life is. So you have to be creative about how you're going to get through these challenging times. I also don't like to think about it as challenges, I like to think about them as opportunities for solutions. So you just have to reframe it for yourself.
At the time, it was really hard for me to reframe this for myself. You just think of all the things you didn't achieve when you thought you should be. But in hindsight it was one of the best things that happened to me because it gave me training on how to translate legalase for non-legal minds, how to operationalize these things, and to have that be actionable. And it's something that I have used in every step of my career journey.
On Private Practice in a Small Firm
You Get a Lot of Experience Very Quickly
I'm definitely going to get my dates wrong, but I think I was at Practical Law for about nine months or so. So it wasn't that long of a time period. I definitely did see that as a detour on my journey at the time. Although, like I said, I don't necessarily view it as that now I see it just as part of the journey and part of the process.
So for me at the time, it was how to get back on track, how to get back on that main road that I think I should be on. And for me, that was always private practice in my mind. There's a lot of different reasons for that. Mainly because, one, I just didn't know any better. And two, it's what I thought, because that's what we were told and taught.
I ended up joining a law firm called Yoon & Kim that focused on servicing the Korean-American business community in New York City. And it was a very small firm, but as a result, I was able to get a lot of really great experience very quickly. I got to second chair a trial that ended up in a seven figure verdict in favor of our client. And it felt like the right next step at the time.
On Why She Moved to Bigger Firm Practice
Exposure to Legal Issues on a National Level
I was at the firm for about two years and I recognized the need to change because it was a small firm and it felt too small for me at the time. And that's not to cast any judgments on small things because I think it is very suitable for many people. For example, not that I have plans to go into private practice, but I could definitely see myself being suited for something like that, where you're running your own shop and building out teams in that way.
At the time, I just felt like I wanted to try something different and those opportunities were more readily available in a larger firm [like] exposure to just different things. So the smaller firm, it was just based in New York city. This [larger firm] was based in Atlanta, but it had a national reach. It ended up being fortuitous that I had joined because I actually ended up moving to San Francisco due to my husband's job at the time. But it coincidentally worked out for me because we happen to have a San Francisco office. So things like that were certainly beneficial.
It just felt like the right next thing to do. And that is very characteristic of things that I have done in my journey is to just take a leap of faith and try it out. What's the worst that could happen? I might not know what it really looks like on the other side, but let's try it.
On Why She Ultimately Moved In-House
Pandemic Concerns, and the Flexibility to Accommodate Family and Professional Responsibilities
The rapid fire answer is the pandemic. I was always thinking that in-house would be a possible opportunity for me, but the pandemic really invigorated that drive. I just couldn't practice the way that I wanted to practice. I was doing IP litigation and I couldn't do that while also caring for a COVID baby. Had my second child the September before lockdown, while also caring for my kindergartener at the time who, for parents who had any school-aged child at the time knows, there was this either all remote or this hybrid approach to school. With also my wonderful husband who had just co-founded a startup. There were a lot of things going on and I just didn't feel like I had the flexibility to accommodate all those things.
So I was looking for a move in-house. In particular, McKinsey's a place that's very good because we're global. There's always someone in some time zone that's asleep and awake at the same time. We have constant coverage. It just has this built in flexibility to accommodate the challenges that the pandemic brought us that just made so much sense for me personally, but also professionally.
On the Role Curiosity Plays in Her Life
Provides Perspective to People’s Points of View, Motivations, and Gives Her Courage to Take Action
I'm a very curious person. I'm always trying to learn other people's points of view, motivations, why things are certain ways. I'm also curious about the future. I like to say I'm a dabbling futurist, right? I like to think about what could happen and delve into all these possibilities. That just naturally curious mindset gives you a little bit more courage or strength to take that leap.
But it is scary, right? I think there has to be acknowledgement that in that process, that it's okay to feel an element of fear and that fear is also very natural. The trick is to take that fear and translate it into something really powerful and motivating. I think as humans we are always curious about the answers to questions. So I don't think that's necessarily unique. I think personality wise, maybe it comes in about how to translate that curiosity into something actionable.
On Embracing Failure
There’s So Much Learning That Comes From Letting Yourself Fail
This is something I'm thinking about, even in my current role is letting yourself feel that fear, letting yourself fail, letting yourself make mistakes, because there's so much career growth that can come from it. There's so much learning that can come from it. And you just end up being a better lawyer because of it.
It's letting yourself fail, be okay with that. But it's also letting your team members and people that you work with, also know that it's okay if they fail too. Let's try something together, let's figure out how to do something. It might not work, but let's try it out. If it fails, we'll iterate, we'll figure out a better way to do it and we'll do it together. So really have this true collaboration approach where we can give permission to fail and really amazing things can come of that.
