Case Studies Conversations: Exec Ed Director Scott Westfahl ’88

Professor Scott Westfahl ’88, the new faculty director of HLS Executive Education, has been using case studies to train better lawyers for years. Not only did Westfahl serve as Director of Professional Development for Goodwin Procter LLP and Chair of the Professional Development Consortium, but he has also co-taught a section of the HLS Problem Solving Workshop yearly since its inception in 2010. I sat down with Westfahl to hear how case studies and experiential learning inform his mission for educating both seasoned professionals and aspiring lawyers:

Why are case studies important for professional development?

People learn best through the power of story and discussion, and professional development requires context.  Law firms and legal educators are now realizing that the typical talking-head panel discussions or partner-delivered PowerPoint presentations on legal topics are mostly ineffective for helping lawyers put theory into practice.  Lawyers are all smart enough and enough online resources exist for them to come up to speed on basic legal concepts and frameworks.  Rather than waste valuable, in-person instruction time regurgitating such content, instructors using the case study method can assume a base level of subject matter competency and move forward to actively helping participants to work with the relevant material and understand how it really matters.

Other benefits include trust- and respect-building among colleagues who participate together in case-based learning.  For a lawyer in one of these professional development programs, there may be an intense discussion going on that applies to your world. If a colleague makes a terrific contribution, respect increases, and your trust in them as a lawyer increases. Lawyers hesitate to collaborate with people they don’t know; if you haven’t seen someone’s thought process, you’re unlikely to make that referral.  Trust and collaboration are essential to realizing the business synergy of scale within a law firm.  So our teaching method not only sharpens lawyers’ substantive and professional judgment, it also helps build trust, foster collaboration and enhance a firm’s culture.   Am I going to call the new guy? If I know he’s smart because we’ve solved a problem together in a case-based class, I am a lot more likely to do so.

Which case studies work well in a lawyer professional development setting?

The classic producer-manager case studies are tremendously effective for law firm partners.  They’re normally so focused on their work that it’s hard to gain perspective on where they are in their careers, to see all of the competing demands on their time. Advising clients, managing the business, taking on pro bono work or mentoring roles, being a leader in the community, attending bar events, having a family—the list goes on. So when a partner reads one of the producer-manager case studies, they often have a strong emotional reaction and think “someone else is describing my life.” It’s cathartic, even more so to be in a room of similarly situated peers. Then, they work together in class to identify coping strategies.

How are you bringing experiential learning to HLS Executive Education?

The core of all of our programs – for law firm leaders, emerging leaders, associates and corporate counsel – is experiential learning through the heavy use of case studies and discussion-based learning.  As we grow our program to include more legal substantive content, we are going to be developing new case studies and “caselets” with faculty members in order to leverage the full power of this learning method.  I’m confident that this is the way to go and is what practicing lawyers want from us and need.  Just look at the success HBS has had in doing this with their Executive Education Program (which just opened its third building, with 75 hotel-style rooms and three classrooms!).   There is great hunger for programs taught by leading experts in an interactive format that allows participants to learn from each other as well.  The distinguishing factor for HLS Executive Education needs to continue to be the way we teach.  We don’t convene conferences or compete with external CLE providers and don’t want to.  We’re thinking: where’s the discussion-based case learning that makes this different?  If the only thing special about executive education is the invite list, we haven’t achieved anything new or helpful.

The beauty of case studies and “caselets,” again, is that participants also learn from each other. They’re seasoned professionals, and case studies facilitate learning by getting them to talk about challenging scenarios.  There’s no right answer to these challenges.  The case studies allow educators to introduce frameworks, research, and concepts.  Because the case studies are stories rooted in real situations, participants remember them and are able to apply what they heard as soon as they encounter analogous situations.  In my previous role leading professional development at a major law firm, it was INCREDIBLY helpful to me when partners had experienced cases on leadership and motivating others; they could draw lessons from those cases and work with me to implement more effective processes and programs to develop junior lawyers.  We were talking the same language and they were conversant with leadership and motivation concepts and frameworks because they had worked through cases that cemented the importance of those concepts and frameworks.  Priceless.

How do Problem Solving Workshop case studies compare to case studies you use in professional development programs?

I am a huge fan of Harvard Law School’s PSW case studies.  I practiced law for ten years, but very little of what I learned in law school directly applied to my work as a practicing lawyer. My dad was a submarine officer and I grew up on Navy bases all around the country—I didn’t know what lawyers did. I didn’t even know any lawyers.  I would have benefitted SO much from PSW because its cases place students in the middle of real situations that lawyers face, and ask students to work in teams to figure out what they should do as the lawyers in those situations.  PSW case studies directly involve lawyering skills, whereas other case studies focus on specific dilemmas a leader or an organization is facing. In PSW, students get to see what it’s like to be a particular kind of lawyer, which is especially helpful if students are unfamiliar with the legal profession like I was as a law student.

At their core, PSW case studies are about teaching judgment in addition to substantive law.  If practicing law were only about knowing substantive law, we wouldn’t need PSW.  But it’s not.  When I was running professional development at a large firm, I once conducted an internal study to identify the factors that correlated most highly with strong associate performance ratings in their annual reviews.  By a factor of seven times, judgment was the most important factor.   So a case study method that develops judgment and perspective for law students is a critical complement to the traditional case method through which students learn legal doctrine.  For the good of our profession and to fulfill our mission as a professional school as well as an academic institution, I hope we continue to develop the PSW case study approach so that it becomes as big a part of the way we teach as Langdell’s own method.

Finally, through my professional development background I have seen firsthand the very disappointing levels of dysfunction within legal organizations that arise because lawyers are not trained to work in and/or lead teams.  That’s why I’m most excited about the team element of PSW—it’s the only core curriculum course at Harvard Law School where students work in teams.  In my view, our graduates will be MUCH more effective, whatever they decide to do, if we help prepare them to be good team members and leaders.  We should help them to learn skills like how to give feedback, have challenging conversations, overcome team obstacles, leverage and appreciate other peoples’ strengths—skills that are critical in nearly every environment where our graduates will find themselves.

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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