Few successful people agree about how they got there. Is it always doing right, adding value, bouncing back from failure, keeping your nose to the grindstone, or a combination of all of the above? Mindful of the pressures of law practice, and the stamina, ambition, and creativity necessary to stand out in a crowded field of competitors for the same choice positions, we wondered how newer lawyers perceive their prospects for success. In this month’s roundtable, we asked three young lawyers who have already achieved success not only how they plan to prosper in their careers, but how they are using their education and skills to thrive in life.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board and a veteran public relations practitioner.
|Alfredo W. Amoedo (AA) is an associate at BraunHagey & Borden LLP in San Francisco, CA. His firm is a trial boutique that handles a wide range of commercial litigation, including class-action defense and representing private equity firms and hedge funds in complex disputes. Alfredo received his J.D. in 2012.
|Chiara Portner (CP) is the youngest attorney to become partner at Paradigm Counsel LLP, a firm delivering high-value services to technology companies of all sizes. She has practiced law for over 12 years, focusing on privacy and data security compliance, intellectual property and technology licensing, and commercial transactions. She holds the CIPP/US certificate from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), the global standard in privacy certification.
|Nicholas Zovko (NZ) is a partner at Knobbe Martens in Irvine, California. He joined the firm as an associate in 2005 and became a partner in 2011. Nicholas represents clients in various industries in intellectual property disputes, with a focus on patent litigation.
NG: Being included in this interview means you’ve already achieved a level of success beyond your peers. What have you been able to accomplish that has added value to a client’s business or resulted in innovation at your firm?
AA: Growing up with technology in a way that some attorneys did not has allowed me to work closely with our tech (and non-tech) clients (who may also be a bit behind when it comes to modern technology) to develop internal practices and procedures for the preservation of evidence. Instituting a litigation hold at the outset of litigation (or even before) is one of the most important things an attorney can do for their clients, especially with the increase in spoliation motions in the last couple years, and after Zubulake. Being able to consult with clients, understand their systems, and start protecting their interests early on in a case ensures that lawsuits are litigated on the merits.
CP: Being born and raised in Silicon Valley, I have a deep understanding of the life cycle of technology startup companies. I know how to be both a legal and business advisor who can close our clients’ critical business transactions more efficiently and in a way that builds the value of the client’s company. For many startups, I am their sole legal advisor for creating and negotiating their technology and commercial contracts, as well as their privacy compliance strategy. My clients trust my insight and do not hesitate to involve me as an integral member of the business team. For example, my client Neo Technology, Inc. has me attend their sales and board meetings. I have earned the trust and respect of their sales team because they know I can get business done. Their sales team knows they can rely on me to advocate for Neo Technology, Inc. in a tone that is well received by the other side. I have a key to their office for me to work alongside of the business and sales teams when necessary.
NZ: I help organize weekly educational lunches at my firm where attorneys present recent intellectual property cases. The presentations cover current developments in the law, and they also allow for the exchange of ideas and legal strategies. We promote audience participation, such as discussion of important IP issues and “war stories” by more senior attorneys. The lunches are an invaluable training tool, particularly for associates.
NG: Law practice is a series of challenges above and beyond problem-solving for clients. What particular challenge have you faced in practice that has forced you to get outside your comfort zone? How has that improved your ability to practice law?
AA: It’s important, but also difficult, for young attorneys to raise issues with senior associates or partners. Luckily I work at a firm where the partners are receptive to those types of emails and conversations, provided they are respectful, well-reasoned, supported by citations to case law or other applicable rules, and most importantly, provide a solution. Young attorneys are routinely encouraged to seek out opportunities to advocate. That doesn’t mean just in a courtroom. These opportunities exist within your firm as well.
CP: Public speaking was a challenge for me. I decided, however, to master this skill when I attended MCLE presentations and realized I knew as much or more than the speakers. I said to myself: “I could have done that same presentation.” My mentor partner encouraged me to start presenting MCLEs internally within the firm and for clients. Through this process I overcame my fear of public speaking and this gave me increased confidence that made me more efficient as an advocate for my clients. Mastering this skill also made me much more confident in marketing my practice.
