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Authenticity and Finding Your Place in the Law | Karen Vladeck

Balancing professional obligations with self-care is a major challenge for lawyers. It’s easy for attorneys to overload themselves with work, activities, and commitments, often stretching themselves too thin and straining their personal relationships. This week, Karen Vladeck a partner at Wittliff | Cutter PLLC and co-host of the In Loco Parent(i)s, podcast, joins Todd Smith and Jody Sanders to discuss how attorneys can find the right balance for themselves in the law. Karen talks about ways to meet professional and client needs while also making time to parent and pursue other interests. She also discusses how law is not a one-size-fits-all profession, how attorneys can adapt to find fulfilling careers, and the need for authenticity in both law practice and relationships.

Listen to the podcast here:

Authenticity and Finding Your Place in the Law | Karen Vladeck

Our guest is Karen Vladeck of Wittliff | Cutter here in Austin. Karen, welcome to the podcast.

Thank you so much for having me.

A lot of folks who pay attention to Appellate Twitter will know your name for a host of reasons, but I’m going to let you introduce yourself to our readers. Let them get a sense of who you are and your practice. We’ll then go from there.

I am a partner at Wittliff Cutter in Austin. We are a boutique firm of primarily former big law folks who decided that we wanted to practice law in a different model. We offer “big law”-level work at what is a more value-based price point. No knock on big law. I did it for many years. It works for a lot of clients, but some clients are looking for more of a smaller practice where they don’t need quite as much staff. That’s what our practice focuses on. I am an employment lawyer. I advise and counsel lots of companies of various sizes about how to comply with laws in Texas. We have a California lawyer so we do the Texas-California tag team.

I’m also an attorney who’s barred in DC, Maryland and Virginia, where I practiced for seven years before we moved to Texas. I graduated law school in 2009 from the University of Miami. I moved right to DC, where I clerked for the Maryland Court of Appeals, which is the Maryland Supreme Court, for the chief judge there, Chief Judge Barbera. No offense to the readers and the esteemed hosts of this show, I quickly decided that appellate law was not for me. I became a general commercial litigator at an Am Law 200 firm up in DC.

I then moved to a firm called Arent Fox for four and a half years before moving to Austin. I got into employment law at Arent Fox because I was in the general commercial group and everyone picked their niche areas. The partners that I thought were the nicest partners happen to be employment lawyers. My undergraduate major from Cornell is Industrial and Labor Relations. I had a little bit of an employment law background. Those were the folks who I thought, “I want to be like those people.”

They have an interesting practice. They didn’t seem to get as bogged down in long-term discovery disputes. It was more fact-intensive. There was this hybrid place of litigation and counseling. That’s what brought me into employment law. In 2016, my husband, Steve, got a job at the University of Texas Law School. We moved from Washington, where we had been, to Austin.

I had never spent extensive time in Texas. I had been to Austin three times before we moved. It was an adventure. The first year was figuring out that Rule 11 is a good thing. I was lucky enough that I had been practicing long enough that I could waive into Texas. I did not have to take what would then have been my third bar exam.

person holding folder looking out an office window

Law Practice Authenticity: You should try to be your own authentic self in being a lawyer. That might mean turning down clients who don’t necessarily match with your real self.

You’re not the first guest on our show to not practice appellate law or be an appellate judge. We actively encourage this because we appreciate the different perspectives that folks in different practice areas bring. It all adds to the greater picture of what our legal system is and how it works. You found the folks practicing labor and employment law and counseling among the most likable. There’s a place for everyone in the law. It’s a matter of finding your right place. If you’re lucky enough to hang around people that you enjoy being around in your practice, that’s a big benefit and bonus from having chosen that practice area. I can see why you would be attracted to that.

It’s a collegial bar. In Austin, especially, it’s an outlier situation where you have someone that you’re not like, “That person’s a good person on the other side to be against.” No offense to the Dallas lawyers reading, but sometimes we’ll get someone from Dallas who rolls in and is pounding the table. I always say to an opposing counsel, “I have a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. I am impervious to your tantrums.” It doesn’t always go over well, but at the end of the day if someone’s going to call me and yell on the other line it washes over me. That’s one of the good benefits of having kids. I get yelled at all day at home. Getting yelled at work by an opposing counsel, I’m like, “This doesn’t matter to me at all.” It doesn’t ruffle me. In that way, having kids has helped my practice.

I feel that very strongly. You develop incredibly thick skin and also are not at all bothered by someone screaming unreasonable things at you.

I’m glad you mentioned having kids and parenting because one thing that you’re known for is a podcast about parenting and lawyering called In Loco Parent(i)s, which is a very clever title. Tell us about how that show got started and where it’s going, perhaps.

