Career Development

How to Spot and Nurture Future Leaders

CCBJ: Why don't we start with what led you to join Dunnington Bartholow & Miller?

I have a very non-traditional career path. I come from a music background and then decided to go to law school. In 2004, I created my own firm with a partner, somebody who clerked with me and whom I respect tremendously. We were partners for 10 years and then I started my own firm, which I had for three or four years.

Although I wasn’t looking to join a firm, I was approached to join Dunnington. As a solo practitioner it's very difficult to expand and I really wanted to get a bigger platform and have the support of associates and paralegals, and partners to refer business to.

Dunnington was a great spot to go to because I knew the vast majority of the people there and loved being around them. I chaired bar association committees they previously chaired and they were involved with me in other capacities in those associations. So I knew they would respect my practice and my path, and I really couldn't be happier with my decision.

Let's talk about your leadership style and who or what may have influenced it.

I currently serve on the executive committee of my firm and, as I mentioned, have held various leadership positions at bar associations and other organizations. That said, I never sought to be a leader and it was never an aspiration of mine. However, I do have ideas and like to implement them. I do see things I would like to fix, situations where I'd like to intervene and projects I want to participate in. So I guess by virtue of that aspect of my personality, I just ended up taking on leadership positions. Life leads you from one step to the next.

I once saw a video of a very young Steve Jobs talking about who he likes to work at his company. He believed that better leaders came from people who don't necessarily want to be a leader. That is really me. I never aspired to be a leader but I have ideas and if things are not going the way I want them to be done, I'm going to address it.

What qualities do you look for when you're hiring new people for your team. It sounds like you want to be surrounded by people you like working with.

I do, but that likability factor is not necessarily the number one thing that I look for. Of course, you want the best GPAs from the highest-ranked law schools. But for me personally, what I look for in the experience of both associates and laterals is somebody who hits that “75%” and is a likeable person, someone I want to work with. If you can see immediately that it's going to be very difficult to work with the person then there is no fit.

But when they come into the interview I need to see they're hungry to work; that they're not afraid to roll up their sleeves and jump right in. There may be certain things they don't feel comfortable with, but they will try to work through it, really push themselves. I want to be confident that although you may have to give me three, four, five different drafts until the work product meets my expectations, you're still going to work hard and leave nothing in the tank.”

That's the kind of quality that I really value in an associate, and it's not that common. A lot of people take criticism very personally and they just can't learn and advance. I think the really good attorney is able to take constructive criticism, move forward and submit a better draft. To just keep at it. To have that grit, that strength to just power through it. Because you go to depositions and you have opposing counsel yelling at you. Or you go to a court and you have a judge yelling at you. It's not an easy world for an associate but that having that determination and that resolve to do better is important to me.

The same thing goes for a lateral. You can't predict what's going to happen 6 or 12 months from now. Are you going to have a bigger portfolio of clients? Are you going to have less of a portfolio? Either way you’ve got to work through it and keep plugging away. And if you keep at it in a consistent way—in a smart way—there's no doubt that you can be successful. But you do need to have that constant questioning of yourself every day. What have I done and how can I improve? It's a critical aspect of being successful, both as an associate and as a lateral. It’s that true grit that I want to see in people who come to Dunnington.

How would you describe the culture of your firm?

There is no room at Dunnington for somebody who is truly unpleasant and difficult to work with. We expect that everyone is treated with respect, from the receptionist and the person who helps you with photocopies to associates, paralegal and partners. That's a critical part of Dunnington and has been ever since I joined. And there's not a chance in the world I would be here if it were not that way. Unpleasantness is not acceptable behavior.

For these reasons we rarely come across situations where our firm is divided. We work by consensus. Even big decisions that come across our desks are by consensus. We agree to things. We discuss them. It’s been that way as long as I have been here and, based on discussions with my partners, it precedes me. It's a place where your voice is heard. And everyone plays an important role.

We don't have legal assistants, we have paralegals. We do have support staff in the sense that we have office services, a team that does photocopies and other administrative tasks, a receptionist, etc. But there is not one person on our team that is “extra.” Every person plays an absolutely critical role and given that we understand how important each person is to what we do, there's a culture of respect that pervades all aspects of our operations.

Can you talk about the best career advice that you've received, what the context was, and how it's helped you make these pivots?

I've been really blessed to have had some terrific mentors who have played an important role in my legal career. I never sought out a legal mentor; it’s happened naturally. And there haven’t been that many, maybe two that have played a really significant role. I can't say that there's one piece of advice that either one of them gave to me that was critical. It was more about the regular communication and the input when I sought it out that shaped the direction of my life. And even though my father passed away when I was about 21, he was very supportive of me career-wise, as is my mother. So I'm very fortunate in that respect.

But if there’s one bit of advice that’s really stuck with me and I use it a lot it is that sometimes you just have to pinch your nose and jump in cold water. What that means to me is for my career changes and big life changes, I just go with my gut instinct and then rely on my existing skills to make it happen. If you overthink decisions you can miss opportunities. So whenever I need to make a move or decision, that advice about diving right in helps me gather up my strength and just do it.

What changes would you like to see within the legal profession?

Greater diversity, of all kinds, and also greater clarity from in-house counsel as to what they expect in terms of diversity from their legal teams. I also think that a very important aspect of law is professional development, and it should start very early on in a lawyer's career at firms of all sizes. I believe it would lead to greater satisfaction for younger attorneys, greater longevity in the practice of law, and just better attorneys.

At Dunnington, we place an enormous emphasis on the professional development of our team members, particularly our associates. We have monthly meetings with a specialist who comes in and trains our associates, meets with them individually, helps them set up a business plan, and coaches them when they have to write articles or speak for the firm. Younger attorneys are really, really focused on their billable hours, which is incredibly important —we run a business—but so is professional development, because it's very difficult to move up to partner without it.

So I think for the legal profession as a whole, recognizing the importance of professional development is critically important. The attorney that not only has legal chops, but also the ability to manage a client in a professional manner is critically important. Being able to present to an in-house legal team is critically important. Being able to assess the reasonableness of a bill is critically important. There's no point in doing tremendous legal work for a client and then submitting a bill that makes absolutely no sense.

We try to instill in our associates how important it is to us to have the wherewithal to address all aspects of running a business, of making sure the client is happy, and of educating our clients about what's going on in the legal world. I do think the profession has made some progress on diversity but we're still far from where we should be, especially in top management. I think that’s very much on everybody's mind. 

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