NZ: My firm participates in a program with the local district attorney’s office, where each year we send an associate to work at the DA’s Office for two to three months to prosecute misdemeanor crimes on a pro bono basis. As a third-year associate, I participated in the program. The program was challenging, yet extremely valuable. I was in court almost every day and had the opportunity to conduct three jury trials. It was fast-paced, and there was little time to prepare for trial (e.g., sometimes only a few hours or less). The experience allowed me to gain confidence in the courtroom, prepare as efficiently as possible, and think quickly on my feet. These skills translate well to my practice as an IP litigator.
NG: Are you a rule keeper or a rule breaker? While both personalities are important in society, how close are you to one extreme? Give an example of how that helped you achieve a winning result.
AA: I am a “rule breaker” when it comes to strategizing and contemplating aggressive and novel litigation strategies. When it comes to implementing those strategies, however, I think I am a “rule keeper.” As an advocate, you should always be thinking about new ways to litigate your clients’ claims, and that often involves devising strategies that some might call “rule breaking.” My goal is to devise those strategies, and then rein them in a little. Strategy sessions should involve all reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) options. I think of it like I think of discovery: just because a course of action might break the rules doesn’t mean that brainstorming around that idea won’t lead to some new and creative solutions to the issue.
CP: I am a rule keeper but I know how to help clients work creatively within the rules. Privacy laws in particular are evolving quickly, and technology is being innovated more rapidly than the law. In my practice, I necessarily have to test new theories and determine how to apply older laws to new technology. For example, with IoT (Internet of Things) clients and mobile app developer clients that want to collect personal data from children, I take a deep dive into the client’s wish lists. I compare their desires to privacy law requirements, such as the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, and try to present them with at least two options. One may be a more conservative, well-tested approach and the other is a less tested option, but one that leaves them within the parameters of the law.
NZ: By nature, I tend to be a rule keeper. In one case, the opposing party pushed the limits. Early on, we sensed that the judge was a stickler for rules. We meticulously followed the local rules and the judge’s orders, which paid dividends in the long run because the judge issued a strong opinion against the other side in ruling for our client on an important motion. The case settled shortly thereafter favorably for our client.
NG: You are among the first generation to have grown up with the concept that work can be mobile. Does having the luxury of not being confined to a defined space to meet billable-hour requirements help your work-life balance or further complicate it? How would you define work-life balance as it best fits your situation?
AA: I think young and older attorneys have both been injured and benefited from advancements in technologies that allow attorneys to litigate from anywhere, and anytime. Attorneys work hard, and when necessary, attorneys work long hours. It’s the nature of our work. The convenience of being able to answer emails anytime, anywhere, is not an argument in favor of the practice though. Everyone needs a break, everyone needs downtime, and unless the house is on fire, the email you got at 9 p.m. on a Saturday can most likely wait until Monday—unless of course, it can’t, and that’s when we benefit from the ability to work anytime, anywhere. I work hard on my assignments, and I think critically about them, but absent extenuating circumstances (e.g., being in trial), I try to keep reasonable hours. I’ve pulled all-nighters. I’ve worked all weekend. When I’ve had to do that, it’s mostly been fun because it means something exciting is happening and I get to work on it. I don’t think I’d feel that way if I was doing that on a regular basis. That’s how people burn out, and that’s not good for the client, the firm, or an attorney’s personal well-being.
CP: Mobility is unquestionably a great help to achieving work-life balance. It is a helpful luxury to be able to take a call from home and to be able to log on from home and to be there for family members (such as when I work while my daughter attends ballet class). In today’s business climate, clients do not expect to work with lawyers who keep a 9-5 schedule, but they also do not care where you are. I define work-life balance by being able to have a flexible schedule to meet both client and family needs. Mobility makes it possible to have the flexibility to focus on the client and other times you shift to focus on family. At Paradigm Counsel, we have a more balanced system where attorneys are not tied to a minimum billable hour but are committed to meet their client needs. Allowing attorneys more flexibility as to where and when they work provides the attorney with more life balance which makes the attorney happier and thereby increasing attorney retention. This leads to more productive attorneys who know their clients business needs and can be extremely responsive.
