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By: Emily Campbell and Linda Hazelton
Dunlap Codding
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

We recently interviewed four Primerus members from diverse firms—Ashley Belleau from Montgomery Barnett (Louisiana), Felipe Chapula from Cacheaux Cavazos & Newton (Mexico), Robin Lewis from Mandelbaum Salsburg (New Jersey), and Reinier Russell from Russell Advocaten (Netherlands).  Despite the broad range of their experiences, practice areas, and geographies, some surprising commonalities emerged.  We explored themes including honesty, connectivity (don’t burn bridges!), responsibility, teamwork, and self-knowledge.

How did you decide to become a lawyer?

Robin Lewis:  I have an English degree and originally thought about going into publishing, but I couldn’t type fast enough!  After college, I worked as a paralegal in a very large firm in Manhattan.  After two years, I decided to go to law school.  Being a paralegal was a great experience for me; it taught me how to delegate and work as part of a team.  It also made me understand that I didn’t want to work at a huge firm.

Ashley Belleau:  Justice Sonia Sotomayor and I watched the same TV shows as little girls.  I lived with my grandparents and would watch Perry Mason with them every Sunday.  I have been committed to becoming a lawyer since I was five.  Real practice is not always the same as it is portrayed on TV.  It is about creative solutions!

Reinier Russell:  My father was a lawyer and he inspired my interest in the profession. From him I learned to solve problems with the help of law. So my brother Paul and I decided to follow in his footsteps and continue the law firm.

Felipe Chapula:  I come from a long line of lawyers—litigators and labor lawyers—and legal discussions were a constant at the dinner table.  I am married to a lawyer and that makes it easier.  We think the same way and use the same patterns of logic.  We are all wired the same way, in contrast to MBAs or artists.

Has the practice of law met your expectations?

Felipe Chapula:  Certainly!  Some of my classmates aren’t happy—whether they went to law school or not—but I like coming to work every morning.  It can be stressful, but it’s a fun practice if you like giving advice and helping clients.

Reinier Russell:  I like to practice law, but always in a practical way, in favor of the client.  The practice of law has surpassed my expectations: With your (theoretical) knowledge of law, you can make a big practical difference for a company/entrepreneur.

Ashley Belleau:  The profession is very rewarding!  I love it.  No two days are the same.  Every issue is a little different.  The common themes are:  Use logic; think on your feet; draw from your experience.  It keeps me engaged. One of my partners is 75 and has no intention of retiring because he loves new experiences and the challenges.

Robin Lewis:  Yes; it’s been a good and rewarding career for me.  But, it’s very important to find out what works for you.  Not everyone belongs in the practice of law.  It’s a good education to have in any case, as it teaches you to think and analyze.

What should associates know about meeting partner expectations?

Ashley Belleau:  You graduated  from law school; you made it.  But now you have to start over.  You are at the bottom of the ladder—put in extra effort!  Listen, learn, be committed, and never miss deadlines.  Turn in drafts that you hope will be final.  Never turn in your first or rough draft, thinking the partner will revise it; rather, turn in the “polished” draft hoping the partner will not change a word!  Work/life balance is a goal, but work hard!  Meet deadlines!  If you think there’s a possibility you might miss a deadline, let the partner know as soon as possible.  Don’t over commit and under deliver.  Internal deadlines are real deadlines.

Felipe Chapula: We are living through one of the largest generational gaps.  Millennials are difficult!  We are struggling here in Mexico, but this is a global issue.  I try to evolve, but I can only sing one tune, which is, “You have to give it 100%.”  My advice is this:  Be productive and proactive.  Follow up.  Don’t wait for the partner to ask what the status of the matter is.  Keep them posted.  Be responsive.  Take into account cultural differences when dealing across country or area lines.  Know whom you are working with.   For example, we joke about the Mexican mañana.  But tomorrow is tomorrow, not the next day.  Don’t work under that timeline!  Be on top of your game.  You don’t have to be the first one in the office or the last one out the door, but make an effort.   Give your work your best….Crossfit® and yoga come later.  No one living under a bridge has quality of life.