I only started getting into Twitter about three years ago. I always had an account years ago. My husband used it professionally for a long time. I was not a lurker but I wasn’t engaged with it. A couple of years ago, I got introduced to a couple of ladies who use Twitter in a way that I found interesting. They were doing it in a way that felt very authentic to me that they were being themselves. Even if they were using anonymous accounts, it was being honest about what it’s like to be a lawyer, a mom, all of those things. I thought, “This is a community that I see myself as a part of.”

I started using Twitter through that. At the same time, I engaged with my own husband, who is very active on Twitter. People started to say, “You guys have such a funny banter on Twitter.” That became this thing. Our friend, Lisa Rubin, who’s a producer on the Rachel Maddow Show and who Steve had gone to law school with, said, “You guys should totally do a podcast.” We were like, “What would we talk about?” She’s like, “You would take your Twitter discussion and move it to a podcast form.” Steve had already done The National Security Law Podcast. We had the materials for it. It was peak COVID. This was December 2020.

I’m like, “What else are we doing? We could do it.” We didn’t have any idea and still don’t have any idea where the podcast is going or what it’s going to be long-term. Our first season was very heavy on guests. We had on Dahlia Lithwick, Elie Mystal and congresspeople. That was cool for me. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I’m on the phone with someone who’s about to become a federal judge. It was interesting and cool, but as you know it’s time-consuming.

Be yourself and find a networking thing that you enjoy and like to do because the business will come 100% if you do that. Click To Tweet

As things have ramped back up and both of our outside of work lives, our kids’ lives, we’re trying to figure out how do we keep that conversation going while also keeping our own sanity. We will come back for season two. I’m not 100% sure what it’s going to look like. I enjoyed it. It was nice. What was great about it was hearing from many parents who said, “Thank you so much for your honesty.” One thing that I have ascribed to and one of the reasons that you guys asked me to be on because of my article in the Austin Bar Association Newsletter about the power of saying no and how you say no in an effective way is that I am not everybody’s cup of tea. I will fully admit that.

For the people I do connect with, I want that to be a real connection because I don’t want to be somebody else at work. I take too much time here. I give everything to my clients. I want that to be with somebody who wants to be with me. I felt like the only way that I could do that was to be myself and that included doing Twitter as myself and also this podcast, which was like, “We’ve got kids and it’s a mess.” It resonated with a lot of people. It’s been nice to hear from people who are like, “Please come back even if it’s you guys talking.” I feel like we’ll be back soon.

It’s finding times to record because we’ll be like, “Let’s start this week.” We’ll both be working every night, one of us will be working one night or one of us will have a tennis lesson that night. Our recording time was from 8:00 to 9:00. Things have come up. Steve had a DC Circuit argument. He has to go to the Second Circuit. We’ve been running all around. TBD In Loco Parent(i)s Season 2 but I feel good about it.

Number one, as a parent, I appreciate hearing other people going through the same thing. I appreciate that you guys are pushing back on the narrative of the bulletproof lawyer. I feel like that is something that is so infused in our culture. Lawyers don’t talk about their home life. You talk about the work, hours, clients, wins and losses. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way, but it’s nice to hear your human side. Not that you or Steve, your Twitter personalities are not that anyway, but it’s great for more lawyers to talk about, “I have a normal, crazy, up in the air life outside of the walls of my office. Sometimes it is totally insane and I make mistakes. We’re still trying our best.”

People get scared about it. I understand that they want to present themselves to a client like, “Everything that you do in here is going to be totally predictable. We’re going to get it done. There’s going to be no distractions.” As much as I would love for that to be true, I don’t think that clients even exist in that world. Most of my clients are in similar boats to me whether they are moms of young kids or people who have heard me on my podcast, seen me on Twitter or know who I am outside of work. The client shouldn’t have to pretend that’s what their lives are like. If it is, maybe I’m not the best fit. And that’s okay.

First of all, I don’t have the capacity to represent every company in America. I don’t necessarily have to be the best fit for every single client. This happened earlier in 2021. It’s a potential client. They’re saying, “It’s our first-ever charge of discrimination.” When someone wants to initiate a lawsuit for discrimination, you have to first go to the EEOC with a charge. Like most employers, they say, “The charge is baseless so and so. We want to scorch the earth, countersue and make this the worst process that ever happened for them. How could they do that?”

I say, “I hear you. I understand that that’s what you want. I might not be the best lawyer for that because that’s not me. I am not going to file 100 discovery motions.” There are lawyers who will do that, but you should pay them to do it. You and I won’t be happy. I’m not saying that I’m some collaborative employment lawyer who can’t go toe-to-toe. At the same time, I would never ever describe myself as scorched earth.

