Pogue panelists address changing roles of big law firm associates

By Jordan Poll

Countless students have approached University of Michigan Law School Prof. Bob Hirshon over the years, requesting advice and insight into working for a large law firm.

At this year’s Pogue Panel, Hirshon – the Frank G. Millard Professor from Practice and special counsel on developments in the legal profession – posed the questions he’s most frequently asked to alumni who live Big Law life on a daily basis: Michael Fayhee, Patricia Refo and George Vincent.

The trio took the opportunity to set the audience of law students straight about what it is like to work in Big Law, and discussed the changing roles of new associates.

The list also included a few traits that require adventuring outside of one’s comfort zone.

“One of the things you need to internalize is that no one will ever care more about your career than you do. Take the ownership yourself to make your career what you want it to be,” said Refo, a partner in the Phoenix office of Snell & Wilmer LLP. “In almost every case, there is an opportunity for a young lawyer to take a deposition, but you have to ask. You have to be appropriately aggressive about saying, ‘This is an opportunity I want to have.’” Superstar associates think like lawyers, but more importantly, they think like partners.

“They continuously seek to correct weaknesses and amplify their strengths. They set goals and measure themselves against them,” said Vincent, managing partner and chairman of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. “When I started my career, I set goals for five, 10, 15 years out. I do so again at the beginning of each year, and I work against them every single day. Without goals, you won’t reach your full potential.”

In preparation for a career in Big Law, Fayhee, a partner in the Chicago office of McDermott Will & Emery, recommended students “take a broad smattering of courses” and embrace learning opportunities outside of the Law School, particularly those related to business.

“Take a class in accounting or, at the very least, read the Wall Street Journal,” he said. “You’ll need to understand how a business works because your partners and clients are going to expect you to.”

With pressure from clients to be more efficient and less costly, the legal profession is changing, and students in the audience questioned how advancements in technology will affect their futures in Big Law.

Panelists were unanimous in saying that new associates should expect to hit the ground running.

“We’re hiring fewer associates than we did even four years ago because the nature of what we’re asking you, as young lawyers, to do has changed,” said Fayhee. “We don’t have the luxury of letting associates take three or four years to figure out what it means to be a lawyer. We have three or four months, but we’ll get you there. It’s our burden to get you over that learning curve quickly.”

Vincent encouraged students to utilize their technological knowledge to spearhead this new direction in which the industry is heading.

“Your generation brings more value than you know on the technology side,” he said. “Where people like myself can only understand it all in theory, you have grown up with it. That’s enormous value that you bring, and you should never shortchange yourself on that.”

Refo reminded all millennials in the room that while the legal profession is evolving, it is still about building relationships, which requires personally interacting with clients and colleagues.

“Don’t become so dependent on technology that you lose sight of the human interaction aspect of our business,” she said. “It is an utterly different form of communication, and it’s vastly preferable.”

Despite shifting times and stereotypes, the benefits of working in Big Law are plentiful, the panelists noted.

“Being an associate means an opportunity to work with a lot of different people,” said Fayhee. “In all walks of life, it is good to have someone to look up to, admire and replicate their traits. Being at a large firm gives you a greater population to choose from.”

Vincent, who also noted the diversity of thought, perspective, background, and resources available in Big Law, enjoys the unparalleled opportunities for community involvement. “A large law firm gives you a unique platform from which to launch yourself civically,” he said. “It already has a well-established reputation and bond with local communities, which means you can dive right in.”

Refo summarized the panelists’ biggest shared reason for pursuing a career in Big Law: “The opportunities are often at the highest level of our profession, and it’s fun to be in the game at that level,” she said. “But what I love most is the fact that there are people who I work with who don’t think the way I do on issues. It challenges me every single day. It makes my environment cool and interesting. Beyond the legal work we do, they teach me how to be a broader thinker and better person.”

The Richard W. Pogue Law Leaders Panel is sponsored by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations annually, through a special fund created by Richard W. Pogue, ’53, former managing partner of Jones Day.

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