On our podcast, Law Firm ILN-telligence, one of my favorite questions to ask our guests is about the most important lesson that they’ve learned over their career. During the dog days of August, it can feel like a bit of a slog, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you to inspire you to push through the long days!
Never Give Up
Never to give up. It’s simple as that. There are so many situations…Well, every one of us knows this. But there are so many situations when you think, ‘Wow. That’s really a tough one. How can I solve this problem?’ And it makes a sense to say, ‘I want to find a solution.’ And I think about this and I’m taking the time, find the best way, and in the end, come to a solution. And even during months of a lawsuit, and it can continue for years, it’s very important to keep on going, say, ‘I will never give up.’ Because sometimes you think you will never make it, and then something happens, you find the right angle and you change the case totally. So that’s, I think, something I really learned.
Armin Lange, Grundwerk Legal, Germany
Own Your Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes. And I tell this to the lawyers under me: In short of blowing a statute of limitations, which we have never done, every mistake is fixable and you just need to own your mistakes. And if it was someone under you that made the mistake, you still need to own it as the manager or supervisor, owner, it doesn’t matter. And come up with a solution how to fix it. But sweeping things under the rug, it just gets worse. It festers and it builds up. And the sooner you can address the problem and come up with a solution, it’s better for you. It’s better for the clients. It’s better for opposing counsel. And I see this in litigation too. When you’re in front of a judge, don’t try and push it. Own up to what’s an error, own up to where… show your weakness, say, your honor, we’re weak in this part and I’ll concede that. However, on this point, we’re very strong and here’s X, Y and Z why. And it’s somewhat of somewhat of an honesty policy.
Barry Cohen, Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld, Pennsylvania, USA
Be a Good Listener…and Know When to Be Quiet
There’s always something I tell my associates, it’s to listen, which is to listen to your opponent or to your client even, but at court to listen to the opponent. And the second thing is think twice before you answer. And the third is, the most difficult thing in our job is to keep your mouth shut in the necessary moment. I think it’s the most difficult thing. You have a client sitting at court beside you, there is some testimony in front of the judge and everybody is expecting from you, courtroom movies that you are now asking the most brilliant questions. But sometimes it’s much better to keep your mouth shut, to not ask anything, to say, ‘Thank you. Bye-bye. I have no questions.’ The client is upset, ‘Why isn’t he asking anything?’ But if you notice that this testimony has the ability to hurt your case, get rid of him as soon as possible with as few questions as somehow possible.
I always tell my associates, ‘Just think if it’s really necessary to ask this question. Keep your mouth shut if it’s not really helping the case.’ And this is really difficult, even after many years, I’m doing this job more than 30 years, so still I’m always thinking, ‘Is the next question bringing anything better for my client or do I give the testimony the chance to deposit a little bit more that is in my disadvantage?’ And if this is the case, don’t ask.
Andreas Bauer, BRAUNEIS, Austria
There are Always Two Sides
I think there are always two sides to something. Even when we are providing advice, especially in terms of litigation, as you are trying to understand your client’s case, it’s important to understand the opposite counsel’s case, the other party’s case. And sometimes when you look at it, you’d find that there’s a divergent point where whatever is taking you to court started from. So don’t be quick to judge, take a step back to understand all the information. And sometimes it is important that clients want quick answers, quick responses, but sometimes it is important to get all the information both for your case and understand the other person’s case. Otherwise, you’d get surprises.
Brendah Mpanga, BNM Advocates, Uganda
Show up with Solutions
The most important lesson I’ve learned in my career is that, and this is something that I always tell the attorneys that come to work with me. I say to them, ‘This is the lesson, is that you are going to be dealing on your day-to-day with problems. You will have problems all day long. You will have problems at home, you will have problems at the office. Clients, this is what’s good about attorneys. Clients pay you when they have problems.’
What I said to them is, ‘No matter if you are on the right path or on the wrong path, always come to me with an alternative or a solution. If you do that, we are on track and we’ll work together, and we will sort it out together. But never come to me with a problem, without a solution or without a possible solution.’ It doesn’t have to be right, but let’s all work on it and that’s what I call teamwork.