If that’s what you’re looking for, that’s a different lawyer and that’s okay. The undertone of this bar association article that we were talking about was you should say no because of certain obligations in your life, but you should also try to be your own authentic self in being a lawyer. That might mean turning down clients who don’t necessarily mesh with your own real self. That took me a long time to realize. It’s hard to realize as an associate. You don’t have control over the clients.

two women looking at computer screen

Law Practice Authenticity: It’s important to grow your book. Number one way to do that is by forming authentic real relationships with people.

A partner comes to you and says, “This is an exciting case. I want you to work on it.” You’re three months into it and realizing, “My opposing counsel is a nightmare. I’m going to have to be filing a million discovery motions nonstop. This is crazy.” I also have the luxury of having partners who are willing to do that. I might take on a client when I’m going to say, “Let’s do this.” I’m bringing in my partner, Katherine, who will go toe-to-toe with anybody.

My personal opinion is you do have to find your authentic self in the practice of law. When you come across as inauthentic or you’re trying to be something that you’re not, you’re far less effective in however you do it whether it’s litigation, appeals, or anything. Many times, as an appellate lawyer, I’ve had the conversation with clients and trial lawyers of, “I get what your goal is here. Here’s what I can realistically do.”

Those are hard conversations to have because a lot of times, it’s like, “It’s okay. We’re going to find somebody else.” Eventually, you have to get to that point of comfort, where the answer is, “Let’s agree to disagree and you guys can find somebody who’s going to do what you need to do. I’m not going to be the person for you for that.”

You do that, though. You get to that point where as a lawyer, you’ve been doing it long enough where you have that comfort level to know. You recognize that this is not going to be a good fit. As to authenticity, what you’re describing, Karen, in terms of how you reveal yourself to some degree on Twitter, certainly on the podcast, it’s about parenting and lawyering. I love the phrase, “A podcast about parenting and lawyering in that order.” That reveals something about you and Steve. This is what’s important to you as people. You’re parents first and lawyers second. You’re starting to condition people by being your authentic self on Twitter, the podcast, and I’m sure in real life too.

“Karen is a good lawyer. She can do a good job for us. We like and trust her. We feel like we know her.” That carries a lot of weight with clients. It certainly does for judges who are paying attention. Everyone is better off being themselves, whatever that may be. There’s room enough in the law for different personality types across the spectrum. Pretending to be something you’re not fits exactly with what Jody said, “We’re not supposed to drop the shield,” we can’t show people who we are, and the trend against that.

Thank you. Especially when Austin is having this moment of intense growth, there is so much legal work going around and it is important to market and grow your book. For me, at least the number one way that I have done that is by forming authentic real relationships with people, full stop. Whether that is my client, another mom at school, someone on a tennis court or whatever it is outside of work, that to me personally is the most effective. I’m not super involved in the ABA or the bar. That hasn’t been the area that I’ve done, but everyone should find that thing that makes them feel comfortable, where they can go out and do that, and it doesn’t feel like marketing or a chore.

There is a place for you in the legal profession that does not involve having to work every single weekend and having to miss family dinners and bedtime every single night. Click To Tweet

Because if you have to feel like you’re networking and marketing and all that, it’s stressful. Our job is stressful enough. We don’t need to add more stress to that. That’s what I always say when people ask me about networking, growing your book and all that. I say, “Be yourself and also find a networking thing that you enjoy and like to do and then do that. The business will come 100% if you do that.”

It’s being able to show people that you can do the job well. You’re networking and showing your true self, confidence and trust in as opposed to somebody who is a lawyer. You can find a lawyer in the phone book, but you can’t find someone that you necessarily want to represent you until you know what that person’s personality is.

There’s more legal work in Austin with the way growth is happening. At the end of the day, you still have to distinguish yourself in some way from the next lawyer down the street. People are going to want to hire someone who they feel like they can connect with and get to know. That is a major factor in client hiring decisions. It’s good advice to be your authentic self. Going to the article, you’re not super involved in the Austin Bar Association.

Not for any particular reasons. It’s the bar meeting time.

I may be a former president of that organization, but I’m not criticizing that because it doesn’t fit everyone. There are lots of factors that go into that. What I was getting at was to give the readers some background, the title of the article is The Importance of Learning When and How to Say “No”. It appeared in the Be Well column of the September 2021 issue of the Austin Lawyer. What drove the creation of that column was an emphasis that started up during my year as president on Lawyer Wellbeing. That was an addition to the Austin Lawyer that sprung up around that time. There have been a series of articles in that Be Well column that has given similar advice to what you’ve given. Not just on saying no but how to set boundaries, manage your workload, and do things that help you. Not being so connected with the Austin bar, what drove you to write the article?

