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April 16, 2013 Articles

The Switchboard Attorney: A Career You Knew Existed but Never Realized

Your path may lead you to a nontraditional but highly respected role.

By Matt Gipple

Law students and young attorneys today have an increasing number of options regarding career roles and specializations. A law degree is the gateway to becoming anything from a CERCLA specialist to an Internet lobbyist or a mass-tort litigator. But one appealing legal role remains relatively unclassified.

Most legal specializations are well known and easy to commence based on their ties to specific areas of law. For example, one becomes a mergers-and-acquisitions (M&A) lawyer by taking transactional classes in law school, moving to New York, and jumping onto the social scene of the “1 percent.” One becomes a civil-rights lawyer by protesting at law school, moving to Berkeley, and sleeping outside with the “99  percent.” All jokes aside, law students and young lawyers generally enter the legal industry shooting for one of the several well-defined, well-known legal careers that has a fairly clear path.

Another role, which is played by a large number of attorneys, is not readily apparent to law students and young lawyers contemplating what type of attorney they want to be. This role is one of unique and durable importance and may be attractive to those considering or already in the legal field. Law schools facing admissions and employment crises might be wise to consider touting the growing demand for this role and teaching their students the skills it requires.

What is this mysterious legal position? Though it may not have a well-established name, practicing attorneys are very familiar with this role. I call it the switchboard attorney.

The switchboard attorney is the organizer, the manager, with his or her fingers in every relevant pot, making sure everything is done and everyone contributes appropriately. At the lower level, his or her skills are not field-specific. But, at a higher level, it often makes sense to become a specialized switchboard attorney.

Many would argue that legal switchboarding is not a unique position and that every lawyer has to wear the switchboard-attorney hat. For many basic legal tasks, that is true. The brief needs the declaration, the notice of motion, and the proposed order too. But when multiple people get involved, there often is one person “herding the cats” and organizing all the work. If there is not a switchboard attorney on a matter, there should be. A switchboard attorney is important because lacking a central clearinghouse often results in inconsistencies, missed deadlines, inefficient work assignments, and overall ineffective legal service.

That one person, the switchboard attorney, is a specific individual who always plays the switchboard role. In larger situations, the switchboard attorney can be a single firm organizing a group of firms, but usually the same firm performs the switchboard task.

Tasks and Value of the Switchboard Attorney
The specific tasks of the switchboard attorney vary by practice and level of seniority. A junior switchboard litigator receives a massive research assignment, splits up the tasks among his or her coworkers, and integrates their work. His or her superior switchboard litigator knows all the documents that need to be filed and who is writing them. He or she interfaces between the authors and the juniors who assist them and knows who is working on what and who has time to help. He or she monitors the progress of the various required documents and ensures that each is progressing on time.

The senior associate or partner switchboard litigator interfaces with clients, mid-level associates, and partners to ensure consistency in the final work product. He or she filters and distributes new tasks, revises the priority of tasks already distributed, corrals the partners to submit their edits, assuages the client, and coordinates with the opposition.

Contrast these switchboard roles to the more traditional tasks of litigators in the same firm at the same respective levels: junior associates drafting the supporting documents or doing fact and legal research; mid-level associates writing the first drafts of briefs; senior associates refining or writing the drafts and working with the client; and partners refining the briefs, making global decisions about strategy, and arguing the motions. Without an attorney playing the switchboard role, a litany of problems may arise, such as wildly varying workloads for attorneys, supposedly complementary briefs citing different cases for the same proposition, and client confusion regarding who is performing what service and whether that service is even justified.

In the transactional context, you find the junior switchboard attorney researching and organizing the documents needed to close the deal. His or her traditional counterpart might instead be taking first attempts at drafts or checking consistency of and proofing the documents. A mid-level transactional switchboard attorney organizes the relevant parties and contributing attorneys. Higher in the transactional context, the role may be less apparent. The majority of an M&A partner’s job might be talking on the phone with the relevant participants and solving outstanding issues. But, there is still a distinction between the organizing partner and the partner who simply weighs in on substantive matters of the deal. The switchboard attorney is, of course, in the former category.

The switchboard attorney becomes most valuable at the advanced level. A simple example comes from legal practice in the government: A new regulatory rule incorporating input from several different agencies would benefit greatly from a switchboard attorney contacting the relevant parties and integrating their work.

