Chair's Column: Choices
by Paul R. DeMuro, Latham & Watkins LLP, San Francisco, CA
In today’s society, I am often struck by the myriad choices we are presented with on a day-to-day basis, particularly for those of us who are touched by the law. For example, our law student representative on the ABA HLS Governing Council, Katie Rose Fink, had to make a decision as to whether she would go to law school, what law school she would go to, what area of law she wanted to focus on (in this case health law) or not to focus at all at this stage in her career. She also has to decide whether or not to apply for a clerkship, whether to work for a law firm, in government or in industry after her second year of law school and after graduation. In addition, if she chooses a law firm, she has to decide in what area of the country, what firm, and how does she compare them. And once she is at a law firm, her choices have only begun.
The nature of such choices and how we seem to be presented with many of them at an earlier and earlier age was presented to me on very personal level in late March, 2007. My oldest daughter Melissa (age 14) and I headed to Boston to enable her to "revisit" the two high schools to which she had narrowed her choice for the Fall of 2007. On the flight, I learned that the term "revisit" in this context meant to see again schools one had previous looked at in the fall. Melissa had made many choices by the time she boarded the plane to Boston. She had visited nine schools in the Northeast with her mother in the Fall of 2006, and had made two separate trips to high schools in Northern and Southern California.
We do not often realize when a newly-minted lawyer comes into our firms that they have made so many choices along the way, large law firm/small law firm, what city, what practice area, and whether to focus on transactional work versus litigation. And then, some firms ask "What do you want your specialty in health law to be?" I am surprised that anyone could possibly know so early in her career.
As our plane to Boston took off, Melissa shared with me the literature about her two final school candidates. I soon realized why she did not think a local school would work for her. There are a number of wonderful schools where we live. However, no school offered a soccer, ski team, and a top notch challenging educational curriculum. As I read about each school on the plane, I realized how pleased I was that I had previously decided to leave the decision to Melissa. I certainly would not want to touch a decision that was so personal to her and her future.
As we mentor law students and young lawyers about their careers, we can add additional information to help assist them in their choices, e.g. help them see things they may not really have thought of, but it is best for them to decide with as much information as possible. We need to help them in that regard.
I learned on the flight that the size of the school was important to Melissa. She did not want too large or too small of a school. I also realized that the school’s multifaceted courses offerings were important, whether one could get a single room her first year, how hard it might be to make the sports teams, how much room would a student be given to grow. Wow… She had already figured this out and had decided it was down to two schools. Prior to boarding the flight to Boston, I had thought her mother and she had done the hard part and I had the easy part.
What happens if a lawyer chooses a firm and later finds out that the firm does not have as much of that work that she would like, or she is not able to be assigned to work in that group in which she desired to work? I know of a number of unfortunate situations where associates leave their firms to go to firms that have the work they thought their firm had or because they cannot seem to get into the "right" group. These are truly unfortunate situations where some knowledge and mentoring may have obviated the need for the move.
Reflecting on all of this, I read the school brochures with great scrutiny, preparing myself to ask a number of questions during the "revisits." The more information one has, the easier it should be to make a decision. At least, one would think this would be the case.
Believe it or not, I started thinking about those life and death consent and other situations in which we need to help our clients with at the spur of the moment: e.g., occasions in which we have no time to research the law. What if Melissa did not have the luxury of the revisits? Her first choice after conclusion of her first round of visits was the school in Massachusetts. On the plane, she said she was now thinking that the school in New Hampshire might be a better fit for her. It is amazing how we as lawyers sometimes agonize over decisions. We go back and forth in our minds time and time again, but at some point we need to make a decision. If it is a decision in which we need to consult our moral compass, the correct decision may be easy, but getting there when the CEO will not like that decision still can be difficult.
Well, we landed at Logan Airport — at least that decision had been made for us, and found our way to our hotel. I decided to start my day early in the morning with a breakfast meeting with a former client who is now on the business side of the healthcare business. He had made a decision based on a great opportunity to leave the law department of his company and became in charge of a new business line which he is now developing. Is that jumping off a building without a net or what? Although he has all the requisite skill and confidence to make it a success particularly with a little luck and good legal counseling, it is still scary. Melissa, on the other hand, chose perhaps the wiser course, to sleep in a bit.
As we drove from Boston to Concord, New Hampshire, I was awed by the splendor and grandeur of New England. All prior trips to New England I can remember were merely to meetings in Boston or nearby, in car, and maybe to a hotel and a meeting before heading back to the airport. Although the air was crisp, the sun was shining, and it was a beautiful day,maybe I would have felt differently had it been cold and dreary gray day.
