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Making Partner in a Pandemic: WilmerHale’s Erik Swabb

March 15, 2021, 9:40 AM

In March 2020, WilmerHale closed its offices and sent employees home to work remotely. On the subway ride home on my last day in our Washington, D.C., office, one image stood out to me—that of a rider clutching a computer screen like it was a life jacket on a sinking ship. Many of us on the train undoubtedly shared his anxiety.

The last time I had that feeling was on Sept. 11, 2001, when I was attending college in New York City. What I did not realize back in March was how the pandemic would impact my practice group and reinforce certain lessons I have learned on the path to partner at a law firm.

Responding to the Pandemic

At WilmerHale, I practice law in our crisis management and strategic response group. We tackle complex, fast-moving matters where a client’s business or reputation is at stake. For many companies, the pandemic presented precisely that challenge.

Depending on the disciplines necessary to navigate the matter at hand—such as government enforcement, congressional investigations, regulatory counseling, and litigation—I may manage the different work streams, lead the factual investigation, prepare the client for congressional testimony, and advise on the overall strategic response.

While the crisis management group was well positioned to help clients navigate the pandemic after it hit, its wide-ranging and unprecedented impact led us to shift gears a bit and develop new resources for our clients. For example, we set up an online coronavirus (Covid-19) center and launched a cross-disciplinary coronavirus task force, which was originally lead by former partner Ali Mayorkas, now serving as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

In the past year, we assisted clients to develop legal and operational plans and protocols and work with local, state, and federal regulators involved in the pandemic response. For example, in one matter I worked on, we advised a client on compliance with a local shelter-in-place order in light of the company’s national security work.

In addition to supporting the coronavirus task force and the work that clients have asked us to do in this area, over the past year, my practice has focused on investigations and crisis management assistance related to defense and national security. The work often involves large internal teams, multiple work streams, and complex issues under significant government and media scrutiny.

Preventing burnout on our teams has been a key undertaking since last March. Without the natural start and stop to the workday from commuting, already intense matters have tended to become even more all-consuming. Checking in with teammates regularly, doing video calls so you can see others, being flexible on assignments, and organizing online social activities are some of the steps we have taken that I found particularly helpful.

These steps reflect the firm’s culture in which the leaders persistently look after the well-being of those who work here. When I was a junior associate, I faced family health issues and experienced that culture first-hand in the flowers sent to hospitals and unquestioned time-off for the most important things in life.

Lessons From My Path to Partner

There is no single path to making partner, but the pandemic has underscored certain lessons for me.

First, work at a firm that shares your values. I joined WilmerHale as a summer associate in 2008, only two years after serving in the Marine Corps. After that experience, it was important to find a place to work that valued and was committed to public service. WilmerHale has always stood out to me for its work on matters of national importance, the government service of many of its lawyers and alumni, and its pro bono services, which include helping military veterans receive disability and other benefits.

Serving as a Marine infantry officer in Iraq was such a life-changing experience for me and it has meant the world to see how much it is valued at work. The firm’s commitment to public service is also reflected in the welcome that I received when I returned to the firm after serving as general counsel of the Senate Armed Services Committee and as special adviser to the legal adviser of the Department of State.

As a biracial person whose mother emigrated from Japan, I have found the firm’s dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion inspiring. Especially given the pandemic’s stress on family life, it is important to be proud of where you work and spend so much of your time and energy.

Second, be relentless in identifying what brings you happiness at work. With the pressure brought on by the pandemic, I was grateful to both enjoy what I work on and with whom I work. That did not happen by chance. Over the last 10 years, I have explored various types of work at the firm and in government. Seek out different areas of law, assignments, clients, and colleagues until you find what you love doing. When you achieve that, whether it is at your current firm or elsewhere, you will probably find that you are really good at it and a prime candidate for partner.

Third, invest in your relationships with those who work on your matters. As you become more senior, you will increasingly depend on the work of others. I owe making partner not only to the lawyers who have mentored and taught me over the years, but also to the many dedicated colleagues who have done great work on my matters, particularly over the last year during the pandemic.

Lastly, learn about your colleagues’ backgrounds and aspirations and look out for their well-being and interests. When times are difficult and your team needs to go above and beyond, the strength of those relationships will be important.

In many ways, the anxiety felt on that subway ride last March is still here as the pandemic continues to rage. However, with vaccines and improved treatments, a post-pandemic future is at least on the horizon. As a new partner, I look forward to applying the experience gained from 2020 and helping clients and colleagues meet their challenges and accomplish their goals in 2021.

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

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Erik Swabb is a partner in WilmerHale’s Crisis Management and Strategic Response Group. Previously, he served as general counsel of the Senate Armed Services Committee, special adviser to the legal adviser of the Department of State, and an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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