Big Law Business interviewed former military members who currently practice law at a large firm about Memorial Day, and how their experience in the military has influenced their professional development.
Below are some selected excerpts from their accounts.
“I think about the friends I lost along the way.... The way we celebrate those guys is the way we know they would want us to celebrate, which is to live life to the fullest. I ride motorcycles and I will be riding my motorcycle this weekend and feeling the full force of life.”
When you’re in trial, it’s like you’re deployed. Nobody cares if you shave.
“The analytical process of trying cases I think is very similar to analytical process of mission planning. You do a bunch of homework and analysis and do work with highly trained people, map out individual roles, and then you put your feet on the ground and adapt on the fly. In the end you have to deal with the reality that someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. As a 1L summer associate, I felt like I was in a comfortable environment because it was a lot of the same challenges ... only you were getting paid more and nobody was shooting at you, so it was somewhat better.”
“When you’re in trial, it’s like you’re deployed. Nobody cares if you shave or if you’re wearing shorts, it’s all about outcomes. When you’re in trial, it’s all about the substance of the work. When you’re back at the firm, it’s like being in Garrison. People expect you not to swear loudly in the hallways and not wear flip flops and shorts. People who value form over substance, that’s what it’s like being in the main office. Some people prefer being in trial, and I’m certainly one of them.”
Here, when people get laid off with a six months severance, they think the world is coming to an end.
“A lot of lawyers, they take themselves too seriously and that’s harder to do when you have the perspective of knowing that, at the end of the day, we’re fighting over piles of money and nobody is going to die. There are too many people in the law that lack perspective to put it in the proper context of what we’re doing. In the military, people died when bad things happened. Here, when people get laid off with a six months severance, they think the world is coming to an end.”
“It is a shaping event. Just being in a fighter squadron is something that makes you a different person than you would otherwise. It doesn’t allow for shrinking away from challenges or saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ It is very much a ‘can do, will do’ set-up, and you are expected to perform at a high level, with a lot of pressure, and a lot of danger at a very young age. It really helps you, as they say in the Navy, get calibrated. You have to get your act together in a hurry or you aren’t able to succeed. I think that’s really good training for trial work.”
In the military, you are forced to give deference and respect for people who you may not have respect for.
“In the military, you are forced to give deference and respect for people who you may not have respect for. It is supposed to be a place where you build and move up on merit, but it isn’t like that a lot of the time. You take orders and take directions from people who you don’t feel should be in a (leadership) position. I find that less common in the law. For the most part, people are extraordinarily bright and dedicated to doing good work. In the military ... it’s a bit of a different mindset or mentality. It’s more, ‘You do what I say,’ and less collaboration.”
“Memorial day is very special to me primarily because of my father who fought in Normandy. We still talk about World War II and he is a military historian and has written books about it. When I read about folks who have stopped some of the evil in the world, the sacrifices required by Americans over history have been pretty monumental.”
“Memorial Day to me is a special day to think about the contribution of people who serve in the military, but honestly, I think about it almost every day and I am very grateful for my father (a Navy submarine captain) and to all the people I know in the Navy and to all the people I see every day in the military. When I’m in court, I think, ‘This is what we fight for,’ — that everyone is rightfully able to say what they think. That influenced me when I tried the McVeigh case and I argued for the death penalty. The only thing you aren’t able to do is attack the other person.”
When I’m in court, I think, ‘This is what we fight for,’ — that everyone is rightfully able to say what they think.
“What we’re really protecting is that both sides can have their day in court and you’re innocent until proven guilty — all these things you don’t get in other countries, and I really think that part of what the military does is not just keep us safe, but allow us to have our liberties. I realize people have lots of criticisms in how we have limited those liberties in light of recent events like 9/11, but I feel grateful when I walk through the courthouse and experience the justice system.”
“I argued the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh. To me it was rather tragic that this was a guy who had served a few years in the Army and instead of understanding what he was serving for and appreciating that, he turned against this country. You don’t kill non combatants. What he did was inexcusable.”
