Two lawyers. Two children. One global pandemic.
It is difficult to imagine that I initially packed up two boxes planning to work remotely for a week in March 2020. Now, midday coffee breaks are midday recess breaks and client development lunches have turned into a steady stream of chicken nuggets.
For many of us, the struggle of creating work-life balance took on a whole new meaning during the last year, especially when the role of teacher was added to this already delicate balancing act. Unfortunately, I do not think this is what my wife had in mind when she requested that I try to be home for dinner one or two times a week. Add a couple of non-Covid related family medical emergencies requiring hospital stays to the above scenario, and it is difficult to imagine a more unprecedented year to be up for—and elected—partner.
Reflecting on my professional journey during the pandemic, one overarching concept comes into focus: relationships matter. The pandemic has not only emphasized their importance, but it also provided new channels and challenges for developing these relationships.
Internally, too often associate life is depicted as a competition where to succeed you must duel and outperform your fellow associates while constantly striving to earn the respect and trust of your internal clients—the partners. Too often attorneys treat staff as disposable cogs in a machine. This, however, is shortsighted.
As this pandemic has demonstrated, when people are forced to work in new ways and without daily face-to-face interaction, the importance of meaningful relationships comes into focus. It is a team effort. The practice of law is difficult enough before you consider remote learning, a pandemic, and family emergencies. Having a team to work with—and having people genuinely willing to help you— makes it easier to handle these challenges. These internal relationships and team mentality cannot be forced after the fact but are built and fostered over time.
Externally, admittedly, at times, the methods for developing meaningful relationships with clients have changed. These changes, however, have not always been negative. For instance, the pandemic has helped strengthen my relationship with one of my established clients as we are conducting regular video-conferences, which adds an extra level of personal interaction to the relationship that was at times missing from the long-distance communication methods previously used.
In some instances, a shared interest in the same local community, discovered through frequent calls and video-conferences that have filled in for the in-person lunches or coffee meetings, help create the personal connection.
Find Your Niche
Outside of developing meaningful professional and personal relationships (both internally and externally), the one piece of advice I would give any young attorney starting their career is to find your niche. Working at a nationwide firm that specializes in labor and employment matters or being a generalist within that boutique setting is not enough. Neither is being a semi-specialist (i.e., focusing on human resource consulting or litigation) within that setting.
These are great tools to have, but young attorneys really need to develop a specialty or unique skill that sets them apart from their colleagues and makes them an asset to their office, their firm, and their firm’s clients. Sometimes you fall into your niche by sheer luck, but most of the time it takes a deliberate choice followed by dedication and a willingness to expend the time to develop an expertise in that area. For me, it was a combination of the two.
My mentor had a relationship whereby he would be called upon to represent consumer reporting agencies in Fair Credit Reporting Act litigation. This litigation created an opportunity to learn a developing area of law. By growing my knowledge base and achieving positive results for our clients in this area, I was able to help expand this practice area for the firm.
Ultimately, this niche practice provided a path to partnership. No matter how you find your niche, the sooner you find it, the quicker you can start carving out your place within your firm and charting a path to partnership.
The honor of being elected partner during this tumultuous time is truly gratifying. While getting across the finish line of the journey to being elected a partner was in many ways made more challenging by the pandemic, the groundwork was laid long ago by developing a niche and developing relationships.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
James Patrick is a partner at Fisher Phillips in Cleveland with wide experience representing employers in labor and employment litigation. His practice focuses on the Fair Credit Reporting Act as he routinely advises entities, including consumer reporting agencies and users, on FCRA compliance and represents those entities in single plaintiff and class action litigation.