Paula Barran, a founding partner at Barran Liebman LLP, has been practicing labor and employment law since 1980. She has written extensively on management law and is a national speaker and trainer. In addition to providing employer advice, Paula handles employment litigation in state and federal courts, labor disputes, and employment arbitrations. Additionally, she develops and presents “train the trainer” programs to introduce comprehensive, and cost-effective, training programs into workplaces. Since the first publication of the Oregon Super Lawyers Magazine in 2006, Paula has repeatedly been named as a “Top Ten Lawyer” in Oregon. In 2008, 2010, and 2017 she has been honored as the “#1 Top Point Getter.” Since 2003, Paula has been ranked #1 (with partners Ed Harnden and Rick Liebman) for Labor and Employment Law defense in the State of Oregon by Chambers & Partners USA: America’s Leading Business Lawyers. She is also a fellow of The College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, a fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and has been named in The Best Lawyers in America directory since 1995.
What are the top three tips that would you give to a lawyer who wants to be a successful rainmaker today?
1. Say “yes” a lot. Shortly after I settled into being a lawyer I decided that I would accept every practice-building opportunity that came my way. A lot of those opportunities were speeches, and even today I groan about that because I definitely did not start out being happy at a podium. My “say yes to everything” phase lasted for years, though it quickly became “say yes to nearly everything.” I did a great number of presentations at local events—trade association lunches, bar association programs, schools, and various kinds of continuing education groups. I recall speaking at paper mills, and once I even stood and spoke in the middle of a car repair shop. Sometimes I got a nice trip out of an invitation, and sometimes I wondered what I was doing in the middle of nowhere looking out the window at a bull’s backside (I am not joking about that). The picture I am painting may sound a little off-putting, but there was so much payback for me. I kept this up for so long, without being very selective, because doing the work made me better at it. I learned how to give a good speech and eventually got through some really bad stage fright. I learned how to answer questions on the fly and how to handle some occasional heckling. I met a lot of people I would not otherwise have met, many of them really wonderful. I became known as somebody who had a specialty in the areas that I spoke about.
2. Don’t expect immediate payback—you will really be disappointed and you will quit too soon. I did not always get a lot of direct work from the “say yes” part of my life. I was never one of those folks who could get off a plane after a two-hour fight with six new clients. But payback happened most of the time. Once I was asked to participate in the inaugural event for a community partnership that was trying to fight drug use in young people by appealing to employers to introduce substance abuse policies and pre-employment drug testing as a way to reduce demand. I prepared a very thorough legal handout—something about the assignment caused me to think that the work would be helpful and I needed to learn it anyway. The magic happened after. For years after that project I got phone calls from people who started the call by saying, “You don’t know me, but I have a copy of this paper you wrote…” It took me a long time, but I finally found out that someone in the original partnership had copied the paper whenever someone called them for help and advice, and some of those people made copies for their colleagues. I was a duly anointed substance abuse policy expert and I didn’t even know it.
3. Think like an artist and make sure you have a good portfolio: articles and columns and blog posts that you have written, presentations and trainings that you have done and can do, even little things that you are really an expert on. You can pull this out when somebody calls you and asks you to be on a panel (and you get to pick the topic), and you will have it handy if you are responding to an RFP. Think about my music teacher; he practices his instrument every day, and has a large number of virtuoso pieces he can play on a day’s notice, or string together for a solo performance. We aren’t so very different as lawyers. Learn something in your chosen practice very well—maybe become the person who really understands Medicare compliance for health care providers, or the requirements of a franchise agreement, or even something little like when are final paychecks due. When you know that, add another one to your portfolio. Eventually you can be strategic about what you select, but for starters, do something you run into often that interests you. (Being interested really helps, trust me!)
If you could only engage in one type of marketing activity (e.g., speaking, writing, networking, meetings, participation in bar associations or other trade association) for the next 12 months…
What is the one activity would you choose?
I talked a lot about presentations earlier, but if I could do only one thing, I would write, but not big scholarly articles. I would focus on short topics.
What would that activity look like?
Every time something new happened in my practice I would update the universe about what it meant and how important compliance is.
Why would you choose only that one?
I have done a pretty good job of getting past the stage fright, but for me doing good presentations is really exhausting. Short electronic dissemination reaches a lot of people very quickly, and if you work hard at it you can hone your writing down so that you deliver a lot of information in a single email screen. That’s a beautiful thing to behold. How much do you like reading five page emails?
How did you get your first client?
I was assigned to do a response to an administrative complaint, and I called the owner and said I had been asked to help, and could I sit down with him and talk through what happened. Half-way through our meeting he commented that I was the first lawyer who had come to meet with him like this. I cherished that relationship and tried very hard to make sure I was responsive and efficient. Whoever said that 80% of success is just showing up was right.
How did you get your most recent client?
I did a very small favor for another lawyer. He was advising the client on an issue a bit outside his practice area but well within mine. He wanted to double check his advice. When the issue didn’t go away, he referred the client to me. Think about what you would do—you are out a bit beyond your expertise, somebody is willing to spend a little phone time with you and you make sure you did the work correctly, or you can fix it when you need to. Who is first on your list to refer the case to when it gets bigger than you like. There is an important caveat, though. One time on a referral I made, I received a thank you note back from lawyer I had sent my client to. In addition to thanking me (always a polite thing to do), the letter closed with a message something like, “We will take good care of your client on this matter and appreciate your confidence in us.” I admire that level of professional collegiality and it is good to ensure clients are taken care of by people who really know what they are doing. It is also really good to know that they respect that you have a relationship.
How did you get your best client?
That’s a trick question. They are all the best.
How did you get your most unexpected client?
We had been wondering how to get a little exposure to a nearby large company and I had a chance to do a small project which led to an invitation to meet with the general counsel. I did everything I could to prepare, but it felt like I must have been a walking migraine. I remember driving back to the office thinking, “That man just hated me…” But there was another little piece of business and another and eventually I was doing a fair bit of work for them. That was a relationship that developed slowly over telephone calls. I tried hard to respect how busy he was, to get back with answers quickly, and to be honest in my billing. If I had to provide some tips based on that experience, they would be: if you don’t know, being conservative and professional will never get you in trouble, and don’t give up too soon—maybe it really isn’t you.
Knowing what you know now, if you were starting over as a lawyer today, what would you do differently?
I would definitely work harder at developing relationships with lawyers in other firms much earlier than I did.
About the Author
Traci Ray is the executive director at Barran Liebman LLP, is the 2017-18 Secretary of the Law Practice Division, and is a member of the Editorial Board of Law Practice Today.