June 29, 2020

Shaylyn Cochran, 34, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll

Firm/City: Washington D.C.

Job title: Partner.

Practice area: Civil Rights & Employment Litigation practice.

Law school and year of graduation: Harvard Law School, 2011.

How long have you been at the firm? Since October 2012.

How long were you an associate at the firm? I was an Associate from October 2012 until December 31, 2019.

Were you an associate at another firm before joining your present firm? I previously was a Civil Rights fellow at Relman Colfax in Washington, D.C.

What year did you make partner at your current firm? I made partner in December 2019, and my election was effective January 1, 2020.

What’s the biggest surprise you experienced in becoming partner? I had assumed that the transition from associate to partner would be slow and steady—that I would gradually move into new roles both in the firm and the community at large. Although this has been true with my case work, I was surprised to find that my election to Cohen Milstein’s partnership almost immediately began creating new opportunities for business development, thought leadership in my bar, and mentorship. This change, and the swiftness with which it has come, has been incredibly humbling yet also exciting. I have especially appreciated the new opportunities for mentoring, an issue that is close to my heart and has made all the difference in my career to date. In the few months since I made partner, I have seen a substantial uptick in the number of junior attorneys and law students, particularly from women of color like myself, who have sought me out for advice on how to navigate their careers in public-interest lawyering. I have been thrilled to offer advice to these junior attorneys, and my hope is that my efforts, when combined with other work already being done across our bar, will help to diversify our profession over time.

Describe how you feel now about your career now that you’ve made partner? I am incredibly excited and humbled to be entering this new phase of my career. But it some ways, it weirdly feels like starting over again. I have likened it to transitioning from high school, where you were the big woman on campus, to becoming a college freshman, where the landscape is similar yet very different at the same time. I have spent the last 8-9 years mastering how to be an effective associate, and now that my role has changed—I’m a freshman again, albeit at a different level. Although many things remain the same or are consistent with my expectations, there still is a bit of a learning curve that I am navigating. Ultimately for me, it’s an exciting time where I am able to hit the reset button and explore different opportunities to develop new skills and improve old ones. I also feel like I have a greater sense of control over career trajectory and have felt really supported throughout this entire process by all my colleagues at Cohen Milstein.

What’s the key to successful business development in your opinion? Authentic relationships that develop over time. New relationships can obviously be fruitful, but in my experience, successful business development comes more regularly from older relationships which I may not have even realized I was building. Sometimes people try to artificially create connections. But if you are a good person and do good work, meaningful relationships will develop organically.

What do you think was the deciding point for the firm in making you partner? Our firm takes a holistic approach when evaluating candidates for partnership, and so I don’t believe there was one specific case, connection, or personality trait that made the difference. Having strong litigation skills is essential, but other factors ostensibly come into play, such as effective management, standing in the community/bar, and having an entrepreneurial mindset. I believe that over the span of the seven and half years I have been with the firm, I checked these boxes.

What’s been the biggest change, day-to-day, in your routine since becoming partner? I probably attend more meetings now, and I am more involved in some aspects of helping to manage the firm and particularly my practice group. As a result, I am spending more time thinking about how my litigation teams are stewarding the firm’s resources and creating new opportunities for case development.

But in a lot of ways, my case work is not much different, which is a bit refreshing. I pitched myself as someone who was already operating as a de facto partner, quietly stepping into leadership positions at the firm and on my cases as I could over the years. For that reason, I did not expect my day-to-day routine to change dramatically. I think that serves as a reminder for junior attorneys that if you can step up on your cases, grab those opportunities. I think there was a recognition that in some ways, I was already doing this role.

Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to partner? It is hard to identify just one person, but Joe Sellers, who is chair of the firm’s Civil Rights & Employment practice group, is at the top of that list. I have lost count of the number of lessons I have learned from working closely with Joe for more than seven years. The lesson I return to most often is Joe’s guidance about striking the delicate balance between zealously advocating for clients while also maintaining civil, productive relationships with opposing counsel. I have watched him maintain this balance for years, and on several occasions, it has made a huge difference in our ability to advance or even resolve cases. Similarly, Betsy Miller and Victoria Nugent, co-chairs of Cohen Milstein’s Public Client practice group, and Kalpana Kotagal, my partner in the Civil Rights and Employment practice group, have been continual sources of support. They all are committed to helping to develop the next generation of female leaders in our profession, and they have made invaluable contributions to my personal and professional development.

I also am indebted to countless other colleagues at Cohen Milstein, including other Partners who have supported me as part of the firm’s formal mentorship program as well as the firm’s amazing group of women attorneys who personify excellence in every sense of the word.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give an associate who wants to make partner? First, I would challenge junior attorneys to think critically about why they want to make partner. In our profession, there sometimes can be a  feeling of inertia pushing associates toward the partnership track, but because making partner at any firm requires commitment and sacrifices (not only from you but also from friends and family), I would encourage junior attorneys to examine why they seek it and, importantly, what they plan to do once they attain it. As a mentor cautioned me years ago, if you don’t have a plan for yourself once you get “there” (whatever “there” may mean for you), someone else will create one for you—and you may not like the result. Second, I would challenge associates to devote time to mentoring more junior attorneys or law students. I have learned so much about myself and the type of lawyer I want to be from these mentoring relationships with junior attorneys, and this type of investment in other people only helps to strengthen our profession. It also demonstrates for your firm that you not only have the practical skills to be a partner, but you also already possess a leadership mindset and are committed to investing in people who improve the organization as a whole.

The complete article can be viewed here.