Antitrust litigation provides another stark example. One company might face legal proceedings in 15 different jurisdictions. While the antitrust laws between countries are often similar, each is unique; and, no individual attorney could effectively represent a client sued in that many places. Thus, companies hire local counsel but retain one lawyer or, more often, one firm as the lead. That lawyer or firm plays the switchboard role. The task for the switchboarding firm at this level is to know enough about each jurisdiction’s laws to competently assess the quality of the work performed by local counsel. The switchboard firm develops meta-themes that attorneys in every jurisdiction will argue. This attorney or firm develops a global strategy and considers how proposed actions in one jurisdiction will affect another. That service is unique and necessary. But, not many firms or persons can provide it because it requires a specific focus on a switchboard-type practice and a more wide-ranging, though possibly less deep, understanding of the relevant laws.

Highly valued senior switchboard roles exist in almost every practice area, but another exemplary position is the class-action lead counsel who organizes, develops themes, and drives the common cause. This attorney (or firm) usually must coordinate multiple plaintiffs’ firms and manage the ever-pertinent debate over settlement. The switchboard class-action counsel is not the attorney actually negotiating the settlement. Rather, he or she is the one talking to the firms or the plaintiffs to see what they want and determining a workable plan to achieve those goals.

In terms of legal prestige, the switchboard attorney often is overlooked. He or she doesn’t do the research, write the briefs, or argue the case. He or she doesn’t draft the contract or close the deal. He or she performs none of the marquee tasks of the profession. But, the role is valuable, and clients seeking the best service (and firms seeking to provide it) are wise to make use of a switchboard attorney. The brief might get filed and the deal might finish without him or her, but the work product will be inferior and client satisfaction lower because the process will have missed all the added value described above. The role of the switchboard attorney becomes even more pivotal at the most complex levels—jobs actually could not get done without the switchboard attorney, and he or she (or it, if an entire firm) is the most respected member of the team.

Attributes of the Switchboard Attorney 
Obviously, the quantity of switchboard attorneys and switchboard tasks depends on the size and complexity of the matter. But, a non-attorney cannot provide the value that a switchboard attorney does. The junior litigator must know the law regarding what affiliated documents must accompany a filing. The mid-level M&A attorney must recognize that he or she needs a real-estate partner to weigh in on the deal. The antitrust partner must understand the basic regimes of the relevant jurisdictions and develop a strategy that solves issues where possible without causing new problems in other jurisdictions. A non-attorney could learn the necessary specifics, but he or she could not individually drive the required work either because of law-practice rules or power dynamics at the workplace.

The switchboard role is ideal for someone interested in the law but maybe not in the traditional roles. As an extreme example, consider a person disinclined to both writing and public speaking. Most would assume that this person could never become a litigator (or even a lawyer) without such skills. But, she could take the switchboard role and be an excellent litigator. She would not have to write the briefs or stand up in court; however, she could add value by advising on what should be done, what should be written, and what should be said in court.

The switchboard attorney must be an excellent organizer. He or she must have the expertise or proclivity to understand the required tasks; accurately estimate the time needed to complete them; work with people to keep them on time and on subject; keep tabs on all the elements of a project; and drive completion. The person must possess excellent personal-relations skills because the bulk of the job entails corralling people—superiors, inferiors, clients, and third parties—toward an end goal.

Becoming a Switchboard Attorney
Initially, the path to becoming a switchboard attorney does not vary much from the path toward a traditional role. An aspiring switchboard litigator takes the same classes and learns the same laws as those aiming to be trial lawyers. But, rather than using the latter years of law school to practice at the school’s litigation clinic, the future switchboard attorney might better prepare by taking classes outside of the law school in management, organizational behavior, or psychology.

The key point of divergence is as a young attorney. The switchboard-minded person jumps on the switchboard tasks described above and makes it apparent that he or she enjoys and desires the switchboard role. Of course, the ambitious lawyer with available time should never turn down work, and the switchboard-minded attorney should take the offered traditional work. But at some point, the switchboard-seeker will face a choice between performing normally enviable advanced traditional work or switchboard-type tasks. While the attorney might shock the superior or client, he or she should actually turn down the traditional task in that situation and explain his or her interest in switchboard roles. Though risky, such a maneuver firmly sets the attorney on the switchboard path. From that point on, the switchboard attorney need only do excellent work as any other attorney seeking advancement would.

The switchboard attorney is a person increasingly relevant in the world of more filings, more jurisdictions, more parties, and more documents. Law schools should consider how to teach for such a role, and law firms and clients should make sure they recognize and use switchboard attorneys.

Switchboarding is a role for people who enjoy the law but perhaps not the typical work of a lawyer. The path is a logical one. Though not conventionally lauded in the profession, the switchboard role, when performed well, today garners high respect, power, and importance in legal-practice areas across the spectrum.

Matt Gipple is an associate at Latham & Watkins in San Francisco, California.