NZ: I think it has helped my work-life balance. I tend to take a more traditional approach and generally work in the office, unless I am traveling for business or otherwise. Working in the office is more efficient for me, which ultimately allows me to spend more time with family. For me, work-life balance encompasses finding a healthy balance where I have time to continue to learn, grow, and become the best attorney I can be, while also being engaged with my family life and pursuing interests outside of law. I think such balance is necessary to avoid burnout and achieve long-term success.
NG: Much has been written about shrinking opportunities for young lawyers, faced with changing business models and fewer partnership-track options. Do you see only frustration ahead for ambitious lawyers or opportunity for creativity? What does the law firm of the future look like?
AA: If you aren’t getting the experience you want, it’s up to you to ask. While some partners are looking to hand out assignments that result in rewarding experiences (e.g., arguing motions in court, taking a deposition, etc.), for some senior attorneys, providing young associates with these opportunities just is not on their radar. If you still aren’t getting the work you want, then there’s pro bono, though ideally you should be doing both. As far as my experience goes, and that of my close friends, opportunities for greater responsibility and creativity (and ultimately to prove yourself a valuable attorney to the firm) seem to occur more frequently in the small and mid-size firms. I think clients are increasingly seeking out smaller firms to handle their work, both because of cost, and because small firms usually can’t afford to have four associates doing duplicate work for no apparent reason. We recently handled a fee dispute for a client with its former counsel, a large law firm. I saw the billing records. It’s still unclear to me why three associates had to spend multiple hours reviewing a complaint. It just doesn’t make any sense, and I think clients are increasingly reaching the same decision. I think the law firms of the future are those that provide quality legal services at reasonable costs, whatever the size of the firm may be. I don’t foresee frustration for ambitious attorneys who know what they want, seek it out, and work for it.
CP: Partnership at large law firms does not interest most associates. Most associates at large law firms know that they want to leave for other opportunities after 3-5 years of training. The issue now is that large firms are making fewer associate slots available, so there are fewer well-trained lawyers available for those other opportunities. Today’s young lawyer will need to find his or her own opportunities for training and development, through internships with corporations and working in more innovative law firms. The good news is that, increasingly, companies of all sizes are looking for alternatives to large law firms for almost all types of work. Small to mid-sized firms with more specialized expertise are the future in many areas, including technology transactions. I do not see a future for minimum billable-hour requirements as they do not benefit the client. The law firm of the future looks a lot like Paradigm Counsel now, with no billable hour requirement and the flexibility to work from any location as long as the client needs are being met.
NZ: I definitely see opportunities for creativity. As technology continues to evolve and change the day-to-day practice of law, young lawyers can shape their careers and how law firms operate by becoming experts in areas that more senior lawyers have less experience in. For example, over the past decade, I have seen young lawyers at my firm and other firms become experts in electronic discovery. Over time, I believe technology will provide more opportunities for ambitious young lawyers to thrive.
NG: Do you see yourself as eventually having a leadership role at a law firm? What would you do? If you could create a leadership role to fill a void, what would it be?
AA: I do. I think I’ll always be a part of a litigation team, if not leading one. But aside from that, I also see myself in some sort of roll overseeing workflow and managing junior associates. I’m very Type A. I’m extremely organized (everything is my apartment is alphabetized, if it can be), and deadlines are important to me. I recognize not all attorneys operate this way. There can be reason to peoples’ madness. But that’s not me, and I think a lot of firms benefit from someone who not only is working on his or her own cases, but has a grasp on what the firm as a whole is working on, and can manage that flow to ensure drafts are completed in a timely manner, reviewed, revised, and ultimately finalized.