This is another Appellate Twitter connection, which was Kendall Hanks, who’s somebody who I love. We’ve formed a friendship from Twitter. She saw a thread of mine on Twitter that was either about networking or how to say no, something along those lines. She is on the committee for selecting or asking people to write. She sent me an email and said, “Would you be willing to transition your thread into an article?” I said, “Sure.” I went from there. It was pretty fun to write. It was a different style of writing than I’m used to. I’m either used to 240 characters at a time or a brief, but it was nice to write.

man standing at desk full of papers taking notes

Law Practice Authenticity: You have to find a mentor who will teach you because no one is handing you a book about your firm’s overhead.

I got a number of folks reaching out saying like, “Thanks for writing that. It put into words what I try to think about when I say no to clients.” As I am fortunate enough to put those super young years of lawyering behind me and have a little bit more perspective, I will admit it is easier for me in a position that I’m in being a partner and having my own book. All of those things make saying no easier. The person that I had in mind when I wrote the article is a fifth-year associate who maybe is a new mom, has something big happen in her life outside of work or something like that. That’s who I pictured when I wrote the article. I wanted her to have an idea about if she’s saying no, even to me as the partner, the best way to do that.

Which is to say, “I can’t do it now. Here’s when I can do it. Or, I’m swamped. Can I get so and so on the case?” I do that with clients. When someone says, “Can we talk at 5:00?” I say, “I can’t. I can talk at 7:00.” 5:00 to 7:00 is a family time for us. It’s giving the alternative. It’s not a knock on partners. It’s that, frankly, we don’t even remember what it was like to be back in those associate days where someone’s not giving you advice on the practicalities of how you handle a docket and clients. That was who I was writing towards. When Kendall asked me, I said, “Sure, I’m happy to do it.”

So much of the ability to say no is informed by the power dynamic in which you find yourself. Younger lawyers don’t have a lot of power in that dynamic. We’re in an interesting place in the practice of law because we’re undergoing a huge generational shift. It seems like that is somewhat changing the narrative of the workaholic lawyer. That’s not a label that applies to everybody.

I feel like early in my career and even now, I know people who fall within that label and they’re still at the top of the profession. It’s interesting to see the transition from that and more and more, very successful lawyers at different stages in their career saying, “That’s not me. That’s not how this has to be. Here are some tips on how to do it well,” but also not be the person who’s in the office 80 hours a week, every week for forty years.

Our profession is big enough that there is room for those lawyers. The people that I’m talking to are the people who don’t want their lives to be like that. There was a partner at Arent Fox who it did not matter what his docket was and how busy he was. He went to work every single Saturday from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. He had his assistant there. She came in too and got overtime. If you were in the office on a Saturday from 9:00 to 3:00, he was there.

He had a family and that was the setup that he had. That is what made him happy and drove him. I would personally lose my mind if I worked from 9:00 to 3:00 every Saturday. That is not the kind of lawyer that I want to be. I want everyone to understand and, unfortunately, it’s not always the case. It’s more towards women. There is a place for you in this profession that does not involve having to work every single weekend, miss family dinners, and miss bedtime every single night.

If you are the lawyer who is okay with that, it is also totally fine. I’d say more power to you. It’s that we only hear the positives about those kinds of lawyers, the ones who give up everything in order to advance their careers. We don’t hear enough support from the other lawyers who were saying, “I also want to have a life, host a podcast, do a blog, Twitter or whatever else I want to do.” We’re hearing about that more. In our ecosystem, meaning the three of us that exist in Twitter and all that, there are a lot of discussions there about that. Your average person doesn’t champion that.

There’s always this fear of, “What if this person isn’t available when I need them?” When the reality is any of us can be available 24 hours a day if we need to be reached. Especially in 2020, we’ve seen that. It’s not 100% good or bad, but it’s 100% true.

I like to put up out of offices that are like, “I’m probably going to be slow,” but, in reality, I probably will be checking my email. It’s the reality of it.

There are different levels of compensation that people want and need in order to live a fulfilling life. Click To Tweet

You do a good job of putting that caveat to your article that there will be times when you have to work Saturdays and Sundays. There are going to be times that you have to have an 80-hour week and it sucks, but that’s the job. That’s why the clients trust us with their important things because they know we will show up, put everything we can into making sure that we get it right and doing them the best service we can when it’s time to put your feet to the fire.

The key to that is knowing when those times are. You described the person at your former firm and maybe he was a creature of habit. This is what worked for him, good for him, but that’s certainly not required week in, week out in the legal profession. We’re making some inroads. What do we have to get through to young lawyers coming up that this is not what it takes?

There’s a place for anyone who wants to be a lawyer and practice law. You can get through everything you have to get through to get a law license, but it’s not necessary to do those things. In litigation, it doesn’t matter if it’s appellate litigation or civil trials, whatever kind of variation. There are going to be times when you do have to have that 80-hour week. The key is when? How do you identify when it’s necessary? Maybe it’s the client pushing it. Inevitably with young associates, in certain practices, the ones who aren’t going to know how to say no are probably coming internally from partners, which are being driven by clients, I suspect.