On Empowering Teams With a Growth Mindset
Invite Dialogue, Encourage Brainstorming and Different Perspectives, and Remove Expectation of Perfection
I think you have to acknowledge them first and foremost. Just say, I know we all want to get this right. We're human. We may not get this perfect and let's all be okay with that. And then be encouraging. Okay. How close to perfect can we be? Let's brainstorm this. What are the solutions that we could come up with together? Have we thought about all the different points of view?
I think inviting that dialogue helps to encourage your team members to vocalize what they're thinking. Because I think the worst thing that could happen is someone has this really good idea or a really good solution to the problem, but they're just feeling shy about vocalizing it. So I think allowing that space for people to engage in that dialogue.
On Tools That Create Safe, Collaborative, and Playful Work Spaces
Zoom, Slack, and the Power of Emojis
I have dug deep into the collaboration tools that have birthed out of the pandemic. I personally am on Zoom for the majority of the day. So you have video engagement. These are sometimes in 30 minute increments, we're going to have to go quickly, but that's an opportunity where you can at least virtually face to face. Problem solve with your colleagues.
I'm an avid Slack user. I love Slack. We use Slack a lot and I'm a big emojis person to get my point across. And I say that kind of jokingly, but there is something to be said for being playful. And I like playful with purpose. That's a phrase that's kicked around a lot.
I dunno, it also makes work more fun if you can just embed that into your work. Certainly emojis are not appropriate in certain emails that you may be writing and things like that. But in terms of collaboration, problem solving, and working through things.
And it's also efficient, right? If someone's sending me a message on Slack and I just want to let them know that I'm grateful for their message, I can just hit my little thank you emoji. Or if I'm looking at something, I can click on my little eyeballs emoji, and it's just a more efficient way to communicate since we are doing so in a virtual environment for most of us.
There's like the huddle tool on Slack I use from time to time. So when you don't want the video, because we all suffer from Zoom fatigue at some point in our day. Sometimes it's just nice to have a voice to voice quick chat and you can work through problems very efficiently in that way.
On Her Approach to Collaboration
Identify Each Employee's Expertise, When to Pull Them In, and How Your Expertise Can Help Impacts Others in the Organization
In our legal department and I would say just generally at McKinsey, there is ongoing collaboration and an ongoing need for collaboration. And it was at a level that just really blew my mind coming from private practice, where I felt more siloed because there was, in many cases, just a certain type of information I really needed to know. That's one reason why I wanted to go in-house, because I wanted to know more about the business. I wanted to know more of the impact of what my legal advice was going to have, like more broadly. And you just don't get that visibility when you're in private practice.
So stepping into this in-house role and having my mind blown away about what the potential opportunities were to meet and work with other people was really exciting. And then I thought about it more trying to distill it more about what that actually looks like for me in my day to day.
So I work with a team that's fairly small, but we're part of a larger team that's part of a larger - it's concentric circles, right? There's a lot of information that's being shared and it made me think about the opportunity that's there. There's so many people part of this network now, but how do we work together in a more efficient way? How can we really understand what we know? A lot of times you just don't know what your colleague knows, right? Because we just don't have time to communicate all those things. And then how can we use that to make a broader impact?
So the way that I saw that for myself was being intentional, identifying who I need to know, who knows what, who can help me with this problem. For example, I might lean on my cyber legal colleagues, if it's related to a cybersecurity issue that I may not have the depth of expertise that they would have. So understanding when to pull in those colleagues to efficiently solve a problem was something that I could do in my day to day.
Another would be transparency and feedback and so that means what kind of impact your decisions and your guidance is really making. And I think different companies and organizations will be built out differently and maybe more supportive to that kind of visibility. Sometimes it might take a little more effort or lift and sometimes maybe not. But I think the point is recognizing that it should be a component. I can't work with you if I don't know what you're doing. And if I don't know how what I'm saying is helping you or hurting you or doing nothing. So really understanding what that is.
On Creating a Culture of Collaboration
Materials Clarifying Team Structure, Encouragement by Management to Always Ask Questions
So our legal department has done a really amazing job of having online materials that really lay out the structure and the roles of the different teams.
Also, I just ask a lot of questions. But I also have the support from my managing counsel, my leadership, that it's okay to ask questions. This is acknowledgement among who I consider to be very seasoned people in the department saying, I don't know, things are moving at such a fast pace. I don't know. So it's okay to ask questions and I would see them role model. I would see them ask questions to what seems like very 101 and basic, but it actually wasn't right, because of the fact that things are inherently changing all the time.
