I Wish I'd Known

Vol. 41 No. 6

Lucy Lee Helm is Executive Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary at Starbucks. She leads the company’s Law & Corporate Affairs department and L&CA’s Litigation and Brand protection team, which involves litigation, intellectual property, marketing and communications, and regulatory and government affairs. Helm received both her BA and her JD from the University of Louisville, the latter in the university’s Brandeis School of Law, and was recognized as a 2010 Outstanding Alumnae of the School of Law. Prior to joining Starbucks, Helm was a principal at Riddell Williams P.S. in Seattle, where she was a trial lawyer specializing in Commercial, Insurance Coverage, and Environmental Litigation.

Law school prepares you for just a small fraction of what it takes to be an effective lawyer. You learn how to think, analyze, research, write, and advocate. You read complex statutes and regulations, ponder the meaning of scholarly judicial decisions, and try to discern the rule of law from Socratic classroom discussions. But you don’t learn how to counsel and advise a client. How to be of service.

The practice of law is about people and their lives––people being sued, creating a new business, dissolving a marriage, writing a will, standing up for their civil rights, keeping their kid out of jail. It’s remarkably emotional and usually messy. Like patients going to a physician for care, clients are often anxious and unsure. They rely on you not only for your knowledge and expertise, but your reassurance and guidance.

We hold positions of trust that we do well to respect and grow. And we can only do that if we wholeheartedly connect with those we represent and create meaningful relationships.

That means really listening to your clients as people, with empathy and an open mind. It means understanding their objectives and goals. It means digging into the facts––deeply understanding your client’s business or situation. It means not being afraid to say that you don’t know the answer, but that you will find out and give the best advice you know how.

The best lawyers I know are pragmatic problem solvers. They care less about winning and more about achieving results that serve the best interests of their clients. Sometimes that means negotiating a quick resolution of a case that can be won but will cause your client pain and disruption during the years of litigation. Sometimes that means supporting your client in standing up for a principle even if they may have to pay a high price.

But in every situation it means knowing those you represent well enough to provide thoughtful counsel and advice. Clients are not looking for “the” answer or the letter of the law––they want your judgment, critical thinking, wisdom, and perspective. They want your recommendation when they ask: “What would you do?” You have to be brave enough to freely provide your advice and know that it may not be perfect or free of risk. That’s when you’ll earn the role of trusted advisor.

Finally, relationship-based legal practice can best be accomplished if you are true to who you are and doing what you love. So if you want to be the best lawyer you can be, my advice is to find and embrace the part of the legal world that makes you the happiest––whether that is small town solo practice, defense of persons with limited means, government service, or in-house practice representing the coolest company on the planet (sorry, that job is taken). Doing what you love and loving what you do will allow you to create meaningful connections with those you represent and to truly be of service.

 

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