I retired from the practice of law in 2013. I spent 43 years as a transactional attorney, mostly as a partner with Foley & Lardner LLP. Neither of my children decided to become lawyers, so I never thought to share much with them about the lessons I learned during my years of practice that helped me succeed as a partner in a large law firm. Since I believe there is some wisdom to be gained from my experiences, I decided to share some of them with you in this three-part series. Parts Two and Three will be published in successive issues of the Harvard Law Record.
Find a Mentor
In my early years of practice, I was fortunate to have two mentors who took the time to teach me much of what I needed to know. It is impossible for me to overstate the impact they had on my entire legal career. In fact, I learned from them much of what I am going to share with you.
Their mentoring was not part of a formal mentoring program. Rather, they were talented lawyers whom I respected, and who were willing to spend some of their valuable time teaching me how to practice transactional law. I latched on to them and never let go. I strongly recommend that you do the same. How will you recognize them? To paraphrase what Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, you will know them when you meet them.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, I started my career at a large law firm on Park Avenue in New York City in 1970. I thought I wanted to be a litigator.
For the first year of my practice, I spent a considerable amount of my time writing legal briefs in labor arbitrations. I would give my draft to the more senior attorney on the matter, and it would come back significantly revised.
I would read the revision, note the mostly stylistic changes, and say to myself, “different, but not much better.” I started to become frustrated because I was learning little from this process.
Then one day, a young corporate partner came into my office and asked if I would like to help him on a corporate transaction. I said yes, and the next day he took me to a meeting with our client and a potential joint venture partner to discuss the financing and construction of a plant to make stretch yarn for leisure suits that were all the rage at that time.
At the end of the meeting, the partner asked me to draft a contract setting forth the terms of the transaction that we had just discussed. I spent the next several days happily drafting, and on Friday of that week, handed him the draft that he had requested.
The next Monday, he handed me back my draft with his handwritten comments. Needless to say, they were significant, including many long additions that he had drafted from scratch. However, on my review of his comments it was clear to me that my draft was deficient in many important respects.
I learned so much about good drafting from that review that I immediately asked that partner to allow me to transfer to the corporate department. He welcomed me, and I found my first mentor. We worked closely together for the next four years until I moved to Orlando with my wife in 1975. Over that time, my transactional skills improved considerably in large part because of what I learned from him.
You Are In a Service Business
The private practice of law is a service business. If you are the brightest star in the sky, you may be able to continue to shine despite a reputation for being non-responsive to your clients. For the rest of us, responding promptly to your clients is essential for success.
Technology has made it easier to return your clients’ calls and respond to their e-mails the same day. If you are unable to do so, have your assistant call and explain why you are unavailable and when you will respond, which should be as soon as possible.
I had many clients tell me that while they knew I was very busy (they had seen the mess in my office), I made them feel like they were my only client. To keep your existing clients, and to build a reputation that will help you develop your practice, your professional goal should be to be as responsive to your clients as possible.
The Cover-up Is Always Worse Than the Crime
If you make a mistake in the practice of law, quickly bring it to the attention of a partner who is also working on that matter. That will give the firm time to assess the seriousness of your mistake and to develop a corrective plan of action. Unless you do this, the consequences of your cover-up are very likely to be far worse than your “crime.”
In my first year as a lawyer, I worked on a proxy statement for a publicly traded company. I had satisfied the SEC and authorized the printer to print many thousands of copies of the final proxy statement.
The next day, I received the printed proxy statement that had just been mailed to all of the shareholders. I was proud of what I had done until I saw that on the top of the second page I had misspelled the name of the chairman of the board of the client.
I was sure that my legal career had just ended.
Nonetheless, I quickly confessed to the partner who had supervised my work. He thanked me, told me that the chairman was legally blind and would never see it, and suggested that I learn from the experience and go back to work. I learned later that he called the president of the company to tell him about the typo in case he heard about it from a shareholder.
The next year, as I was working on the company’s new proxy statement, I got a lovely letter from the president of the company thanking me for all of the good work I had done during the past 12 months. In a postscript to that letter, he said that he knew that I would start the new proxy statement by marking up the prior year’s version, and referenced an attachment, which was the page of the prior year’s proxy statement on which he had circled the typo. Even today, I continue to be grateful for the graceful way the partner and the client handled my distress.
If you take any of this advice, and it helps you become a partner, please pay it forward, and become a mentor to one or more young associates who will benefit from your wisdom.