February 15, 2017 Articles

Lessons Learned at the 2016 Professional Success Summit

A summary of the main takeaways from the inaugural event for litigators of color.

By Angel Chiang

The Diversity and Inclusion Committee co-sponsored the ABA Section of Litigation’s inaugural Professional Success Summit in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 2016. The summit offered 18 programs and networking events designed to empower litigators of color with the tools they need to reach their professional goals. Over 300 attorneys attended the summit to gather wisdom from leading in-house executives, partners, trial attorneys, and federal judges to polish their management, coaching, and business skills. 

Some of the main takeaways from the two and a half days of programming included the following:

Advice for In-House Counsel

  • The right legal answers are not always the right answers to in-house counsel. 
  • In-house is messy, and mistakes are inevitable. But unlike in law firms, mistakes made in-house do not necessarily amount to malpractice.
  • When pitching to in-house counsel, understand what a corporation does before you go in for a pitch: Read the 10-K, learn about the culture of the business, and learn where the company is headed.
  • The “sweet spot” for transitioning in-house is about four to eight years out of law school.
  • Every day, think about whom you are investing in. Investing in others signals to people that they have value to you, and people get to know you when you invest in them.
  • Stay resilient, because failures are inevitable.

Advice for Trying a Case in Court

  • The keys to persuasive advocacy in front of a judge are  (1) presence, (2) credibility, and (3) reasonableness.
  • Whatever you can do to make a judge’s job easier will help make you a better advocate.
  • When you’re in front of a difficult judge, be (1) prompt, (2) prepared, (3) professional, and (4) patient.
  • The key to effective advocacy before a jury is being a good storyteller and figuring out how to get jurors to listen—and how to get jurors to like you.
  • Lawyers have three opportunities to testify during trial: the opening statement, cross-examination, and closing arguments.
  • When preparing for trial, bring out the problems in your own expert’s report before the other side does. This gives you an opportunity to frame the issues before the other side has the opportunity to do so.
  • When cross-examining an expert, make sure you go in with a purpose and keep the cross as brief as you can. The longer you’re in there with an expert, the more likely the expert will get the better of you.
  • You cannot discipline a witness until both the judge and the jury know the purpose for disciplining the witness.
  • Before you can sell anything to a judge or a jury, you have to be able to sell yourself.  This sometimes means being able to relate to the community, because members of the community will comprise the jury.
  • Voir dire is the most important part of trial, because that is when you choose your audience.
  • If you are a young lawyer on a trial team, make sure you are the first and last person in the war room every day. Volunteer for everything. Do everything you can to help make the lead attorneys’ lives easier, because trying a case is a team effort.

Advice on Building Intangible Leadership Skills

  • Smarts are not good enough, but smarts get you in the door.
  • Great leaders do not thrive on constant pressure; they need sleep too. What you do to replenish your soul will directly affect your success.
  • If the solution to your problem is expecting someone else to change, you are doomed. Be prepared to change yourself.
  • Emotional intelligence is just as important as intellectual intelligence.
  • Be aware of your own brand. Be self-aware about how you present to the world; be authentic; have the courage to always learn; and avoid brand-killers (e.g., typos, overuse of email, disrespecting other people’s time, and not getting to the point).

Throughout the summit, there was a palpable enthusiasm around the belief that the advancement of diverse lawyers betters the legal profession as a whole, and that justice cannot be truly served unless the people advancing justice—lawyers—represent the communities they serve. Harvard Law School’s Professor Ronald Sullivan best articulated this belief during the keynote luncheon on the second day of the summit. Professor Sullivan described justice as something that does not just fall out of the sky, but as something people do, and that lawyers are “in the business of justice.” He challenged everyone to dedicate one hour a week to “doing” justice and making their community a little bit better. The message could not have been timelier. Set just one week after the presidential election, the summit was a perfect platform for diverse litigators to unite and share ideas on how to cope with the uncertain political climate and prepare for the next four years. Attendees came away from the summit resolved to take Professor Sullivan’s heed and “do” more justice and work harder to guard against the erosion of civil liberties that most directly threatens minority communities. Given the galvanizing effect of recent political events, it will be interesting to see what justice is done, and what the next Professional Success Summit holds in two years’ time, after the mid-term elections.

Angel Chiang is an associate with Fenwick & West in Mountain View, California.


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Angel Chiang – February 15, 2017