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Making Partner in a Pandemic: Sullivan & Worcester’s Arinze Onugha

March 29, 2021, 9:30 AM

Let me just come out and say it: I really enjoy working in an office. I am a fan of the ritual of waking up, hustling to get my oldest son ready for school, commuting to work, chatting with colleagues on my way to my office and then, finally, getting to work. My office is my productive place; my home is my place to relax. My mother would tell you that even as a kid I’d prefer to go to the library to complete my schoolwork instead of doing it at home. Yes—I was that kid.

I’m fortunate to have a home office but I can safely say that at the New York office of Sullivan & Worcester I don’t usually have a crying baby climbing all over me, drooling on my keyboard and tearing up an agreement I’m marking up. I became a second-time and very proud dad during the pandemic. While I adore all the extra time at home with my wife and two lovable boys, it has been a challenge to get work done efficiently. My wife is also an active attorney, so we juggle between her virtual court cases, my contract negotiations and our kid management.

Accepting this work-from-home reality was a big mental step for me. Ordinarily, if something continuously interrupted my day, I would struggle to get my rhythm back. But I’ve come to realize that if I get aggravated at every interruption, I won’t meet my definitions of being a great attorney for my clients, a supportive husband for my wife, or a patient dad for my children.

So, when my oldest runs in my office blasting hip-hop from his tablet screaming, “Daddy, look at me dance!” or my wife asks me to watch our youngest so she can run to the store for just 10 minutes before I have a conference call that I still need to prep for, I just take a deep breath and say, “Sure.” Well, maybe not every time, but most of the time. There is just too much I’m grateful for—a loving and healthy family, a career where I am able to work from home, etc.—to take any other approach. I consider myself lucky.

It was very gratifying to become a partner at Sullivan, particularly given the difficulties and uncertainties the pandemic brought on. I recall answering my “work” phone (also known as my home phone to which all work calls get routed) with baby throw-up on my shirt and hearing the warm voice of our firm’s managing partner on the other end. I’ll never forget how it felt when he said the words, “Congratulations, you are now my partner.”

Making Partner Means Being Entreprenuerial

The statement “my partner” was so personal and welcoming that it really resonated with me that I am now actually partnered with my colleagues. As a new partner at Sullivan, you are given access to and, under certain circumstances, meaningfully partake in the firm’s business management decision-making, marketing and client development, finances, diversity efforts and/or hiring policies. You are helping to run a business.

Over the course of my career, I have seen that many young attorneys don’t initially appreciate just how entrepreneurial the practice of corporate law is, particularly for those aiming for partnership at a firm. I adopted the “I won’t wait to become a partner before I start acting like one” mentality years ago. Doing so has helped me take better control of my practice and growth as an attorney which I believed played a crucial role in my being promoted to partner at Sullivan.

I would tell my younger self to adopt that mentality from day one, because even if you aren’t aiming for partnership that mentality will serve you in many ways. Another piece of advice that I would tell my younger self is to make sure to bring all of you—your perspective, vernacular, culture, interests, skill sets, experiences, and more—to whatever organization you are part of, and to never once dim your light for the sake of making others who are offended by how brightly it shines more comfortable.

As a partner, I feel a welcomed (self-imposed) push to generate new business for the firm, but the limitations on personal interactions imposed by the pandemic aren’t great for my marketing style. Those who know me know that I’m a people person. There are subtle, organically driven nuances that occur when you’re interacting with someone in person that, in my opinion, are incapable of occurring when you’re interacting by phone or video conference. I, just like everyone else with similar goals of business development, will have to work around that and embrace our current circumstances.

Overall, though, I don’t just think about what I can contribute to the growth of the firm’s client base. I think about what I can contribute to the growth of the firm, period. In my opinion, there is much more to this thing we call “firm life” than billing and collecting fees. It’s necessary to establish an environment that fosters training, demands career development and champions diversity and inclusion efforts, in each case, in a systematic way.

As a partner, particularly a Black partner, I’m going to actively play my part to ensure those coming after me have a better experience than I have, just as my predecessors have done for me. And that’s not a soft goal; it’s an obligation.

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

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Arinze Onugha is a partner in Sullivan & Worcester’s New York office advising private investment fund sponsors on the formation of their funds and institutional investors on their private fund investments. He is active in community organizations and mentors fervently.

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