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Legal Consultant Limelight: Anita Shapiro

Many legal professionals recognized by Lawdragon excel on the cutting-edge of their practice areas or specialties. Anita Shapiro’s task is to make sure her nonprofit education organization stays on the leading edge of almost every conceivable legal topic, including those that continue to evolve in real time. The Practising Law Institute, or PLI, is also an industry leader in the delivery of education content to meet the varied demands of many different types of consumers in the legal space. A law graduate with a background in dance and classical music, Shapiro’s career could have gone in any number of directions. She has thrived in her long stint at PLI, an 85-year-old organization that also boasts a strong commitment to pro bono education.

Lawdragon: Please talk about your path to becoming president at PLI. Can you describe why you joined the organization more than 17 years ago? Did you expect to stay for so long?

Anita Shapiro: When I joined PLI, I had no idea I would stay here this long. Before coming to PLI, I spent over a decade with West Publishing, now owned by Thomson Reuters. I worked in the Westlaw Division in the mid-to-late ‘80s when its online legal research platform was just starting to expand in the U.S. At the time, the ability to do legal research by computer was quite novel. There was no internet, no Google, no word searching, nor the ability to check cases to see if they had been overruled. Though it’s hard to imagine now, using a computer with an external modem at a 1200 baud rate was pretty “cool”!

After ten years at Westlaw, I was asked to move to its headquarters in Minnesota. While a great opportunity, I felt that New York City was my home, and decided to leave the company. This happened right around the dot-com boom and my brother, a technology entrepreneur, suggested that I join a dot-com startup. Although the business was quite interesting, the instability of a startup was not my cup of tea. It was a tremendous shift from being in an established corporation. And, stock options were not a big motivator for me. This is when I was lucky enough to find PLI.

LD: What are some aspects about the legal education space that keep you excited about your job?

AS: What’s incredibly exciting for me is being at the cutting edge of delivering the most current and relevant content in today’s evolving legal marketplace. Prominent lawyers and business professionals, both in the U.S. and around the world, are on our faculty and ensure we are ever current.

The law changes frequently as issues evolve – new cases are decided and legislation is passed on issues that didn’t even exist years ago. Cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and blockchain are only a few examples of this. Legal challenges continually emerge and a key tenet for PLI has always been to stay attuned to the marketplace and try to anticipate what could be next. Our goals are to teach and train lawyers through our broad spectrum of programs so they can best represent their clients.

Most people are familiar with our outstanding programs. In addition to the programs, PLI has many departments such as our multimedia production team streaming courses from our state-of-the art conference center, our publishing division editing content published in our treatises, our legal information services team that indexes and processes PLI Plus content, as well as a division of professionals who use instructional design to create interactive and immersive programs.

LD: How does PLI make sure its programs and materials are always of the highest quality and respond to what attorneys truly need?

AS: Our staff of program attorneys ensures that the roster of speakers, as well as the content and materials for all PLI programs, are of the highest quality. Every evaluation form is reviewed, whether the attendee came to a live program in person, watched a live webcast at the office or watched an on-demand program at home. We depend on the feedback from our program attendees, which we incorporate to continually improve what we offer. Our program attorneys speak with our faculty regularly to hear what issues their clients are facing. In addition to the depth of our faculty’s expertise, they strive to engage audiences and present content in the most informative way. Whether through a hands-on negotiation, a mock cross-examination or a drafting session, our programs provide practical advice that lawyers can immediately implement.

LD: Are there certain types of legal issues or practice areas that your organization has sensed a greater demand for in recent years?

AS: We’ve noticed a significant increase in interest in privacy, cybersecurity, tax, employment law and immigration. Corporate and securities law has always been in high demand.

In addition, there is a growing emphasis on “professional skills” training that’s not driven by any particular legal topic. We provide programs on topics such as enhancing business development techniques, delivering compelling presentations and providing clients with efficient representation in a highly technological era. A successful lawyer needs to bring all of these skills to bear in this increasingly competitive legal market.

LD: How has PLI evolved in its approach to providing multiple avenues for attorneys to learn? Are there trends or developments in the delivery facet of the work, either with technology or consumer demand that you are seeing?