CP: I made partner at Paradigm Counsel in 2013 and I have already taken on leadership roles spearheading social media usage for the firm, keeping the firm website up to date and managing our firm newsletter production. Law firms traditionally are slow to adapt to using new technologies so I would envision a role as the partner in charge of innovation.
NZ: Yes. At my law firm, there is a position on the firm’s Executive Committee for a junior partner. I was fortunate to serve on the Executive Committee during my first three years as a partner. I found that experience to be invaluable to understand how the firm operates and to provide a voice for junior partners. I intend to continue to serve on a variety of internal committees, and to contribute to management of the firm.
NG: Every lawyer has an embarrassing or exhilarating “first time in court” story or “first meeting with an important client” tale? What’s yours?
AA: The first time I had to call a court clerk and leave a message I was so flustered that I fumbled my own firm’s name, and said I was from the law firm of “BraunHagen & Bordey.” The attorney I shared an office with at the time (now a partner) was no help, and started laughing (justifiably) as I was trying to leave a phone number, so of course I start laughing and barely got out my number before quickly hanging up. Embarrassing? Yes. End of the world? No. The clerk called me back a couple hours later and didn’t say anything about it. We still joke about it in the office, and it’s still funny. These things happen.
CP: During my first year as an associate, a partner would join negotiations with me. After a time, a partner scheduled a negotiation call on behalf of a client with the other party. Right before the call, the partner told me that she would not be attending with me. I was nervous to handle the call myself but the partner knew I could handle a negotiation on my own. After the call on a debrief with the client, the client told me that it was like I knew what he was thinking, and that he was so pleased that we tag-teamed the call with ease. He thanked me for advocating his company’s needs so well. That was a great first moment. I quickly realized then that I selected the right field of law.
NZ: I had an exhilarating “first trial” experience. As a new attorney, I worked on a patent infringement trial where an unexpected issue arose near the end of trial. A senior partner asked me to prepare a proposed jury instruction to provide to the judge. I was happy to do it—my only concern was time. I had less than an hour to run back to the hotel, research the new issue, draft a concise jury instruction, and return before the court recessed for the day. My heart was pounding and I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish the task, but, fortunately, I made it back to court with a few minutes to spare. The senior partner later acknowledged he had given me an improbable task, and was pleasantly surprised when I returned to court with the jury instruction.
NG: In legal history, who is your hero? Why?
AA: I had the opportunity to work for Judge Alsup in the Northern District of California during my last semester of law school. During that externship, I learned that Judge Alsup was of the mindset that nothing prevented any attorney from handling any case if they truly wanted to. No case was too big or too small, too complicated or too simple. While I was working for the judge he had the Oracle v. Google trial. One morning, I walked into chambers and the judge was reading one of several books on his desk relating to Java coding so he could better understand the issues in the case. This is the type of attorney I’ve tried to be. If there is something I don’t understand, or could better understand, my firm has never objected to me spending the time to do so. It serves our clients better, which serves our firm better, and ultimately makes me a better lawyer. I get excited when we get new cases with legal issues I’ve never litigated before. It keeps things interesting, and it allows me to take strategies I’ve learned litigating other areas of law and apply them in new ways. Too much specializing makes attorneys stale. It’s good to keep the mind active. I think that desire not to shy away from any case, no matter how complicated, is something I picked up from the judge, and that’s why he’s been such a huge influence to me.
CP: My hero is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and not only because of her nickname “Notorious R.B.G.” She overcame obstacles, including initially being turned down for a Supreme Court clerkship. She is proof of success based on her perseverance in the face of many people telling her “No.” She is a strong woman and excellent role model for young attorneys. I admire her eloquent writings on gender issues advancing the goal that laws should be gender neutral and apply equally. I hope to be as sharp as she is when I am 82. She inspires me to push and succeed as a female attorney.
NZ: I admire Abraham Lincoln. He was humble, smart, and confident. He also had the unwavering conviction to stand up for what he believed in.