July 16, 2019 Articles

“Making It” in Private Practice: An Interview with Justin B. Weiner

The thoughts of an attorney who has been a judicial law clerk, an associate at a big firm, and a partner at a small firm.

By Lauren M. Weinstein

Justin B. Weiner is a partner in MoloLamken’s Chicago office. His practice focuses on complex business litigation, with a particular emphasis on litigation concerning structured finance, corporate finance, and patent litigation. Mr. Weiner also has extensive experience in appellate litigation. Prior to joining MoloLamken, Mr. Weiner was an associate in the Chicago office of Sidley Austin LLP. He also served as a law clerk to Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and to Judge Milton I. Shadur of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Moving around as a relatively young lawyer seems to be becoming more the norm. You’ve been a judicial law clerk, an associate at a big firm, and a partner at a small firm. And you’re still under 40. What value do you see in changing organizations in your first decade or so of practice?

I actually think there should be less moving around in the first decade of practice. In the past, most attorneys would go to one firm and stick to it. I think that path is preferable if you can swing it.

To do that, we, as a profession, need to be better at matching people with mentors and being transparent about what life at a law firm is like. It is hard to know coming out of law school what you want from a firm and what you will be good at, unless you have good, thoughtful mentors. A good mentor can provide insight into the practice that only comes from experience and steer you to a place where you will succeed. But, in the practice of law, mentorship only really takes hold at your first job. By then, it’s too late; you are at a job in which you will either thrive or not, and whether you do is partially a matter of luck.

Transparency is also very important. When I was a summer associate, it was wining and dining all summer long. You heard talk of long hours, but there wasn’t enough of a preview of what real life is like as a lawyer. I don’t think there is maliciousness intended; it’s just hard to convey real experience in that environment. A realistic look at what law firm life is like would help young lawyers find better matches right out of the gate.

Why is staying at one place better in your view?

In the practice of law, particularly in litigation, projects are clunky and take a long time. It takes a long time to figure it out and learn the skills to master your craft. If you’re in the right place and you’ve found your niche, you will get to the point of mastery faster. With every move you make, there is a bit of a learning curve, and it may delay mastery. It may delay your “making it”—finding happiness in this profession.

What did you get out of each of your experiences practicing law (clerking, big firm, small firm)?

Despite waxing poetic about staying in one place, I am very happy with all the moves I’ve made. I’m happy with where I wound up. I got a lot out of each experience.

Clerkships are uniquely valuable because you peek behind the curtain of what goes on in judicial decision making, and the key goal for a client is ultimately getting a successful outcome in front of a judge.

I wouldn’t have been as successful in a small firm without having first been a big firm associate. Small firms are inherently less structured and require more of a self-starter who knows what good work habits are and what good work product looks like. A big law firm helps you develop that knowledge because you work in a highly structured environment where every step along the way has many, many hands on it. That prepares you to go into a less structured environment where the onus is on you to accomplish all those small tasks.

What did you think being a lawyer would be like in law school and how is that different than the reality?

What you see in law school are the easily visible hard skills that often don’t make up a large part of the day-to-day of lawyering—for example, writing and courtroom skills. Those are obviously critical, but another huge component is soft skills. Making minute-by-minute judgments about how to build a case and prove your points on the plaintiff side, and how to anticipate and pick apart what the plaintiff will say on the defense side. Those soft skills are not visible when you’re in law school. They become apparent only with experience.

Would you recommend the path you’ve taken in your career to attorneys fresh out of law school?

Notwithstanding my statement that I think it’s important to find the right fit and do that quickly, it can take time to figure out whether you’re in the right place. It would be great if law students landed in a place that suits them. But once you’re at your first stop, you need to carefully evaluate how you’re doing and whether it’s the right place for you. I see people moving on to other jobs nine months to a year after starting at their first firm. That’s not enough time because cases take so long, particularly big cases. I’m glad I was at a big law firm for a number of years before moving on to a smaller place because it gave me a chance to fully experience the firm and develop skills.

You mentioned mentorship. How can we improve?

I would like to see more of an effort put toward matching practicing lawyers with law students, not just the occasional panel but actually getting law students out there in the real world practicing law more. Clinical programs are one way of doing that, and I am glad to see law schools taking those programs seriously now.

What do you think it means to “make it” in private practice, and do you think you have “made it”?

It depends on your goals, and it varies person to person. I like to think about it in terms of intrinsic goals (goals only I can observe) and extrinsic goals (goals others can observe). Intrinsic goals are mastering my craft: saying the right things in court, making the right judgments, writing the best briefs. Everything I’m doing is working toward getting the best result for my client.

Have I achieved that? The feeling of mastery develops the deeper I get into my career, but it’s not completely achievable. The law changes and practices change, so there will always be some new challenge and new adaptation.

My extrinsic goal is having clients who call me when they have a problem. Being a lawyer is a service business, and I feel like I’ve made it when I have someone on the phone asking me to help them solve a problem.

I don’t know if I will ever sit back and say “I’ve achieved everything I want to,” but I certainly feel like I am getting closer as time passes.

What are your goals for the next decade of your law practice?

More of the same. I’m at a point now where I don’t need that structure around me to succeed and reach those goals of mastering my craft and having clients who call on me when they have a problem. I just have to keep building on what I’ve been doing and building out my own practice.

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

“Run to trouble.” There will always be fires in litigation—problems, mistakes, unexpected twists and turns. The concept of the bystander effect in psychology teaches us that when people find themselves amongst a group, they are less likely to react to trouble. Hence, your natural instinct will be to dismiss trouble; let someone else deal with it. That’s especially true in litigation, where the negative impact of ignoring trouble may not be felt for a long time. That interrogatory response that is missing a key, later-discovered fact may not come back to bite you until months later at summary judgment or trial.

Good litigators are aware of that instinct and actively work to overcome it. They have a good antenna for trouble, and when they sense a problem, they dig deeper, resisting the impulse to ignore it.

What advice would you give other millennial attorneys in private practice?

Always value, cultivate, and appreciate your network. In the practice of law and the process of becoming a lawyer, you have repeated opportunities to develop a network, and, if you join private practice, that network will be the source of your business. Your friends will go in-house and need someone of your skill set at some point. But they won’t know they need you unless you’ve kept in touch and they’re aware of how you can help them. I think it’s something anyone can start doing from the day they leave law school.

Keep in touch with people, and be there so that when they need help—you’ll get the call. That’s the ticket to having a bunch of clients, which, in turn, is the ticket to happiness in this profession: having people call you when they have an issue. Clients don’t hire you because of a shiny résumé and credentials. They hire you because they have a relationship with you and trust you.

Lauren M. Weinstein is an attorney in MoloLamken’s Washington, D.C., office.

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