“In the military we give young people lots of opportunities to make mistakes and try again, and a big law firm is very dissimilar to that. Clients come with big problems and they want the people like myself to be in court and make decisions. It’s harder for young people. They don’t get a lot of chances to make their own decisions and judgments earlier in their career.”
“I think my time in the Army gave me a somewhat unique perspective on the demands of big firm life. As transactional lawyers, there’s very little we do that’s ‘life or death,’ despite the overheated rhetoric you hear from time to time. I also carried over the same leadership style that I learned in the Army, which I try to apply every day to train and develop the associates working for me and, by extension, provide even better services to our firm’s clients.”
There’s very little we do that’s ‘life or death,’ despite the overheated rhetoric you hear from time to time.
“Most law firm hiring partners don’t have military experience and they probably don’t have any friends or close family members with military experience. While there’s a general level of respect for miliary service, I don’t think it’s widely understood how military experience can be applicable to legal work. The challenge for someone coming from the military is to educate the decision makers at the firms about the skills and experiences that veterans bring to the table and how these skills and experiences translate to legal work. We are always looking for junior associates who are able to work independently in a challenging environment, exercise good judgment, and take the initiative, and many veterans are able to do all of these things.”
“As a cadet at West Point and as an Army officer I learned that time is a gift that should never be wasted. I try to use time management to not waste anyone’s time, as a colleague, superior and subordinate. That was probably the biggest lesson. I think also... when you are an Army officer, you get a lot of responsibility from a very young age. You are faced with real world situations and emergencies. When you get emergencies at a law firm, I don’t freak out as much as others maybe do, because I think I have experienced what a true emergency could be.”
I learned that time is a gift that should never be wasted.
“In the military, every second of your life is dictated to you. You have a morning wake up call. You have a breakfast formation followed by classes, a lunch formation followed by sports or drills. Your whole day is regimented. There is an evening and night period. Every free time is cherished. You learn to make the most of it. At West Point the way they punished you is by taking away your time and I thought that was the most effective punishment anyone could do because it’s so valuable. When that happens, it makes you stop and think and reevaluate your decisions. I try to do that in Big Law.”
“I was responsible for overseeing the amount of people who were staffed and doing analyses and reports so that when we needed more people when units were short, we worked with the appropriate people to work on them getting the right amount of people and units and specialists and getting them to the right spots on the battle field.”
If someone’s life is not at stake, it’s not a true emergency.
“I was never in direct combat but I had friends who were. When you’re working with people who are doing that every single day, you start to experience death and tragedy and you lose good friends. It makes you realize that nothing is more important than someone’s life. If someone’s life is not at stake, it’s not a true emergency.”
“Typically on Memorial Day, I keep in touch with a lot of my former shipmates. We’ll shoot the emails around reminiscing and telling sea stories, reminiscing about our life in the military. We will talk about people who aren’t with us anymore. But I think if nothing else it gives us an opportunity to reconnect.”
“In the Navy, when you move from one job to another, you go from one skill set to a completely new skill set and you are basically kind of starting out at ground zero. Moving from the Navy to practicing law is like that assignment, of moving in and learning a new skill set.”
Here I’m finding meetings don’t start until 15 minutes after the scheduled time.
“It was very different in terms of culture. Simple things like meeting times. When you’re in the Navy if you aren’t in the meeting room ready five minutes before the meeting starts, you’re already late. Here I’m finding meetings don’t start until 15 minutes after the scheduled time. People don’t even get up from their desks until after the meeting is supposed to start.”
“Orrick has really been very proactive in trying to recognize the sacrifices our veterans make, and trying to give back to the veteran community. We are working on a pilot pro bono program for helping veterans who are suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injury who were discharged with less than an honorable discharge, and we’re trying to upgrade their discharge to honorable so that they can get full benefits. We are also dedicated to vets who are attorneys in giving them opportunities to interview with employers.”