AS: PLI excels in our ability to deliver content in a variety of ways. Our philosophy is to let the customer decide which delivery option works best for them. We’ve always had full-day live programs, as well as full-day live webcasts. We also offer self-paced on-demand segments of programs accessible any time the user wishes to watch – they can watch just one hour or a full day. Attendees can listen on their smart phones, read program content electronically or actively engage in programs offered through our Interactive Learning Center (ILC). Everyone has a different learning style and we continue to develop ways of delivering programs and content to meet the broad spectrum of needs.

We continue to see growth in both our live programs as well as our online programs, and we’re very proud of that!

LD: Part of PLI’s mission is to prepare attorneys to fulfill their pro bono responsibilities. How does PLI implement this part of its mission?

AS: Pro bono has always been an integral part of our mission as a nonprofit. Our founding trustees felt a strong responsibility to give back to the community and that continues today. We are dedicated to providing lawyers with the necessary training to help those in need of access to justice. PLI has more than 50 distinct pro bono programs, which include such topics as immigration, human trafficking and mortgage foreclosure, among others. Attorneys seeking to represent pro bono clients can take a broad array of courses to prepare them for this representation.

LD: Let’s back up and touch upon some earlier moments in your career. What led you to a career in the law? What did you expect to be doing with your degree when you were at Temple?

AS: My background is actually quite unusual given my current role. I studied classical music (flute), ballet and modern dance from elementary school straight through college. I was very fortunate to have attended the Alvin Ailey American Dance School for dance classes and spent a summer at the Aspen Music Festival. In college, I took courses in French, art history and literature. My background is one based in the liberal arts and in retrospect I would not have changed a thing. I think it gave me a multidimensional foundation that has helped me in all stages of my career. In fact, there are no lawyers in my family. My dad was an engineer and my mom managed special events and public relations for a number of museums in New York City.

After college, I took a job as a paralegal at a large law firm in Philadelphia. I really enjoyed my experience at the firm and decided to apply to law school. When I graduated from law school, I practiced at a mid-sized litigation firm in New York City.

LD: Having had such varied jobs, you must have an interesting viewpoint: Are there ways in which you’ve seen parts of the legal industry change since the beginning of your career? Any themes that stick out?

AS: I think the cost of tuition, combined with a potentially long road to partnership, has led individuals to think carefully before deciding to go to law school. With the increase in technology in legal practice, however, there are lots of new ways to use a law degree. I’ve also seen a tremendous effort by lawyers who want to make a difference in society. Many gravitate toward jobs in public interest groups and with nonprofit organizations instead of going the traditional law firm route. There are avenues for everyone and paths continue to evolve.

LD: How about the public interest or community side? Please discuss any issues or other organizations you are involved with and what you find meaningful about the work.

AS: I have always believed it’s our obligation to give back to the community. I’m involved in supporting small organizations in Dutchess County, Columbia County and the Berkshires. Whether it’s supporting organizations that help the elderly who are homebound, supporting farmers markets where proceeds go to a local community center, or helping a local arts organization that supports individuals with autism, I feel that I am able to make a difference, even if in a small way.

LD: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

AS: This role brings with it tremendous responsibility from both a leadership perspective as well as a personal perspective. I feel a sense of responsibility for our more than 275 employees to be sure that they feel a sense of community and feel appreciated for their hard work. There are goals that must be met and it’s my responsibility to set the right tone. I’m continually raising the bar for myself and striving to inspire others to do the same. Every day my role challenges and pushes me to aim high.

I’m a big believer in continually learning and finding new avenues for education. This is probably why PLI is a wonderful environment for me. I find myself reading many business articles on management, strategy, culture and the like. I frequently participate in CEO peer groups to learn how to enhance my leadership skills and to lead by example.

Mentoring young professionals is very rewarding for me. This role gives me many opportunities, both inside and outside PLI, to do that. The core of PLI’s success and one of the most rewarding aspects for me personally is the community we have built here. We have created an environment in which people are highly motivated to work together to provide the highest quality educational experience for our customers. I feel very appreciative of the opportunity to lead such a unique organization.