Interview With Courtney Ward-Reichard

Ward-Reichard Courtney Ward-Reichard is an attorney in the Minneapolis law firm of Nilan Johnson Lewis, where she concentrates her practice on complex commercial and products liability litigation, with an emphasis on eDiscovery.  She is the former president of the Hennepin County Bar Foundation, the Hennepin County Bar Association and the National Conference of Bar Foundations. She is currently an active participant in the ABA’s Law Practice Division (Law Practice Magazine editorial board) and Section of Litigation (social media chair and book committee chair for the Mass Torts Committee). You can reach her at @CWardReichard.

 

  • How did you get stated along the path that led you to this place in your career?

I wanted to be a teacher until 6th grade, when I was injured in an accident at a Florida water park—a landing pad at the bottom of a slide floated loose, my leg was caught in it, and I ended up in a cast for 4 months. Our family’s general practice lawyer represented us, and the settlement was a whopping $1,000. Even as a sixth grader, this didn’t seem fair to me, given the amount of pain I was in and the fact that I didn’t do anything wrong. That experience made me interested in how the legal process worked. Watching L.A. Law on TV a few years later helped too, seeing women in a business environment who were getting paid to argue (something I enjoyed immensely)—even if they had to wear large shoulder pads to do it.

  • Was there something that influenced you in college or law school to move into the area in which you are currently working? If so, what was it?

I was heavily involved in competitive policy debate during high school and college. The skills developed in debate—communication, in-depth research, and analysis—were skills I wanted to continue using as a litigator.

  • How did you find your first job after law school?

I participated in on-campus interviewing, and was hired as a summer associate at a large Minneapolis law firm in 1991. I was hired by the firm after I graduated.

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  • How did you get your next job/opportunity?

At first, I was reasonably happy in a big law firm. It was a tough time for new law grads (though nothing like the last few years), so I was grateful to be employed anywhere. I also found that I enjoyed working on complex products liability matters. There was big law firm bureaucracy, and sometimes crushing amounts of work, but on the whole things were pretty good.

However, it didn’t take long for cracks to become apparent, both for me and the other lawyers at the firm. A not-so-great year led to departures of lawyers with thriving practices. Most had lateralled into the firm, and it was easy for them to pack up and leave as soon as the going became a bit rough. An “eat what you kill” compensation system led to resentment and unhealthy competition for clients. It became clear that some of my colleagues didn’t like—or trust—each other very much.

Then, there was the overhead. The office space was opulent, both in the spaces open to clients and in the work spaces: expensive art, furnishing, and birds-eye maple columns next to each office door that cost close to five-figures each. Attorneys at higher levels were given allowances to purchase fancy furniture—which was poached the minute someone left. I moved offices five times in my first four years there, always jockeying for a better spot with a few more ceiling tiles or without a pillar, just like everyone else at my level.

So, in August 1996, I didn’t hesitate for even a second when I was asked to join 29 other lawyers in leaving the firm and forming a brand new one. It was the largest start-up firm in Minnesota history. The old firm limped along for a while longer, and then closed its doors.

From the beginning, we practiced law differently at Nilan Johnson Lewis. First, there was our office. Still downtown, but on the 6th floor, not the 30th. Everyone from paralegals to senior partners had the same size office, with the same utilitarian built-in furniture. No art… period. The corners were used for team collaboration spaces, not partner offices. We also invested heavily in technology. Every attorney and paralegal had a laptop computer—not so unusual now, but definitely ahead of the game for 1996.

The firm was founded on six core values that remain at the forefront today: trust, excellence, diversity, innovation, profitability, and community. I am still so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of a new kind of law firm, where I could continue working on the same kinds of high-stakes litigation without some of the downsides I experienced in a large firm environment.

Now, over 18 years later, our commitment to putting our clients first remains; we promise a total partnership with them. We have about 50 lawyers, and the firm remains a wonderful place to work.  I talked more about my experience in an article in the November/December 2014 issue of Law Practice Magazine entitled “Life Beyond BigLaw.”

  • What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?

I said “yes.” A lot. Being time-generous and flexible allowed me to gain opportunities that others might have missed. I also made a point to become indispensable on cases, proactively analyzing next steps in a case instead of waiting to be assigned projects, and making a point to learn my clients’ business in order to better serve their needs.

Pro bono work was also a great way to develop skills in litigation and managing clients. I was able to appear in court as a young lawyer, practicing skills and gaining confidence.

In fact, my first trial was as a first year associate in a pro bono conciliation court dispute in an adjoining county. I arrived expecting only a brief hearing, as I would have encountered in Minneapolis. But our case was the only matter scheduled on the docket that day, before a retired judge who decided to conduct a full-day trial, including opening and closing statements, witness examinations, and motion practice. There was nothing like that experience to help me learn to think on my feet!

  • What have been some of the critical turning points in your career including both successes and disappointments?

From the beginning of my career, even before Nilan Johnson Lewis was founded, a majority of my work was for a single client involved in litigation regarding lead pigment and paint. I played a significant role as national counsel in those matters, traveling frequently to places where the litigation was active, particularly on the East Coast.

