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Making Partner in a Pandemic: Willkie Farr’s Zeh Ekono

March 29, 2021, 9:30 AM

As a second-generation American, I was always fascinated by the American criminal justice system. When I was a child, the first O.J. Simpson trial aired, and I was mesmerized. The trial process, courtroom arguments, the drama, the personalities—it was an eye-opening peek into the world of litigation and I was hooked.

While my day-to-day litigation practice today looks tame by comparison, I do think the drama and excitement of that trial helped fuel my passion for the law and strong desire to advocate for justice.

With a clear goal early on to be a litigator, I took school very seriously. I’m sure a lot of that was due to my parents’ strong work ethic—my father had originally immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon to attend a top engineering school here, and he and my mother prized the importance of education and hard work. My father in particular was a huge supporter of my interest in the law, encouraging me to apply to and then attend Harvard College and, later, Harvard Law School.

In law school, I focused on channeling my passion for justice into words and actions. I served on the Harvard Law Review and as a member of the Harvard Defenders (a student organization that provides pro-bono representation to low-income individuals in criminal show-cause hearings). I enjoyed the opportunity to work hard, advocate for others, and learn as much as I could to be a better lawyer.

Lessons Along the Way to Partnership

Looking back, there are a few key lessons I learned along the way that have helped me throughout my law firm career.

Be Kind to Yourself. As a junior associate, I was tasked with a lot, as we all are. Looking back, I was definitely hard on myself. Today, I encourage rising associates to be more kind to themselves. Learn from your mistakes (there will be many!) and be a better lawyer for it.

Own Your Career. Along the way, I also learned the importance of taking ownership of my career. In litigation especially, it is important to make sure you are hitting certain “milestones” in your development as a lawyer: brief writing, e-discovery, depositions, oral arguments, trials, etc.

Associates, especially in litigation, should be proactive about finding these opportunities. Don’t wait for work to be assigned to you. Ultimately, you are in charge of your own career and you have to make sure you develop the skills you need to succeed.

Find Mentors. Like many new partners, I’ve worked with and learned from many lawyers over the years. I have always tried to find mentors at every stage who I can turn to for advice and guidance. It’s so important for rising associates to seek out mentors, whether formal or informal, especially since they will likely be your biggest advocates within the firm.

“Don’t Let Them Talk Over You, Make Sure Your Voice Is Heard.” After hearing this advice from a mentor as a female associate, I repeated it to myself many times and it became my mantra. As an associate, it was easy to be intimidated by many of the experienced senior partners in the room. I learned to share and value my voice and now encourage junior associates to do the same.

Client Relationships. Perhaps the most important skill that helped me chart my course and transition from eager associate to potential partner is client management—that is, learning to communicate well with clients, understanding the interests and concerns of clients, etc. This is key in your evolution as a lawyer and trusted adviser. Developing and honing these skills is really what will distinguish you from your peers.

Looking Ahead

In the face of the pandemic, the past year was more than challenging for me—and probably everyone—but I am truly grateful to have been able to work remotely. It is no secret that being a working parent from home has its own obstacles. Time-management and flexibility were key to juggling my workload and my second grader’s virtual Zoom school schedule. This has involved a constant balancing act of my work and overseeing my son’s schoolwork, with frequent use of the mute button on conference calls.

As for the next challenge in my career, I expect it will be business development. I’m sure it will come with plenty of pitfalls and learning opportunities, but I view that as a part of the process of becoming a lawyer. While my understanding of the law has expanded and become more nuanced over the years, my passion and conviction for the law and enthusiasm for what I do has remained constant. I continue to build that excitement into my practice every day as I advocate for my clients’ interests and help them achieve their goals.

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

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Zeh Ekono is a partner in the Litigation Department of Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP in New York. She has experience in complex commercial litigation and in representing entities in regulatory enforcement and white collar matters.

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