No question's a dumb question. It goes back to that curious mindset. Always be asking questions, be curious, like, why are we doing it this way? Who knows this? And do we really need to bring this person in. We really have an environment where we encourage asking questions and we really support curiosity in that way.
On What It Means to See Around Corners
Spotting Trends, Being Adaptive, and Preparing for the Future Accordingly
I think it means to be prospective rather than responsive or maybe adaptive, but the situation that I would like to avoid is having this terrible catastrophe happen and think there could have been things that we could have done to prevent that.
What we've been thinking about is, especially with emerging technologies, cause there's a lot of unknowns there, right? There's draft regulation. There's things that are in the works. There may be even laws on the books, but the interpretation of how it really plays out is unknown. So where we like to position ourselves to say, okay, where do we see all this law and regulation and these regulatory frameworks, where do we see that trending?
How can we predict the future and what this future legal and regulatory world looks like with regards to data security and what can we do right now to prepare for that? Can we build in, although they may not currently today be legal requirements, can we build in best practices that are going to prepare us and our teams for working in this new, not so far away future? So that's what we mean by seeing around the corner.
On How Her Team Gathers to Foster Prospective Thinking
Internal Tech Law Summits that Foster Prospective Thought
A group of us have gotten together and developed this program which we call tech summits. And the idea is every quarter, lawyers can sit down and talk about tech law and talk about issues that we're seeing currently that we might need to problem solve together and talk through.
But also like where are we seeing this going? Sometimes they're just more thought experiment type of activities. But from these conversations, we're building out a different way to think, a different way to think about risk and legal requirements in a different way that I think is actually more useful to the business.
Cause you're building up business solutions that work for the business that sitting here today may not have this legal requirement, but in the very near future, you want to be able to position the business as we've actually already accounted for all these changes that are happening, it's already built in. And so the shift to the business isn't as large, right? It's going on over time rather than just a light switch where it's oh gosh, now we need to change.
So we have a tech summit steerco. It's a small group of the leadership from the legal department, and I'm one of them, who are really pushing and driving these events to happen, but also not just the events themselves, but really how are we going to drive impact from these events? What are we going to do with the knowledge and the know-how obtained from the brainstorming event or round table discussion or whatever it happens to be? The actual structure of it is very flexible. There's not like a specific model for it other than it's a day where we all come together.
Last time we had 60 globally. So it really is voluntary, right? It's if you have an interest in technology law and how that's going to impact your work, which there will be some aspect of your work that will be impacted. But if you're interested, the hope is that we can get folks in the room who are not only interested, but also can contribute their perspective. So it really is a dialogue and it doesn't end on that day.
On Taking Action on the Internal Exchange of Ideas
Enabling Work Streams, Sprint Squads, and Empowering Self-Directed Learning
We have built out a kind of work stream. We call them sprint squads. So if there's a topic that you're really interested in, like the metaverse and how this is going to impact us or the world, or I don't know, maybe you just want to delve deeper into that topic. You can form a sprint squad and for the next quarter, dig deeper. It's really up to you. The whole idea is to give people an opportunity and a platform to be able to engage, to be curious, and then decide for themselves how they're going to implement that into their day to day.
And some topics may not be something that can be integrated today. Maybe it's something that's a couple of years away, but with how fast technology develops. The way that I see it is that it's never too early to start because you will be confronted with a lot of these questions and you just don't want to be caught on your heels.
We really want to empower our colleagues to do whatever it is that they want with it. So maybe it's your own personal study and you honestly don't do anything with it. Like for me, I write a blog about it. I just came out with a Q&A with Janice Wong, who was a guest speaker at one of the tech summits. We continue the conversation that she started with us about data stewardship frameworks, which feels very theoretical in some ways, but I just feel like this is something that's going to be something we're going to need to encounter to support our business colleagues in the very near term. So you can turn into blog posts, if you want to go on a podcast. It's really what makes sense for you on your journey? We're all about empowerment and it's what makes sense for you and each person's journey is different.
On Creating a Space for Internal Dialogue
Create Thought Partners, Not Just Thought Leaders
Think about the importance that we have on like thought partnership and thought leadership. I want to view myself as someone that anyone, lawyer or not, can go to for ideas, knowing that I have thoughtfully taken the time to think about the challenges or risks or what have you. And we can't necessarily do that unless we have a dialogue about it, unless there's a platform for this, unless we let our colleagues know that this is going on.
And so this is certainly one way to do it that really positions me as a lawyer in a great place, because I'm not only getting the know-how from our guest speaker technologists who came and explained the technology. I have this baseline of these great legal minds that I've been talking to that are now in my brain, because I've had these conversations or we have compiled resources that go along with these summits. I've just been in this knowledge space. So I'm ready. I'm ready when someone needs that thought partner or I'm ready when someone's really trying to lean on some thought leadership.