In January 2009, my client declared bankruptcy, and was dismissed from the pending cases. At that time, at least 80% of my work was for this client, so I quickly needed to diversify my client base. After taking a very deep breath, I focused on marketing the skills I learned and relationships developed during this litigation to find new opportunities.

  • Have you ever stepped off your career path for a period of time during your career, or made a significant career change? What was that change, and how did you do it?

In early 2011, my family decided to move to a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, a four-hour drive from my office. It was a place my husband and I both wanted to live, and raise our two young children, who at the time were entering kindergarten and third grade.

I arranged with my firm to work remotely from a home office most of the time, traveling to Minneapolis as needed. I continue to work full time for the firm—I just am out of the office more than most of my colleagues. Honestly, virtually every attorney is working remotely at least some of the time, so it isn’t that unusual.

Setting up a home office with full technology access has been crucial. I rely on dual monitors, a high quality desk chair, and a desktop scanner to make my connection to the office seamless. Our firm has a Voice over IP (VoIP) phone system, which allows me to be reached at the same number wherever I am, and I am only a four digit call from the office. Our family also invested in the most robust Internet bandwidth you can buy for home use.

But another critical aspect is remaining connected and engaged with my colleagues, as well as both communities where I work and live. I joined the board of my community’s education foundation as a way of both contributing to a cause that’s important to me, and becoming engaged in my local community. I also continue as a board member of a Minneapolis non-profit that funds debate programs in city schools, and I remain involved with the bar association there.

My firm has been incredibly supportive, which has helped us both—the firm retains my expertise, and I am able to continue my practice while also making a positive life change.

  • What kinds of things have you done to develop clients for your practice? What has been most successful for you?  What advice would you give to a junior attorney trying to develop his or her client base?

Doing great work is the best way to get more, whether your clients are internal or external. This is an important point for newer lawyers in firms—treat the attorneys you work for as your clients, and concentrate on providing them with exceptional client service.

I also rely on social media marketing, particularly LinkedIn. If you’re an attorney who has clients (or wants some) you simply must have a robust, persuasive profile on LinkedIn. Twitter is also a great way to connect and stay informed.

Finally, being actively involved in bar associations and non-profit organizations has been a great source of networking for me. Newer lawyers should start early, and while becoming active in “new lawyers” sections can lead to some good connections, they should also seek to become involved in the main bar from the beginning. Taking on tasks, and performing them well, will help you achieve leadership roles.

My first stop was the Hennepin County Bar Association, with over 8,000 members. I began by volunteering to work on the publications committee of the association’s magazine as a second-year lawyer. Connections made there led to new and varying opportunities within the bar. Eventually, I served as president of the organization in 2010-11.

Being president of a large bar association was a great way to network with judges and lawyers locally, as well as through organizations such as the National Conference of Bar Presidents. My service was also valued by my firm, which recognized that I was raising the profile of the firm generally, in addition to myself personally.

More recently, I have focused my bar efforts on the ABA, serving as President of the National Conference of Bar Foundations and in various roles within the Section of Litigation and the Law Practice Division.

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  • How has the practice of law changed in the time that you have been practicing? How has it impacted your particular area of practice and your work?

The biggest change is technology, and its impact on litigation and discovery. When I started my practice in the early 1990s, the only desktop computers in the office were word processing work stations, and document review and production consisted of sifting through volumes of paper.

Now, the volume of electronic data is truly daunting. But, what hasn’t changed is the number of documents that end up being truly important to a case—it’s still somewhere around a dozen. So effective use of technology is crucial to distill a case down to those simple concepts.

Also, when I started my career, “working remotely” meant bringing home a bunch of paper (usually draft pleadings and printouts or copies of court cases) and calling into the firm’s voicemail system several times each evening and weekend to check for new messages.

Today, attorneys must be capable of working from anywhere. My situation is certainly unique in that I work remotely most of the time, but all lawyers need to have the skills to work remotely in order to serve client needs.  An article I wrote for the November/December 2014 issue of Law Practice Magazine contains some of my best tips.

  • How do you use technology to assist you in your work? What recommendations do you have for others in the best use of technology?

The most significant technology change I ever made was adopting a dual screen monitor.  Having a dual screen virtually eliminates the need for paper. When writing a brief or memo, source material such as a law case or fact document can sit on the adjacent screen. A dual screen also makes it much easier to switch between applications, such as email and a Word document.  Once I converted, I spearheaded the adoption of dual screens throughout our firm.

  • What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?

Never stop learning.  The ABA and the Law Practice Division have some great resources.

  • What role have mentors had in your career? What advice do you have for new lawyers about mentor relationships?

Being proactive is important. The best mentor arrangements are ones where there is an excellent personal connection between mentor and mentee, so while formal programs can sometimes result in a good match, finding mentors informally often works best. Seek out mentors who can both advise you and serve as your champion within the firm and the legal community—it’s great if both qualities are present in the same mentor, but often you will need to find more than one person to fill these roles.

 

(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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