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How to Differentiate Yourself as a Young Litigator

Shana Marks

How to Differentiate Yourself as a Young Litigator
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Rita McNeil Danish is a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister in their Columbus and Chicago offices. Her practice focuses on women-, minority-, and veteran-owned businesses; local government and government relations, crisis management, and public finance and economic development. She previously served as a magistrate and judge, a city attorney, and the assistant deputy legal counsel for Governor George V. Voinovich, among other positions.

It can be challenging for young associates to feel fully integrated in a litigation team. Senior associates and partners often handle the depositions, hearings, and trials, with newer associates focusing on tasks such as legal research and document review.

But just because younger associates aren’t always standing up in court doesn’t mean that they aren’t advocating for clients. There is value to be added at every level, and Rita McNeil Danish, a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister, has some insight on how young associates can best position themselves to make a strong impression.

What kinds of opportunities do you think young lawyers specifically should try to take advantage of as they are advancing in their careers and building their networks?

I still believe in bar associations. I still believe all things are relational; and by having relationships and being engaged, not only is there an educational component, but there’s a relationship component that you build. One day, you’ll have a case that could turn on the fact that you and the lawyer on the other side are cordial because you work together in the bar association on a committee, versus if you don’t know each other at all. I can’t tell you how many times I get the email at my firm asking if I know the lawyer on the other side of a case, because we’re always trying to size up the other side. What I have found is that, with relationships, you’re able to come up with that win-win and get to a resolution—so I do think that things like local bar associations and the ABA are great avenues to get exposure and to meet people.

 

You are heavily involved in the community. How have your community involvements impacted your practice?

I don’t really think that I can point to something and say, “It has impacted my practice.” But everything doesn’t always have an immediate benefit, and I don’t do it for the benefit. I do it because it’s a passion, but you hope that it’s a well-rounded experience. There is a hope that it creates some opportunities or synergies for you to do some other things, and some cool exposure has happened as a result of my relationships, even if they haven’t translated into business.

 

As a partner, what would you say are the top three traits or skills that make young litigators most successful?

One is instinct, or guts. One thing I learned as city attorney is that you have to depend on and trust your instincts. The more experience and exposure you get, the more developed your instincts will be. You will not be able to research or learn a response to everything, so sometimes you just have to trust your gut and make a decision.

Second, you have to be fearless. When I say fearless, that means that you can’t be afraid to make a mistake or be wrong. You have to accept the reality that you are going to make a mistake, there are going to be times when you are wrong. But the focus is less on the mistake and more on what you do to fix it. If you are fearless, then you get out there and get the exposure and fine-tune those instincts because you’ll never make that same mistake again.

Third, you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. When I was city attorney, I held the power; and if you wanted to be rude, you weren’t getting anything from me. But maybe if you were nice, I would give you a little latitude. If you’re nice and kind and flexible, you’ll find that you get far more than if you’re not.

 

It’s likely that young attorneys—especially litigators—won’t have the chance to really handle a case or be a client contact themselves for a while. How do you think attorneys in those positions can provide the most value and still be the best possible advocates when they aren’t the ones leading the charge?

Always anticipate. If you are already anticipating what the client might need or what the lawyer may need or what the case may require that they haven’t thought of yet, going that extra mile makes you invaluable and makes them immediately want to ask for you again. It requires a little mind reading, but once you get familiar and get comfortable, don’t be afraid to go above and beyond. It’s enough to say, “I responded to the request.” But to respond to the request and have some extra insight will make you stand out to the client and to the senior associate or partner.

The last thing I would tell a young litigator is this: Don’t be afraid to try something that you’re not familiar with. So often, you get stuck in a certain practice area and that’s all you do. What makes you marketable and valuable is a wide breadth of knowledge. As a young litigator, if there are chances for you to jump on a team—even if you can’t bill—or attend a trial or get involved with something new, do it. The more exposure and experience you get, the better you’ll be.

 

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