A problem that we still have to, on a systemic level, be able to solve is to convince people that this isn’t what’s necessary. It is nice to see some change happening. Your article was refreshing in this way because not only did you address the delusion that success requires working all the time and to the detriment of one’s mental health, wellbeing, and happiness. What I preach a lot is, “You can do this, but understand that something’s going to give eventually.” You’re not bulletproof. You will have an issue in some other place in your life if you do this week in, week out, month in and month out.

Something that is not talked about nearly enough in our profession to be 100% transparent with you guys is there are different levels of compensation that people want and need in order to live a fulfilling life. I have partners that make twice as much as I do because they work twice as much as I do. That’s what they want in their moment in life. Some of my partners who are 50-year-olds whose kids are out of the house, looking down retirement and say, “I got to put the pedal to the metal for the next ten years and then I’m done.”

They want to bill 2,000 hours. Whereas I say, “I got a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old at home and a husband with a full-time plus career. I’ll bill 1,000 hours. I’ll be happy with that.” I’m lucky that I am in a situation where I can choose to bill that amount of time or as much or as little as I want. There are situations out there for folks who want to go pedal to the metal, make as much money as possible and that is an option. That’s not my number one priority.

Have an honest conversation with yourself about what your goal is at work. We can all say like, “If we won the lottery, would we still do this?” I’ll tell you if I win the lottery, I’m not practicing law anymore. I love you all and I’ll see you on Twitter. I’ll be a guest on your podcast, but I’m out. That is not because I don’t love the practice of law, but this is a job. We do it to make money. It is something that I find very fulfilling, but it’s still a means to an end.

person looking in bathroom mirror washing hands

Law Practice Authenticity: Private practice can be an incredible place to parent when you find a balance of the right amount of time, the right comp, the right kind of clients. It just takes time.

Enough people aren’t having that conversation with themselves. They get on this treadmill of, “I need to work as many hours as I possibly can because I need to make as much money as I possibly can.” This is in the private sector. This doesn’t apply in the public sector. “Have I found the right balance between making what I want comp-wise and billing the number of hours that I want?” It’s almost impossible to do as an associate. You have no control over it at all. The associate years, as much as it might not feel like it at the moment, are a finite number of years.

There will come a time where you will be senior enough to figure out what your next move is going to be. Maybe it is staying where you are and becoming a partner at that firm. If you’re in your 4th, 5th, 6th year as an associate, looking around and not seeing people whose lives and careers you want to emulate, that’s when you have to start asking yourself like, “Maybe this isn’t the place for me. What is the place for me? Is it a place where I’m billing 2,400 hours a year but I’m making so much money that it won’t matter to me? Is it a place where I’m billing less and maybe making less? Is it something in the middle?” Everybody’s scared to talk about comp and the fact that, “We do this so that we get paid.”

I feel like most lawyers are like, “Don’t talk about that.” We’re perfectly happy to send out these ginormous invoices to our clients at the end of the month. There’s some disconnect there that our profession doesn’t talk about how you can manipulate your comp based on where you work, what the overhead is, how many partners you have, ow that partnership is structured, what your hourly rate is. All of those things, you learn that on the fly. Unless you have someone teaching you that information, you will always be operating in this black box of, “I have to keep billing hours so I can keep making money.” That’s not true.

The only data set you have as a brand new associate in a big law firm is how many hours you bill. You don’t know any of that other stuff. You probably don’t even see the bills, even to know what they are. You don’t see when the payments come in. You don’t know who’s paid and who hasn’t. If you’re in a lockstep system, what other lawyers are making but you don’t have any idea what the partners are making. Something does have to happen for an associate. We’ll stick with big law as an example to get that information. How does that happen? You have a mentor in the firm or outside the firm who can give you bits and pieces of that information or you move on from that firm and you learn it the hard way.

Finding that mentor is so key, someone that you trust and who trusts you. There are some things that a partner’s not going to disclose to an associate. If you are a 4th, 5th, 6th-year associate and you happen to be reading this, first of all, in many ways, you are in the most valuable moment of your career, especially if you are a litigator. Many people and firms want 4th, 5th, 6th-year competent litigators, you can write your ticket truly. If you are one, you want to talk and have employment experience, tell me because we are looking.

You don’t even know how valuable you are, but you are valuable. That’s number one. If you are not building that relationship with someone at your firm that you trust, you can say, “How are the partners compensated? Are you all equity? Is there non-equity? How do the non-equity tiers work? What is the billing minimum rate? How does origination get split up? How do you split up between offices? Is there a responsible partner origination bump?

