I began my legal career in the Fall of 2008 as the “Great Recession” took hold. I vividly recall law students anxiously doom-scrolling through news articles explaining “mortgage-backed” securities and trying to discern exactly how the collapse of our financial markets was going to affect their interviews, job offers, legal careers, and six-figure investments in a degree that they had been told is “extremely versatile.”
Of course, we now know what the Great Recession brought to many of these law students: rescinded offers, deferrals, canceled summer programs, layoffs, compensation reductions, insurmountable debt, broken dreams, disappointment, and despair.
This was the state of the legal market I entered in 2008. The lawyers who graduated law school between 2008-2012, were steeled with the knowledge that, despite their best efforts, their professional realities can change in an instant, including as a result of factors completely beyond their control. It is ironic, then, that many in this generation of lawyers are coming into their partnership promotion years now, at the height of a global pandemic.
As 2020 was the year I was eligible for promotion to partner at Jones Day, I began the year excited by my work pipeline, the relationships I was building both inside and outside of the firm, and my prospects for partnership. All of that came to a screeching halt in mid-March when Covid-19 hit the U.S.
Just like that, I was teleported back to the fall of 2008, trying to figure out what this seismic event might mean for my career. While Covid-19 was a shock, I quickly found that, for several reasons, it was unlikely to affect my partnership prospects.
Three Good Decisions Helped My Track
First, I chose the right law firm. As a young lawyer, it is a significant act to repose your legal career in a law firm. With the experience, guidance, and support they can provide (or withhold), law firms wield significant power and control over the trajectory of a person’s career. This power is most obvious when the legal market tightens.
Jones Day has a long track record of stability and taking the long view with respect to its strategic decisions. For example, during the Great Recession, Jones Day did not conduct layoffs, cut associate salaries, or cancel its summer program. The firm also promoted a partnership class consistent with its prior years. Because of the economic environment in which I started my career, when selecting a law firm, institutional stability was important to me.
I was not necessarily in fear of law firms going bankrupt and closing, but it was vital to me to be with a firm that would continue to invest in itself and its talent (me). While the emergence of Covid-19 was disorienting, I trusted that Jones Day would take the long view with respect to my promotion to partnership and manage any short-term problems.
Second, I built a reputation in the good years, knowing that there would be challenging years. Partnership decisions are not just based on your last associate year, but on your cumulative body of work as an associate. I took every opportunity to show people who I am, and what I was capable of, so that, when the circumstances of 2020 arose, there was no doubt as to whether I was deserving to be a partner.
When the pandemic initially hit, the M&A pipeline dried up significantly. My fears that this could affect my partnership, however, were quickly allayed—I was reassured that Jones Day understood that this slow-down was a result of factors beyond my control and appreciated my capabilities as lawyer and contributions to the Firm.
And, third, I adapted. One of the key takeaways for young lawyers in the wake of the Great Recession was the importance of adapting to the demands of the moment. We were reminded of that lesson in 2020. In the realities of a virtual world, lawyers have had to find ways to continue to meet the dynamic and urgent needs of their clients, build and maintain relationships with current and prospective clients, remain tethered to their firms, offices and colleagues, and mentor junior lawyers, all while maintaining their personal lives and mental health.
And so, virtual meetings, lunches, and happy hours, and socially distanced gatherings, became the order of the day. I also found opportunities to bring the global resources of Jones Day to clients in ways that were not previously practicable. The resiliency demonstrated in the face of such significant challenges allowed me to show my readiness to be a Jones Day partner.
Making partner in a law firm is always difficult and stressful, but more so in the midst of a pandemic. Every challenge in a person’s professional career provides experiences that help in dealing with the next challenge. The lessons learned from my perspective-altering experiences of the Great Recession buoyed me through the end of the partnership promotion process during a pandemic. I trust that the lessons learned from Covid-19 will help me in dealing with the next challenge. This time, as a Jones Day partner.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Dotun Obadina is a partner in Jones Day’s Minneapolis office, focusing his practice on a wide range of corporate transactional matters, including domestic and cross-border M&A for public companies, private equity transactions, corporate governance issues, and debt and equity financings.
This article represents the personal views and opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the law firm with which he is associated.