My elevation to partner was, I think, in part a product of the commitments that our partners exhibited this year. In a year when so many firms were laying people off, I had no expectation of being promoted. Certainly, I would have understood if the firm had wanted to act conservatively by waiting until the pandemic ended to add to the partnership. That it did not signaled the partnership’s commitment to me and the other new junior partners.
I began 2020 as a senior litigation counsel in the seventh year of my career practicing law. The challenges I had faced throughout my career had been largely practice-oriented: how to write a better brief, craft more effective discovery, argue more persuasively, etc.
As I looked forward from March of 2020, when the pandemic disruptions began, I assumed that the major challenges our firm would face would be technological and logistical. This reflected my perhaps naïve view that partners’ roles as leaders were essentially just their roles as the heads of cases, and that the primary challenges law firms face are simply matters of coordination and practice. My firm’s response to the pandemic reshaped this conception of what partnership means.
Overcoming Unexpected Challenges of Distanced Work
There certainly were many technological and logistical hurdles, which our firm met as they came. We all had to master several new technologies, and the firm had to tackle the logistics and organizational complexities of a fully remote national workforce.
Filings and other administrative tasks are more difficult to manage when the attorneys and legal assistants are in multiple locations, so we had to become more organized, better listeners, and better communicators. We bought ring lights and good headsets, and learned how to mediate, take depositions, and try cases over Zoom. Our partnership played a central and proactive role in all these transitions.
The bigger challenges, however, were not technological, but personal: maintaining a sense of shared reality, re-establishing modes of communication and informal education, forging human bonds while working remotely, and maintaining motivation, compassion, and conviction against a backdrop of fear and suffering.
Moral and Organizational Leadership Prevail
From the beginning, I saw the partners at our firm tackle the hard and human questions the pandemic raised. Our firm’s leadership initiated monthly firm-wide calls where they discussed the pandemic and transparently responded to questions about the firm’s plans and future. They also reaffirmed sincerely the availability of accommodations and flexibility for people affected by the pandemic.
While many firms might have been inclined to respond by blocking out what was happening outside our virtual walls, and creating a professional bubble, I think that was not an option for a firm like ours. As public interest lawyers, many of us take our motivation from the world, its suffering, and its challenges. I think the partners knew that and knew that their roles demanded a unique form of leadership that confronted this reality and our work in context.
Partners spoke openly and vulnerably about the emotional impact of the pandemic and other events of this year on themselves and their loved ones. They showed their children on camera, making clear that this was a workplace where caregivers belong and thrive. They shared their thoughts about what it meant to do what we do in these times and invited conversations about that.
They made time to ask about how we were doing. They listened, and they committed to getting through this together. I attribute our firm’s continued success throughout this year as much to their moral and organizational leadership as to their continued roles at the heads of cases.
By the time I joined the partnership on Jan. 1, my sense of what that meant had expanded dramatically. I now believe that personal sacrifice and moral leadership are inextricably connected with our success, and perhaps the success of most organizations.
Partnership means being someone upon whom others can rely, and to whom they could come for help. It also means embracing the personal challenges, in addition to the technical and logistical ones. Partnership will bring with it many challenges, and I hope to rise to them as the partners of my firm did this year.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
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Danielle Fuschetti is a partner in the San Francisco office of Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP, a national litigation firm. She represents workers in matters ranging from private negotiations to class action lawsuits.