I didn’t even consider them as a junior associate. I didn’t even know what the word overhead meant. It wasn’t until I started to think about, “Maybe I didn’t want to be in big law. Maybe I want to do something else.” I started thinking about what overhead looks like. How does that impact my practice and overhead? Clients, your rates, what type of law you practice, all of that plays into it.

Something that you don’t think about as a junior associate is how important your overhead number is because it can be an enormous shackle on your ability to have a good work-life balance. If you bill $100 an hour and $75 is going to somebody else’s overhead, you have to bill a lot more time to make the same amount of money as someone who has $25 going to overhead and other people’s origination and all that time. Being at a small firm, when people call and ask me how we’re set up, I’m very transparent about it.

Find that mentor, someone you trust and who trusts you. Click To Tweet

They are surprised because they say, “You are able to capture so much of your time.” I said, “This is how we do it. These are the things that we’ve done in order to keep overhead low.” This doesn’t apply to every single person. This has been my personal experience. These are all things that you have to figure out in private practice as you are going along. They are not told to you. You have to find a mentor who will teach you because no one is handing you a book about your firm’s overhead, period, end of story.

There are probably partners at your firm who don’t even know what the overhead numbers are. You have to find that out. If you are the person who wants to maximize the value of your time billed, which for most private practice lawyers that is important although maybe not all or maybe you bill on a flat fee, that’s all information that you need to seek out.

Universally with the people that I talk with, it’s pretty rare to have that talked about before you get to be a partner. Even then, a lot of partners don’t care. They want to know what I am taking home at the end of the day. It is important because all those calculations are incredibly important. I was very lucky to have a mentor that sat me down and walked me through the whole thing in advance so that I understood what I was getting into.

When I started years ago, it was like, “You start as an assistant associate and then you become a partner.” That’s the progression of a lawyer’s career path. There wasn’t any discussion of like, “Do I want to be a partner? What does that mean to be a partner? How’s that different?” All you thought was you get to this certain step. It unlocks the door. You walk in and they throw gobs of money at you. You realize along the way, “There’s a lot more to this than I thought.”

You think when you’re starting out, “If I could get to be a partner, I’ll have it made. I can take it easy. I can coast. I’ll be making gobs of money. We’ll have a 3 to 1 ratio. I’ll have associates doing all my work. I can play golf on Wednesdays.”

How’s that going for you? How’s your golf game on Wednesdays?

My golf clubs are collecting a lot of dust.

You got to learn how to say no. Get out there on the golf course if it brings you joy. I don’t even know how we got onto the topic of overhead and all those things. Especially as a mom who wants to maximize the amount of time that you have with your kids if that is important to you, the number of people who are billing insane hours and not making that much on that time, they have to be asking themselves, “Where is that money going? I know what my collections are and what my comp is but there’s that middle number. I want to know where it’s going.”

If you are a lawyer who is unhappy with that ratio of what you are billing to what you are making, frankly the answer lies in your overhead and your firm’s origination system. Those are the two areas where you’re going to lose your own collection time. This does not apply to everybody. This is a very niche conversation about private practice, but my husband never thinks about this. He does not think about overhead, origination and those kinds of comp structures. I think about that all the time. If you are seeking out private practice whether it is in a tiny or ginormous firm, you have to understand how that works.

You have a sense of maybe what the options are. When I started, it was partner and associate and that was your two choices at a firm. Now, that is not universally true. Maybe you don’t want to be a partner or maybe you want to be a non-equity partner, which can mean different things at different firms. It is so hard as a young lawyer or even a law student interviewing because you don’t know those things. You also don’t want to give the perception of, “I don’t want to work hard.”

woman sitting and holding head in hands

Law Practice Authenticity: It’s not about any one month of distributions. It’s not about any one case. It’s not about any one bedtime. It’s about your overall picture and where you’re seeing yourself going.

 I‘m afraid that there are a lot of lawyers who are senior lawyers that are in hiring positions that still have that stigma of why wouldn’t you want to be a partner. It’s not that I don’t necessarily want to be. I want to have a little bit more information about that process and what it means here. I can tell you I’m a partner at my firm, which could be completely different from what that means at another place.

I don’t want any law students or 1st, 2nd or 3rd-year associates hearing me and being like, “I’m going to go into my OCI interview and ask the managing partner how their overhead is calculated.” That is not my advice. Please do not do that. There is a time and a place. When your past your 5th or 6th year is when you start to realize, “I need to do stuff other than learning how to practice law.” We’re all still learning how to practice. That never ends, but the business of the law side is not that widely discussed.

People are, for some reason, scared to talk about it. They end up leaving the profession. I think that why so many women leave the profession or private practice is because they didn’t have somebody to ask those questions about and didn’t have the opportunity to see that there are other ways to structure firms. The law has gotten a terrible rap as a profession that’s not friendly to women. It’s annoying to have a judge who calls you a little lady or something like that.

