PUBLISHED:February 18, 2008

ESQ 2008 answers professional questions the casebooks can't

Feb. 18, 2008 ― “ESQ,” the Business Law Society’s annual career symposium, offers Duke Law students insights on professional life that casebooks overlook. More than 180 students attended the sixth annual symposium on Feb. 8-9, taking the opportunity to find out what it’s really like in the professional world from practitioners engaged in a wide-range of practice areas, in business, and in public service. Inviting students to ask frank questions to help them craft their job searches and careers, Thomas Dunn ’92, a partner with symposium sponsor Cravath, Swaine & Moore on his fourth visit to ESQ, observed that “there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer.”

A panel of specialists in international litigation and transactions agreed on the importance of language skills and cultural sensitivity when working with foreign clients. “You have to deal with their own cultural ways of resolving disputes,” said Margaret Pfeiffer ’67, a partner with Sullivan & Cromwell in Washington, D.C. “Litigation must be more nuanced ― how will you strategize or reach an agreement?” International clients demand explanations of strategies, she added, in a way that will call on the clear logical thinking learned in law school. “Your international client will ask the question your law professor would have asked you, so think it through,” she said. Peter Kahn ’76, a partner with Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., agreed. “You owe it to your foreign clients to be able to articulate a strategy they can buy into because they don’t understand the [U.S.] system and don’t understand the costs.”

All litigators benefit from working in teams, mastering the rules of evidence and civil procedure, and developing their writing skills, observed various panelists in describing their litigation practices. “In law school there is an attitude that ‘journal stuff’ is resume padding,” said Roger Brooks, a partner with Cravath, Swain & Moore. “It’s not true ― it’s highly relevant training. What I am professionally is a writer, a public speaker, and a communicator.” Writing well puts associates on a “fast track,” added David Lender, a partner with Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “People will give you more and more of the fun stuff if you’ve proven you can write.”

Sharing their stories of leaving law firm practices for careers as entrepreneurs and in-house attorneys, four alumni agreed that the experience gained at a law firm can be extremely important. “Don’t be in a rush to move into business,” counseled Scott Wilkinson ’88, general counsel of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and its parent company Atlanta Spirit. “The ‘grunt work and boot camp’ of law firm work is valuable. The worst thing that could happen is that you get your opportunity [in the corporate sphere] and you’re not ready,” he said.

In addition to the importance of building solid relationships and maintaining the highest standards of integrity, the panelists stressed the importance of pursuing career paths fueled by passion. Recalling a law firm mentor who asked him daily if he was “having fun,” Happy Perkins ’80, general counsel for GE Energy, said he developed the habit of asking himself that question every day. “I review my day and think about what was fun and what was good,” he said. “If you can’t come up with something, look for another job.”

Women in law firms benefit from mentoring relationships, a number of practitioners agreed. “Find people who are supportive and develop strong relationships. It’s critical to training and advancement,” said Carol Ann Huff ’96, a partner with Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago. “One concern for a lot of women is whether male partners will find a connection with younger female associates,” said Caroline Gottschalk ’90, a partner with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in New York. “As a woman you do have to work a little harder to find commonality, but you can and should."

Students heard repeatedly about the importance of setting personal priorities. “My clients know that if I’m in New York, I’m with my girls between 7 and 9 every night,” said Lender. “I’ll do a conference call at 9, but not at 8.” Keynote speaker Alan Bender ’79, who left a securities law practice to co-found and eventually build the telecommunications giants Western Wireless Corporation (now Alltel) and VoiceStream (now T-Mobile), likewise noted the challenge of balancing career and family. “I did try very hard never to miss a significant event … even if it meant leaving Hong Kong in the middle of the night and getting back in time for a party.”

Outlining his journey from a Wall Street practice to enormous success as an entrepreneur, Bender didn’t shy away from detailing his setbacks; in the early 1990s, his start-up company spent a year in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “Failure is an opportunity to learn from challenges and mistakes and come back even stronger,” he observed.

Bender urged students to continually learn new skills and commit themselves to “never being outworked,” whether in law or business. For those with an entrepreneurial bent, he stressed the importance of knowing their business plan and partners inside out and believing in them, even when others might not. Integrity, he counseled is essential. “It’s the be-all and end-all,” he said. “Do things the right way ― don’t cut corners.”

Asked how he assessed risk when he first considered leaving the safety of law firm success for a venture in wireless communications ― a new and untested industry at the time ― Bender acknowledged that his wife’s support and willingness to live with uncertainty was invaluable. “Yet I don’t feel that I put everything on the line,” he said. “We always have our legal education. And we have great experience and could apply it elsewhere. If this didn’t work there would be other opportunities.” (See full coverage of Alan Bender’s remarks.)

Chaired by 2Ls Sarah Kahn and Nicholas Varela of the Business Law Society, ESQ was co-sponsored by Cravath, Swain & Moore, Kirkland & Ellis, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, along with Duke Law’s Career & Professional Development Center. A photo gallery from the conference is available.

We thank the following alumni and friends who shared their expertise at ESQ 2008:

Alan Bender ’79, Trilogy Partnership, Seattle

Roger G. Brooks, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, New York

David Chenkin ’82, Zeichner Ellman & Krause

Michael Dockterman ’78, Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon, Chicago

Thomas E. Dunn ’92, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, New York

Caroline B. Gottschalk ’90, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, New York

Kathleen Hamm ’88, Promontory Financial Group

Thomas Hanusik ’90, Crowell & Moring, Washington, D.C.

Leigh M. Harlan ’05, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, New York

Carol Ann Huff ’96, Kirkland & Ellis, Chicago

Peter Kahn ’76, Williams & Connolly, Washington, D.C.

Aya Kobori ’02, White & Case, New York

Michael H. Krimminger ’82, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Washington, D.C.

David Lender ’93, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, New York

Stephen M. Lynch ’86, Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, Charlotte

John Methfessel ’86, Verdatum, New York

Happy Perkins ’80, General Electric, Atlanta

Margaret Pfeiffer ’67, Sullivan & Cromwell, Washington, D.C.

Jordan T. Razza ’03, Sullivan & Cromwell, New York

Darren Skinner, Arnold & Porter, Washington, D.C.

Ephraim Starr ’96, Kirkland &Ellis, Los Angeles

Scott Wilkinson ’88, Atlanta Hawks/Atlanta Spirit Atlanta

Michael C. Williams, Hogan & Hartson, Washington, D.C.