Robin Lewis:  Understand yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.  Be honest!  If you have too much on your plate to meet the deadlines as assigned, you have to speak up.  Your work product should be “ready to go”—a finished product.  You must take pride in your work

Reinier Russell:  Associates should not live up to partner expectations, but rather should live up to client expectations.  Associates should be passionate and determined about their work and should show commitment.  These things make you a good lawyer.  Associates should avoid working all by themselves, because working alone does not produce a product equal to the quality of a team.   Also, make sure there’s enough time after work for other passions and relaxation so that you can continue to stay focused on your profession and remain passionate about your work.

What makes an associate a star?

Reinier Russell:  Star associates are pro-active, good team players, passionate about their job, show a sense of urgency and commitment, and perform with great enthusiasm.

Ashley Belleau:  An associate is a star when they offer the complete package.  Be an associate with a great personality—agreeable, helpful, professional, engaging—and demonstrate great skills—research, writing, very good quality work.  Don’t approach a project as if it were just a task.  Your first client is the partner.  What is the big picture?  What’s the case about?  Make sure you understand the project.  Don’t be afraid to ask if need be.  Follow up.  Get good quality feedback.  Be visible in the firm.   When a conflict check email comes around, investigate the client yourself and share your knowledge when you talk to the partner about the client.  Express interest and volunteer to help.  Think! Avoid being a task lawyer.  Don’t be a worker bee; be a thinker bee!  Never miss deadlines.  If there are problems, inform the partner.  Stay late; come in on the weekend if necessary.

Robin Lewis:  Be a problem solver… with an attitude of “yes, and…”    Strive for independence and work toward it but avoid thinking that you know it all.  Know that you have a lot to learn and know when to ask for help.  Don’t be nasty or sarcastic.  Be a team player.  Don’t burn bridges—ever—even when people are difficult or worse.  You may meet them again in a different guise—as a judge or across the table.  Civility goes a long way.  Don’t think so much about the future that you forget about today.

Felipe Chapula:  Never get caught in a lie!  Don’t mislead or dissemble.  If you say “The dog ate my homework,” and that isn’t the truth or the whole truth, it will remain in the partner’s mind for a long time.  If a partner has the slightest doubt in her mind, she will steer clear of that associate.

With regard to client care, what can an associate do to help?

Felipe Chapula:  Some associates are overly dependent on partners and haven’t yet assumed the role of a lawyer.  You must exude confidence and create a sense of security in the client’s mind.

Reinier Russell:  Associates should of course know the case but they should know the client and his or her interests, too. And make sure to think of practical and directly applicable solutions. Individual attention for, and dedication to, clients is important.  Therefore, associates should always be available for the client, as we all should be.

Robin Lewis:  Never ignore the client!  Stay in touch via phone calls and emails.    Be interested in them.  Relationships are key.  Knowledge is important, but there are lots of smart lawyers out there and a client is going to choose you because he or she likes working with you.  When you take on extra-curricular activities, join something that truly interests you because that will make you want to participate and contribute.

Ashley Belleau:  Stay in contact with the partner and the client.  Keep them abreast of what’s going on.  Pick up the phone!  Email doesn’t always say what you wanted to say.  I introduce my team to the client and let the client know that if I’m not available, my team can help.  Listen! Then reconfirm the client’s objectives.

How have you developed business?  What do you want to see associates do to develop business?

Ashley Belleau:  It’s all about building relationships.   First, within the firm—with those who hired you, and also with others in the firm.  Control your own destiny by becoming a significant rainmaker.  Build relationships outside the firm as well.  Figure out what you are passionate about.  You can’t just join; you have to build the relationships.  Volunteer to write, to speak, to perform, and demonstrate your capabilities.  You are a lawyer 24/7.  You are always representing your firm.  Your reputation is key.  Project confidence.  When asked what you do, think about your audience and craft your response accordingly.  Meet with your firm’s marketing chair or partner and ask them for their guidance.  What organizations and boards do they recommend you join?  Ask why, and follow-up accordingly.

Felipe Chapula:  I don’t expect a young associate to bring in an M&A deal off the street. We encourage involvement, not just membership, in professional and legal organizations.  Most clients are obtained through word of mouth referrals, so you need to be out there.