Those overtly sexist things 100% happen in the law. From a time-management perspective, private practice can be an incredible place to be a parent. When you find a balance of the right amount of time, comp and clients, it takes time. I hope at least there’s one person reading this that’s like, “I want to quit the private practice of law. What should I go do?” and then says to themselves, “Maybe I can slice and dice this in a different way.”

I will say, from my own perspective, I went the path that I thought I needed to take for a very long time to the exclusion of other things in my life and realized probably too late. When my kids were older than it should have taken me, I wanted to have more time to be a parent. I found that balance for myself. It works great for me. There are people down the hall from me that strike a different balance and it works great for them. We both can be successful here. Everybody’s cool with that. I’m cool with that. I know there were people a couple of doors down that make way more money than me. That’s fine because we have the tradeoffs that make us happy.

Don’t get me wrong. The way that we’re paid is on distributions every month because we’re all equity partners. We all see what all of our partners make every single month. Sometimes I feel like maybe I should have done a little bit more to keep up with my partner across the hall, but overall it’s not about any one month of distribution, any one case or any one bedtime. It’s about your overall picture and where you’re seeing yourself going.

It seems like we keep coming back to this idea of fit. What is the right fit for this fictional young lawyer that we’re talking about in the firm and practice area? Someone who finds that right fit is more likely to find a mentor who’s willing to speak with them about some of the details of the business of law. Going into big law, you shouldn’t be concerned with your first several years of practice. At some level, this is the proverbial “they don’t teach you this in law school” speech. You do need to learn about it and understand the economics of it because this is what drives how law firms work and their success, at least as measured on paper.

You always have a client in the law. If you are in private practice, it's just figuring out who that client is and how that client wants that information presented. Click To Tweet

Culturally, once you reach a certain economic reward for your work if you’re coming in as an associate and they’re going to pay you X salary and that meets your desires and expectations, maybe the very next thing to consider is, “Do I like the people I’m working with? Do I like what I’m doing?” That is the sweet spot for the lateral market. I’m not actively encouraging anyone to leave their jobs, but you do have options. If you find yourself in that situation and the answer to your question is, “I don’t like what I’m doing. I don’t like who I’m doing it with,” if you’re still relatively new in your career as a lawyer, don’t spend your career trying to make partner in a place that you don’t like working. That would be one piece of advice I would offer.

It breaks my heart when it’s usually young moms. I created this brand of young moms coming and talking to me about things. They’re like, “I feel undervalued. I don’t like my colleagues.” I always give them the same exact advice, which is, “The practice of law is stressful enough. Your stress should not come from your colleagues.” That’s the truth of it. There are situations where work is getting pushed down. Sometimes it is hard, especially if you are a junior and that is going to be tough sometimes everywhere.

The farther away we get from being associates, as partners, we forget the things that we found very annoying that the partners did. I find myself doing that by sending out emails that are like, “I have a super fun new case. Are you interested? By the way, there’s a TRO this weekend.” I do that. If your source of stress is your own internal colleagues, that is not the place for you, period, full stop.

Your stress should come from the fact that we have demanding clients. We’re billing a very high rate and expect high-caliber work. We have judges and hard legal questions that we have to answer. We have motions that have to get done. That’s where the stress of our job is. The stress should not be because Jim down the hall yelled at you. You don’t need that. There is a place for everybody with respectful colleagues who will treat you well. If not, then you should get out because there are absolutely alternatives.

I’ll put this pitch out there to dovetail off of what you’re saying. I recognize that I’m coming from a place of having been practicing for years and a partner at a firm. It is so much harder now because many people get out of law school with mountains of debt. Those of us who went to law school in the George W. Bush presidency didn’t end up with it. Not long ago, law school was a lot cheaper then. Your mental health in the practice of law is as important, if not more important, than your physical health and all of this impacts it. Please find a way to make that a priority no matter what that means because that will ruin everything so much quicker than anything else.

woman sitting at desk talking on the phone

Law Practice Authenticity: The practice of law is stressful enough. Your stress should not come from your colleagues.

Karen, we’re coming toward the end of our time. I might like to ask you for some advice to lawyers starting out and we’ve covered a lot of that. Is there one thing you would tell a new lawyer starting out above all else besides learning how to say no properly? I say and phrase it this way because we have a bunch of new lawyers who are getting sworn in and are starting their jobs. What would you say to those lawyers?

Sticking with private practice because that’s all I know. I’ve always been a private practice lawyer. I don’t know if this is true everywhere, but in my experience, in all different size of firms, from the moment that you step into that firm, you have a client. It might not be the general counsel that the senior partner is talking to but you have the client that is the associate four years above you, who is pushing down work to you and who you are turning a product around for.