That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned over my career. I’ve learned it the hard way working with a boss that delegated, I would say, too much. But at the end, that was the big lesson. As I’ve mentioned, always tell my attorneys, my associates, my juniors, ‘Let’s work focusing on this work, let’s work on solutions.’
Daniel Garcia, Gamboa Garcia & Cardona, Colombia
It’s Better to Call Than to Assume
The most important lesson, it’s more on a psychological side because the most part of my work is correspondence. The communication is mostly in written form, mostly emails. And sometimes when you discuss something with the client you may get the wrong idea of the tone of their intentions of what they want. So it’s always better to call the client and especially if the situation is somehow tricky, you are not discussing some provisions of the contract, you are discussing some maybe strategy. It is always better to talk to your client during the video call because sometimes you may assign wrong meaning to the written words and it is always better to clear everything out during the face-to-face online meeting.
Galyna Melynk, PETERKA & PARTNERS, Ukraine
“I Don’t Know” IS Always an Answer
The most important lesson I’ve learned over my career is that before I give an answer, I have to be sure of what that answer is, and I’m sure you’ve heard this before from other attorneys. You might have seen recently in the news there was a slide deck from Paul Hastings that came out that was advice to junior associates there. One of the things on that slide deck was, ‘I don’t know is never an answer,’ and I really disagree with that advice. If I’m a junior associate, in particular, and a question is asked of me and I am not sure of what the answer is, tell them that. The last thing you want to have happen is a fact ending up in a brief that you never got to review that you said was true and winds up being false. It’s not just limited to arguments before the court and things like that.
You want to make sure that your colleagues have confidence in you and that when they ask you a question, they know that they’re getting the right answer. It’s very easy as a young associate, or even a senior attorney working with a client, to lose reputation because you gave an answer that turns out not to be correct.
Alan Silverstein, Connolly Gallagher, Delaware, USA
It’s About Relationships
The most satisfying thing about my career has been the relationships that I have forged over the years. If you look at 80% of my close friends, they all started as clients. Even my Swiss partner, I met him randomly on an M&A deal, and then he contacted me because he saw my bio, and he saw that I liked classical music, and introduced himself. And now we’re obviously good friends, and we’ve been to Switzerland to meet them, and their family is lovely. But my closest friends are…most of them started as clients. You meet tons of interesting people. It has enriched my life far and above just pure practice of law, and so what does that teach you? It teaches you that you’ve got to approach your job, really not as a job, but as a…it’s almost like a calling. You really need to care enough to put yourself in the client’s shoes, make their problems your problems, and feel like you are really contributing to somebody’s life.
David Gitlin, Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld, Pennyslvania, USA
It’s a People Business
Never forget humanity, the human part of your clients’ experiences. Doesn’t matter how hard-nosed, if it’s the big M&A deal, try and understand the people in the deal, and what’s motivating them, what they need, what they’re looking for, what their motivations are, and understanding that transactions and disputes involve people and emotions, and inevitably lawyers get tangled up in that. And therefore you need to manage your own emotions. Even when you feel like being a cheer squad for your client, you shouldn’t be. You should be an advocate and an advisor. So the thing that you have to bring to it is emotional intelligence, empathy, sometimes sympathy, but understanding everyone for what they want and recognizing that life’s not a battle. It’s actually about generating some decent outcomes, even in the most torrid piece of litigation.
Your job ethically, I’m no deep reader, but Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer. And I remember reading a book, probably at high school, studying it, but he said, ‘A lawyer’s primary ethical obligation is to settle disputes. It’s not to fight them.’ And so bringing that into the commercial space, it’s to get an outcome that works for everyone, but ultimately understanding that’s not PSYOPs, it’s understanding people and then saying, ‘Okay, how can I tailor what I do professionally and non-professionally?’
Sven Burchartz, Kalus Kenny Intelex, Australia
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from your career so far?