Donelle Buratto is an attorney at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PLLC in Birmingham, Michigan and a member of the American Bar Association. Ms. Buratto focuses her practice on representing employers in litigation in state and federal courts and in administrative proceedings before government agencies, as well as employment-related counseling.
- Tell me how you started along the path that has led you to this place in your career.
I chose a career in employment litigation and employment law counseling for two primary reasons. First, I wanted to work in an area of litigationthat provided for a high level of personal interaction with clients; and, second, a strategic decision that employment law was an area of law that was growing exponentially and would continue to do so. I also consider myself to have been the recipient of a little good luck – being in the right place at the right time. When other attorneys pursued their own career paths and left openings, I identified these opportunities for me to develop both the employment and workplace safety aspects of my career, and I set out to establish myself as a critical resource for my colleagues and their clients.
- Was there something that influenced you in law school to move into the area in which you are currently working? If so, what was it?
Actually, before attending law school, I had the opportunity to work in the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Michigan over the course of three years. The experience provided a valuable first exposure to the litigation process that strongly influenced me to focus on litigation. There, I had dynamic mentors who took me to court several times a week and made sure that I was well-versed in the ins and outs of motion call before I could ever sign a pleading. The excitement of litigation (and even the headaches) made quite the impression on me.
- Tell me about how you found your first job after law school.
In searching for a job, I cast my net both near and far. I participated in on-campus interviews and sent cover letters and resumes to numerous firms in three cities where I had an interest in working. Ultimately, I was contacted by a reputable general practice firm in the Detroit area where I grew up, which interested me because the firm offered the opportunity to try several areas of litigation before selecting a specialty. I knew it was a good fit when I mentioned playing intramural broomball (a hockey-like “sport” that is played on ice without skates) in law school and saw the eyes of several of the interviewers light up. I did not know it, but the firm had a long history with broomball and the sport was the center of an annual weekend outing of many of the partners. You never know what will resonate with a potential colleague or client!
- How did you get your next job/opportunity?
My next job opportunity arose when I was contacted by a recruiter regarding a national labor and employment firm that was looking to hire a mid-level associate. That firm was Ogletree Deakins. It offered a new and expanded platform to pursue my employment specialization and the chance to work with attorneys and clients across the country.
- What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?
In each position that I have held, I have been fortunate to work with and for very skilled attorneys who provided me the opportunity to take on increasing responsibilities. Their styles of litigation have been varied, and I have gained skills and techniques from each. Since joining Ogletree Deakins, those learning opportunities have expanded even further. Each day I work with experts on state, federal, and international employment and workplace safety issues. This environment fosters my desire to continually grow and broaden my existing expertise to best serve my clients.
- What have been some of the critical turning points in your career including both successes and disappointments?
In terms of successes, the first trial that I participated in affirmed my passion for litigation. It also provided an important reminder of the context for all of the steps in litigation leading up to trial. It did not hurt that the jury returned a no-cause verdict!
The most critical turning point in my career that resulted in disappointment was not being offered a position at either of two Atlanta-based firms where I had been very interested in working after law school. I do not know if I would have accepted a job offer from either, but I had wanted it to be my decision, not theirs.
- What 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?
The client development “strategy” that has been most successful for me has been to develop and maintain genuine personal and professional relationships. I received advice early on that an attorney should adopt and implement a marketing strategy that works best for him or her. People can quickly see if you are less than earnest in representing your professional skills or opinions, and that is not a quality that they want in their counsel. In my employment law practice, I am often walking employers through tricky employee situations, or dealing with very fact-specific litigation. It has been easy to see that my best results have come when my clients have truly trusted me and the recommendations that I provided. Other strategies that I have used and continue to implement includeconstantly working to expand my network and taking advantage of marketing and mentoring opportunities, as I would with regard to developing substantive skills.
- 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 own work?
The professional world has become much more technology-based in the time that I have been practicing. These changes have affected both the logistics and substance of my practice. We now widely use e-filing, reference our electronic files far more than the paper versions, and can offer easier and greater availability to our clients.
Substantively, in the employment law field, evidence is increasingly contained in e-mails and individuals have still not learned to be mindful of their written communications (or that hitting the delete button does not truly delete the message!) E-mail evidence can often make or break a plaintiff’s case, or an employer’s defense. Social media has also created a storm of employment issues, as employers strive to maintain the reputations of their businesses while complying with their employees’ rights under ever-changing labor and employment laws and decisions.
- If you were advising young attorneys today who are entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to find a job, how to develop their expertise, and how to be successful?
My advice would be to pursue an opportunity that gives you as many options as possible, and to take responsibility for the direction and progress of your own career. Even if someone opens a door, it is up to you to step through it. Also, the impressions that you form in each new situation are critically important and will set the stage for the work, opportunities, and relationships that follow.
- What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?
For young litigators, I believe one of the biggest challenges today is obtaining trial experience. With the increased use of alternative dispute resolution and the cost/benefit analysis that civil defendants are forced to consider, the reality is that fewer and fewer cases are being pursued to a verdict.
- What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?
I would recommend specializing in an area that will weather both legislative and economic changes. I also believe it is critical to develop transferable skills that can be applied to other areas of the law or opportunities presented throughout one’s career.
- Please share your thoughts on how you find daily ‘firm life’ with your clients and colleagues more fulfilling today or simply different than in the first years of your career.
In the first years of an attorney’s career in a large firm, your clients are primarily internal and you must work to develop the respect of your colleagues and their trust in your work. This mindset is important and one that I maintain and see in practice with my colleagues at Ogletree Deakins. Each attorney is committed to providing efficient and effective client service and does not hesitate to jump in to provide expertise and help when he or she can best contribute.
I am also happy to have reached a point in my career where I am maintaining those early relationships and developing similar relationships with new and current clients. It is fulfilling to be a trusted resource that clients can count on for compliant and creative solutions to their employment policy concerns, problematic employee situations, or the inevitable challenges of litigation.
About the Author
Interviewed by Carol Ann Martinelli, National Commercial Counsel, Fidelity National Title, an active member of the ABA Law Practice Division (@LawPracticeTips) & its Law Career Paths Task Force and Diversity & Inclusion Committee.
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