That mid-level associate has their client, which is the senior associate on the team. The senior associate has their client, which is perhaps the junior partner. The thing that I regularly see when people fail in private practice is that they fail to recognize that this is a client-service industry where there is a product that comes out at the end of the line. The people who do that best have that mindset of, “How I am making my client’s job easier?” That’s what I try to do as a lawyer.

As an employment lawyer, most of my clients want an answer. I would never, in a million years, send my client a twenty-page memo with case cites. That’s not what they want. They’re not going to read it. It’s not valuable to them. It’s a waste of time and money. You can learn that from the second that you step into a firm. Not that you’re going to be in front of a GC or you’re going to be in front of a client anytime soon. Maybe you will be, but most of us weren’t, but understanding that, “I’m making the person above me’s job easier.”

The partner at the end of the day has to make the client’s job easier. The client is making the business’s job easier by doing their job if you’re representing people who are in-house at companies like I am normally doing. That is advice for private practice. It is not necessarily the advice in government or in clerkships. I could do a whole different episode on clerkships.

You have a client. The second you walk into that firm, it might not be the general counsel but it is a client in that stream. I didn’t quite grasp that as a junior associate. It took me some time to realize that, in hindsight, I know what a client wants. As a 1st, 2nd year, you might not know that. Finding someone on your team who you can be like, “How does the client like information presented?” The associates that I love the absolute most are the ones who red line an agreement but then also draft me the cover bullet-point email that tells me why we made all the changes that I can send off to opposing counsel.

You’ve made my job easier and I love you for that. It’s like I want to make my client’s job easier, whatever that job is. That’s my advice. You always have a client in the law if you are in private practice. It’s figuring out who that client is and how that client wants that information presented. That is what will help you a lot.

Our other tradition as we’re closing here is we always like to ask for a war story. Do you have one you’d like to share with us?

man sitting at desk with head in hands

Law Practice Authenticity: Where people fail in private practice is that they fail to recognize that this is a client service industry, where there is a product that comes out at the end of the line.

I was going to give my husband’s appellate war story about when Justice Kennedy asked him whether Marbury versus Madison was rightly decided. My husband is a Fed course professor. He was like, “This is crazy.” It was in the US Supreme Court. This was pre-COVID. Everybody was in person. Everybody laughed except for the non-lawyers in the room who were like, “What joke just happened?” They did not get it. Another piece of advice that I will give happened to me. There are a lot of different levels of lawyer skill. The opposing counsel said at the conclusion of the hearing to the judge, “Your honor, you can’t put the poop back in a cow.” The judge’s face was so priceless and perfect.

Ladies, if you ever have imposter syndrome, you can give me a call because I will tell you all about these lawyers who are still getting paid. They’re still practicing law and still barred here in Texas. You will be so much better prepared than they will be. You will knock it out of the park with the judge. The judges will love you. There is no reason to be scared of anybody on the other side. You’re not going to win every motion but if you’re well prepared and you walk in, you will do great. I don’t know if it’s a war story to talk about terrible opposing counsel but that’s mine because it happened. It’s at the top of my mind.

Those are the best war stories sometimes. It is so true. When you get a few years into practicing law, sometimes you will be shocked by things that you see.

That’s a war story in my book.

You can’t put the poop back in the cow. The best part is the client and I have had a lot of fun with it.

Karen, thank you so much for spending your time with us.

You’re so welcome. I’ve missed my podcasting days. This is motivating me to get back on the horse.

Thanks. We sure appreciate you being with us.

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About Karen Vladeck

Karen represents corporate, start-up, and non-profit clients in the resolution of disputes pending before the EEOC, state employment agencies, and state and federal court. Karen has extensive practice defending employers against claims involving Title VII, the ADEA, the ADA, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the FLSA, and the False Claims Act. Karen also counsels clients to seamlessly accomplish the on-boarding and termination of employees, reductions in force (RIFs), the development of employee handbooks and policies, resolution of medical and disability leave issues, conducting internal investigations, and compliance with state and federal wage statutes, among other issues. She also represents individual clients seeking advice on employment and severance agreements. Karen has worked with clients across an array of industries, including hospitality, fashion and luxury goods, higher education, real estate, sports, insurance, television, technology startups, trade associations, and non-profits.

Karen began her career as a law clerk for Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera of the Court of Appeals of Maryland. After that, she practiced in the Washington, DC office of Arent Fox LLP before moving to Texas in 2016. Karen has been recognized as a Thomson Reuters Super Lawyers “Rising Star” (Washington, DC – 2014, 2015 and Texas – 2017–2020). Karen and her husband, Stephen, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, live in Austin with their two daughters.

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