Melissa and I had a chance to actually talk in the car. If any of you have or have had a teenager, you know how limited and how precious that time is. Well, we arrived in Concord about an hour and half later, given that I needed some time to get lost, and so we started our revisit later on Friday afternoon. As we drove onto the 2,000 acre campus, steeped into a history of approximately 150 years, I could see why Melissa was so interested in this special place. We spent late Friday afternoon, and part of the evening and half of Saturday at the school.
The number and types of choices were ringing through my head: Does Melissa take the Robotics class?; Does she work with the 7 meter telescope outside in a building on a hill that is controlled by computer to enable the students to stay in a heated room on a cold New England night? Which one of the seven languages offered will she take? Will she truly appreciate the Humanities classes she attends at the Harkness table? As we left after a delightful visit, her host, a 3rd Form (freshman) student said she really hoped Melissa decided to go to her school.
I started to reflect on how important it is for us to make newer lawyers feel more comfortable in their new and ever changing settings. Will we be a good host to our new colleagues? Will that "interest" in them make their choices easier?
Well, it seemed that the decision was getting easierthat is until we arrived on Sunday night for our revisit at the Massachusetts school. Melissa had taken her laptop out assigned xxs to various aspects of her choice and one night when we added them up, it was 11 to 11 — dead even. Now how can someone choose on such a basis?
The Massachusetts school also had a very steeped history. It had even been in existence about 100 years longer than the New Hampshire school. But getting back to that decision. How many times have we tried to decide between two very different, but potentially fantastic decisions? Do I decide on a career as a transactional lawyer or as a litigation lawyer? As many of us in health care know, in our highly regulated healthcare world, we can often do a little of both with a focus on one or the other, although it is getting increasingly difficult to do so.
The Massachusetts school had an awesome new science and technology center. The New Hampshire School had a new athletic facility. One school had this program, the other one had that one. It soon became apparent that there was no wrong decision. How often is this the case, where we have to make a decision, but there is no wrong decision? We do not even need to take out our moral compass.
It is not better to be a bio-tech lawyer, then a FDA lawyer, or M&A lawyer, than a white collar defense lawyer. They all are wonderful choices leading to most interesting careers. We should be ecstatic we are even presented with such choices. It is not the choice, but what we make out of it once we make the choice which is key.
I was waiting for the time for Melissa to ask me what I thought. And of course, she did. However, I think she was stunned with my comment. I said this is not a "winter camp" (reference to her love of summer camps and Alpine skiing camps). It is an opportunity to get a wonderful education and grow dramatically as a young adult. The cultural diversity at both schools was an important factor in Melissa’s narrowing of her alternatives. The international flavour at the New Hampshire school was amazing (about 1/3 of the students are of color and/or from countries outside the U.S.). I told Melissa that she needed to choose the school where she would be the most comfortable, where she could see herself studying the hardest, learning the most, and eventually making the greatest contribution to society. I said Melissa: "There is no wrong decision, but you are going to make this decision on your own, not me. I will work to make sure you have the most information possible to make an informed decision, but it is up to you."
Fast forward . . ., Melissa agonized over the decision on the flight home the next morning. After learning the evening before that our flight was cancelled and we were rebooked on a terribly inconvenient set of flights, I rebooked us on a flight that resulted in our having to get up at about 1:30 a.m. California time. This was not an event Melissa was excited about, but we discussed how this could happen on a trip if she were alone and what she might do. We discussed what to do in different situations that might arise while traveling, but as well prepared as one might be – being prepared for the unexpected is as important as anything else.
We certainly see the unexpected as health care lawyers and have to be prepared for the unexpected. In fact, much of what we do is deal with the unexpected. Our expertise and training can only take us so far. We need to make decisions on an hourly basis.
Days passed and the day of reckoning arrived. Melissa had to make a decision. I am not sure she got that much sleep the night before she made the decision. I received a phone call from Melissa early one morning at what seemingly is becoming my second home — an airport. Dad, she said, I want you to know I have made my decision. I congratulated her and told her she made the right one since she had thoroughly thought it through. As with all good decisions, there is no looking back.
For all of us, the importance of making a decision, not looking back, and moving forward is key. Actually, there is never any time to look back. There usually are two or more decisions which we need to focus on immediately thereafter.
As Melissa travels with me to the ABA HLS meetings in Berlin later this month, I hope she will take the time to observe part of our international healthcare legal exchange. I also am looking forward to not only spending time with our American and International colleagues, but traveling again with my teenage daughter. I am hoping that she will "talk" to me again. However, as with many of our interactions with more junior lawyers, it often is up to us to initiate the dialogue.
I am incredibly proud of how my daughter approached her decision. At 14, I could not have done so with the same deliberate and reasoned approach. I am not sure I could today. As I noted earlier, I am sure glad it was her decision.
Thoughts, concerns, observations … My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
My best regards and thanks for reading.
Paul R. DeMuro