Thinking more prospectively. It's yeah, it's a very engaging way to approach professional development. This is only my first in-house experience, but I'd like to think that this is unique to our legal department and something that we do well, and we want to keep improving on it. We want to keep figuring out better ways to do it. I'm always thinking about how we could improve? And so always thinking about how to do that better, how to support our colleagues better for their professional development journeys.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Influence, Challenge, and Guide for Good
Leadership in law means using your unique legal capability to influence, challenge, and guide for good.
On What She Would Improve about the Legal Industry
Be Open to Alternative Solutions - There Can Be Many Ways, Not Just One Way
Be open to alternative solutions. I think we have a way we work as a legal profession that we think is the right way. And I don't think that's always necessarily the case.
It's things like the pandemic happening. It's things like the technological innovation that's happening, that's driving different types of human behaviors and needs that are going to continuously challenge in some ways an archaic approach to practicing law. And I have faith in our profession that we can do better.
I will do my little part to contribute to that. And mine is just a little part. It's not the only way. And it's certainly not the right way. I don't think there's any right way. But I think if we are more open to ideas, we can really make the profession something where we're really servicing a broad population of people who need it, not just a select few.
On Practical Advice to Leaders and Future Leaders in Law
Be Curious and Ambitious, But Also Realistic and Compassionate
Be curious, be ambitious, but realistic and compassionate. Those are things that I try to follow and I use as a north star. It's certainly something that gives yourself permission to fail. I don't think I achieve that every day, but it's something I strive for.
On Her Favorite Self-Care Practice
Running in Prospect Park
I run in Prospect Park. I try to run at least two times a week. If I can run three times a week, I give myself a huge pat on the back, but I just need to get outside. Be in semi-nature. It's like the most nature I can access in New York City. Get my vitamin D and get the endorphins going, because it's just such a different day that I have if I can start my day with it. Doesn't have to be a crazy ride, but just something to get the blood flowing. It really helps me be able to use my brain power a little better.
On the Challenges that Shaped Her Most
A Moment to Honor Her Mother, Michelle
The challenge in my life that shaped me the most was ... sorry I'm going to get emotional, but - learning of my mother's cancer diagnosis while I was literally on the plane about to head for a deposition for work.
That moment was completely life-changing for me. It gave me a completely different perspective on the value of life, on the value of the time that we have, and on the value we're placing on ourselves to what kind of impact we want to have in this world. Because life is so short.
On Checking in With Yourself
Look for Signals that Indicate Your Priorities are Misaligned, Then Course Correct
I definitely have to check in with myself to get things back into perspective. In other words, you feel yourself getting stressed in a certain way that doesn't feel right. You feel yourself getting pulled in different directions. Or maybe you just have an explosion. You're just like, I can't do this.
When those moments happen, that is a very clear signal to me that my priorities are misaligned and I need to do some course correction for myself. And to think is this something I should be dedicating my time and energy to. Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe the answer is no.
But the fact that I'm having a physiological response to something, tells you you have to be aware, you have to listen to yourself. As we each have gone through our own different challenges and we've responded in different ways, we have learned how we respond and what we need from that. We each have our own thing that's beneficial to us. We just have to recognize it and remind ourselves of that.
I go through course corrections all the time. I went through a course correction a couple of weeks ago. It's okay. Oh, I lost sight of things and I was just piling on too much. I was trying to make everyone happy. It's telling yourself it's okay to manage expectations.
And I do that in my work in a very constructive and collaborative way. I reach out to folks. This deadline that we talked about, I'm going to have to adjust because of X, Y, Z. But being clear, transparent about why and getting the other person on board and understanding why we're not gonna be able to meet this deadline, for example. Managing those expectations is part of how I can prioritize the things that I really need to prioritize.
And that's such a good approach in your business or legal role or wherever you're sitting. It's transferable into your personal, I don't know, role, that's the wrong word, but this blend of work and personal life is so gray. It's such a gray area now. Especially since a lot of us knowledge workers are working from home or working remotely. We have to just be more intentional about what that is.
But the cool thing that I realized was that in my work life, I'm very intentional about what my goals are, my development track, but it might change, but at least I sit down and I write it down and I talk about it with others and I'm accountable for it.
Do we do those same things in our personal life? I certainly didn't. And it's something that I've been thinking about how to transfer these really great approaches and skills we have in our work life and do it in our personal life. I think that'll help also reframe our priorities. They can be complimentary.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
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