Balancing Different Manners, Needs of Colleagues

Posted: May 13th, 2016 by

Stephanie Stecklair, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

We are all familiar with the adage “happy wife, happy life.” Well, most weeks, I have not one or even two, but five wives. Let me explain.

As the former law clerk and now newest associate at my firm, I have worked extensively with each of the attorneys—three partners and two other associates, all five of which are female. Of course, not one of them has a style of practice like the other and keeping them happy means knowing the attorney, her manner and the needs of the client. The most challenging task is drafting correspondence for their individual signatures. This requires constantly shifting gears and remaining cognizant of what issues are important while tailoring the language to the specific attorney. Depending on the time sensitivity of the assignment and attorney, there may be room for more creativity. Anticipating my colleagues’ needs and learning their styles does not impede my own personal growth, but actually affords me the opportunity to try different techniques and ascertain what works best for me. I also learn which clients may require a softer touch and which clients respond better to an all-business approach, which is extremely important in the practice of family law.

Working closely with five very different practitioners also teaches the important lesson of balancing the issues and emotions of a case. While our attorneys vary in age, experience and background, we all agree that the practice of law should be executed with passionate and informed advocacy. Working in family law involves at least four or five different areas of practice on a daily basis, along with exposure to completely different areas of law such as real property and income tax. There is never a dull moment.

Outside colleagues often express astonishment that I practice family law and actually enjoy doing so. Let me debunk the myth that every day of my career deals with a contentious custody case or one party desperately trying to take the other to the “cleaners.” While those cases do exist, family law encompasses much more than the dramatic events often portrayed on television and in movies.

Let me know the next time you see an episode of “Law & Order” that makes reference to a “QDRO.” For you non-family law practitioners, that’s a qualified domestic relations order, which is the vehicle under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code for transferring retirement plan benefits to a former spouse. Divorce cases with multiple retirement accounts require a division of assets that may not be as simple as “he or she keeps their own stuff” or “a 50-50 split.” It can, and often does, require knowledge about pensions, types of retirement accounts and the correct method of dividing them. I love the numbers of family law, whether in equitable distribution, alimony, spousal or child support. Some colleagues love numbers too and we welcome complex support matters; other colleagues prefer focusing on custody litigation. For me, I welcome both; not only because I really do love math and am actually pretty good at it, but because I also love counseling and helping individuals through an extremely tough time.

For those of us who work in a law firm, we know that even attorneys on the same side do not always agree. Sometimes that passion presents itself amongst attorneys when discussing varying approaches to a specific legal issue. For example, employment benefits are a hot topic in support. When representing the payor, certain benefits should not be included because they may increase the income from which their obligation is paid. In the alternative, a payee’s attorney will likely argue for inclusion of such benefits that present in the form of loan repayments, travel reimbursements and car reimbursements.

But some benefit issues are often more complex, such as those an employee receives simply because he or she works in a particular location. This has been a frequent topic of discussion lately; and, in one particular case, two of our partners differ in the treatment of certain benefits. The discussion was a bit jarring—no one likes to see their “parents” fight—but thoroughly educational. Seeing highly regarded attorneys reach differing conclusions on an important issue is much more informative than any television drama.

Exposing associates to a healthy give-and-take is critical to our development. Not only do we learn from more experienced attorneys as they cite various supporting authority for their respective positions, but engaging us in discussions that will most likely come across our paths in the near future is invaluable. Learning and understanding each position prepares us for when we need to take a stance before a colleague or jurist and puts us in a better position to anticipate an opponent’s argument, ready to fire with a sound response. Continuing legal education, while required to keep our licenses, doesn’t only occur within a classroom.

So, how do I manage it all—building my own practice while completing assignments from five wives and making time to observe the occasional healthy discourse? Dealing with more than one boss when getting a new assignment simply requires turning off the light for one and switching it back on for another. Working with more than one attorney helps prepare new associates to be better advocates. The courtroom is not going to be scripted, and playing six different roles multiple times a week is preparing me for the unexpected. The ability to quickly adjust an argument and make it just as compelling as the one you rehearsed is not learned in a day; it is learned over time.

Reprinted with permission from the MAY 13, 2016 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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