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Making Partner in a Pandemic: Arnold & Porter’s Sarah Gryll

April 12, 2021, 9:31 AM

As the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020, I thought I knew what my upcoming year would look like. It would be a critical year in my career: I was hoping to make partner and was leading teams on multiple, complex matters.

Expectations were high. In the first two months of the year I had traveled more than I can remember ever traveling in a similar period. That was likely to continue, and possibly even increase, as the months rolled by.

When things shut down in March, the rhythm of work, and life in general, changed dramatically. Travel ceased, my commute became unnecessary, and we all found Zoom. Social distancing became a common refrain and there were no more after-work happy hours (at least not in person) or dinners with family and friends. We all had to learn how to adapt, and to do so quickly.

Adaptation Is Key

As we know, the ability to adapt is key to survival. It is a skill that has served me well over the years, especially in my field. Bankruptcy and restructuring work is anything but predictable. It is very rare that my days progress the way I thought they would when I first turn on my computer in the morning. I often have to travel at a moment’s notice. Hearings get adjourned, deadlines get extended, and auctions get canceled. For someone who likes to plan, I chose an industry that is not conducive to planning. Working in this field has taught me to be more flexible.

Last March, when my firm moved to virtual operating status, it was time to adapt yet again. Before then, working remotely always seemed so liberating and flexible. And at the beginning, it was freeing in a lot of ways. I no longer had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get in a workout before heading to the office. I could wear sweats and no make-up most days (at least before Zoom calls became the norm) and did not have to stand on a freezing train platform in the middle of Chicago winters on my way to the office.

And last spring, I thought, as many of us did, that we would only be working remotely briefly, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, but definitely not for over a year.

But working remotely was also confining. As many of us did, I often experienced “cabin fever.” Especially at first when it was still cold and snowy and the city was on lock down, being stuck inside all day with few, if any, in-person human interactions was isolating. Not being able to see family, friends, or colleagues on a daily basis was incredibly difficult. While FaceTime and Zoom helped maintain connections, something is lost in video chats; they simply cannot replicate being in the same room with others.

As it became clear that remote working would not be short-lived, I started applying lessons I had learned from my days as an athlete (I played varsity field hockey, basketball, and softball in high school and club ultimate frisbee in college) and my years as a bankruptcy attorney to help me adjust to this new normal: The importance of practice, preparation, and communication. Throughout my career I have worked to apply these precepts to my work life as well, and they became even more important during the pandemic.

I have always felt that no matter how stressful work becomes or how many hours you put in, working alongside supportive and collegial colleagues is sustaining. It helps to know that there are others “in the trenches” with you when you are up late finalizing documents or negotiating a complex transaction. Even stopping by a colleague’s office to ask a work-related question and then staying an extra 10 minutes to chat about whatever else may be going on in your lives is a key way of building relationships and collaboration among colleagues that I believe ultimately inures to the benefit of our clients.

The pandemic and the virtual operating environment stripped that all away, and we had to learn new ways to maintain those relationships (and our own sanity) while practicing virtually. Sometimes that meant replicating those moments, as best as possible, through video chats or calling a colleague just to check in, the way you may have previously stopped by his or her office to do the same.

The difference was that it became a more intentional pursuit. Whereas previously I may have bumped into a colleague in the hallway and stopped to chat or stayed in a co-worker’s office following a conference call, now I had to proactively seek out those connections in a way that was not necessary previously.

Importance of Being Flexible

It also meant learning how to be more flexible and open to new ways of practicing law. The pandemic forced me to become more autonomous.

While I had been running deals for some time, working in the office meant it was always easy to walk down the hall to consult with a colleague on a matter. I could have done the same thing in the virtual environment by picking up the phone, but the increased barrier to access pushed me to learn when I really needed to seek out advice from my co-workers and when I could just handle something independently.

Restructuring work is not a solo endeavor; it often requires large cross-practice group teams. The pandemic reminded me daily of the importance of teamwork, communication, and collaboration and that it is OK, and sometimes even necessary, to rely on others. But it also pushed me to work more independently at certain points and take more responsibility for driving the process.

Finding the balance between the two is critical to being a partner. As they say, “practice makes perfect,” and working remotely last year helped me refine that balance, even as it remains a work in progress.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Sarah Gryll is a partner at Arnold & Porter in Chicago where she practices in all areas of corporate restructuring, bankruptcy, and insolvency-related matters. She advises troubled companies, term loan lenders, term loan agents, distressed asset purchasers, trustees, secured and unsecured creditors in out of court loan workouts, restructurings, Chapter 11 proceedings, liquidations, and litigation.

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