Reinier Russell:  I have developed business by being the calling card of the business, myself, (and by always carrying one ;-), at all meetings and wherever I’m in company.  I would advise associates to try not to think just as a lawyer, but to also think like an entrepreneur.

Robin Lewis:  It depends on the stage of their career.  Early on, associates must work to develop their skills as well as their business development.  Business comes in lots of ways.  Sometimes business comes because you are perceived as really good at what you do. Other times, it’s the connections and relationships that you make.  Associates can help in different ways, depending on their skills, strengths, and personalities.

What’s the best way to maximize your Primerus membership?

Robin Lewis:  It’s all about relationships.  Show up.  Participate.  Become known.  People sometimes say to me, “When I think of New Jersey, I think of you.”  Primerus is home to a great group of people.  I try—and usually can—put faces to the names in emails, etc.  It helps to know people and be connected when you are referring work or receiving work.

Ashley Belleau:  Make a commitment to be involved.  Attend every event you can.  Meet every Primerus attorney that you can meet.  Be proactive in pursuing relationships.  Be active—write and speak.  Refer work to others in Primerus.  Think Primerus first.  When you do recommend someone, make sure you let the person know you have done so.  Follow up with them.  Did they get the work?  How is it going?  Treat referrals like gold.  Educate your clients about Primerus.

Reinier Russell:  You make the most of Primerus by being an active member, by submitting articles, and by being a member of practice groups.  Get in touch with other member firms.  Promote your firm’s membership in Primerus on your firm’s website, for instance.

Felipe Chapula:  You need to give it your all for at least three years.  That’s what we did, and after three years, we decided to give it three more years.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give your 26 year old self?

Ashley Belleau:  Be the best lawyer you can be—for yourself!  That way, you’ll be in charge of your own destiny.  Find a firm with a culture that works for you.  Don’t be shocked if the fit isn’t right with your first firm.

Robin Lewis:  Follow your passion, keep the big picture in mind and remember to keep balance in your life.  Good luck getting your 26 year old self to take your advice!

Felipe Chapula:  Think about the long term. It’s very bad business to burn bridges.  When you are younger, you don’t always look at the long term.  Never burn a bridge; never take anything personally.

Reinier Russell:  Act on your ideas, not on your fears!

Ashley L. Belleau is a partner with Montgomery, Barnett, L.L.P. in Louisiana, where her main practice areas include business litigation, business law and alternative dispute resolution. She works with business owners and entrepreneurs assisting them with every aspect of the business. Ashley has been selected as a Louisiana Super Lawyer in the area of business litigation and as a Woman of the Year by New Orleans CityBusiness. She received her J.D. from Tulane University School of Law and is a certified mediator and arbitrator.

Felipe Chapula is a partner at Cacheaux Cavazos & Newton in Mexico.  His practice includes the representation of clients regarding corporate, mergers and acquisitions, antitrust, and automotive, and consumer products.  Felipe received his LL.M. from Universidad Panamericana and his J.D. from Universidad Iberoamericana.

Robin Lewis is a shareholder at Mandelbaum Salsburg, P.C., in New Jersey, focusing on commercial real estate law, secured lending, and workouts.  She has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America and has been selected as a New Jersey “Super Lawyer” in the area of real estate law.  Robin received her J.D. from New York University School of Law.

Reinier Russell is the managing partner at Russell Advocaten in the Netherlands.  His main practice areas are corporate and commercial law.  He also regularly advises clients on a broad range of labor and employment law matters. Reinier is a trained mediator and has vast experience as a boardroom counselor for international companies.  He received his LL.M. and his M.S.L.  from VU University in Amsterdam.

Emily Campbell is a shareholder at Dunlap Codding, providing strategic counsel to clients on trademarks, copyrights, internet law, and licensing. Emily has been selected by attorney peers for inclusion in Oklahoma Super Lawyers–Rising Stars.  She received her J.D. from Oklahoma City School of Law.

Linda Hazelton is the founder of Hazelton Marketing & Management and serves as the virtual CMO/COO of Dunlap Codding.