My first job was as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Houston. I had hoped to clerk for a judge, but in this hope I was disappointed. But the lessons I learned at the NLRB proved more useful in the long term, at least for me, than any I could have learned elsewhere. Here are my mentors and the lessons they taught me.
• Lesson No. 1: All lawyers are created equal. I was sending a letter to an opposing lawyer. My supervisor spied it on my desk, picked it up and arched his eyebrows. “Why are you calling him ‘mister’? Don’t the two of you have the same law license?”
New lawyers tend to defer to their elders. While courtesy is admirable, seeming to bend on one knee is not. I know this is not an easy concept to adopt, especially because senior lawyers sometimes perpetuate it by introducing a new lawyer as “my associate.”
Here is a modest proposal: Let’s refer to one another as “colleagues.” If the senior lawyer isn’t a convert to the “colleague, not chattel” school of thought, then the junior lawyer should still think of himself as one. Why? Aristotle nailed it: We are what we repeatedly do.
• Lesson No. 2: Mentors come from all over . I was in a small town in East Texas prosecuting an unfair labor practice complaint. The lawyer defending the employer was in his 60s. The administrative law judge announced a break for lunch on the first day. The defense lawyer ambled over and said, “Let’s go to lunch.” I pompously told him that doing so would be improper: “I am an agent of the United States government, and I must uphold ethical standards,” I said.
He gave me a look somewhere between amusement and pity. “Son, I have faced fiercer opponents than you in disputes that mattered a lot more than this pissant case, and not a one of them have refused to eat with me.”
Let me just say this: The Salisbury steak in the hospital cafeteria was actually pretty good.
Lessons learned: Counsel should adapt to who he’s with and where he is and not take himself too seriously. Mentors often come from out of the blue. The Buddha understood this, as quoted in “Being Buddha at Work: 108 Ancient Truths on Change, Stress, Money & Success”: “When I receive productive words unsought/That counsel me in useful, skillful ways/I should gratefully accept them, always/Looking out to learn from everyone.”
• Lesson No. 3: Hard work pays off . I was trying my first case, prosecuting a big company, whose outside firm had rejected me for a job. A firm partner and “his associate,” plus in-house counsel and a firm paralegal, represented the company.
I felt overwhelmed and told my supervisor, a native Texan. He quietly replied, “One riot, one ranger. Just outwork them.” So, I read every case on protected concerted activity, went through every possible cross-examination scenario and prepared my witnesses (well, overprepared them, truth be told). And the NLRB prevailed.
Hard work does not guarantee victory, but it does mean that the lawyer always will be in the game, no matter the size of the opponent. Recent research bears out my supervisor’s advice: Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers: The Story of Success” and Geoff Colvin in “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else” talk about numerous studies establishing that focus and dedication matter, and they matter a lot.
Exhibit A: Linsanity, the amazing story of Jeremy Lin, who worked relentlessly to be the best point guard he could be: the first to arrive at practice, the last to leave; watching video of himself to see where he could improve; bulking up his physique so he can drive into the paint. ( The New York Times ran an interesting story on Feb. 25, “The Evolution of a Point Guard,” on how Lin willed himself to be better.) Sadly, Lin injured his knee, had surgery and is out for the rest of the regular season. But, true to form, he already is working out on a stationary bike and wants to get back if the New York Knicks make the playoffs.
• Lesson No. 4: Get to the point . I investigated an unfair labor practice and was preparing for my first agenda, which is NLRB lingo for my report and recommendation to the regional director, the assistant regional director, the regional attorney and my supervisor. I prepared a lot. Tabbed notebook, color coding, outlines.
They were arrayed around the conference room table. The regional director was wearing sunglasses. I nervously started to speak. He interrupted me: “Hey, kid, you got 60 seconds. No wait, hold on, it’s Christmas, take 90.” Stunned at the derailment of my best-laid plans, I scrambled to think quickly.
Suddenly, they broke out laughing, with the regional director telling me to take my time. The lesson was learned: Being extensively prepared is only as useful as counsel’s ability to boil it all down.
• Lesson No. 5: This is Spot. Spot is a dog. See Spot run. My supervisor flipped the brief on my desk. “Listen, partner, this brief won’t cut it.” I was insulted. I was an honors graduate of a good law school. I knew how to write.
“Write it like Ned in the first-grade reader. You know, ‘This is Spot. Spot is a dog. See Spot run.’ Make it simple,” he continued.
After my ego calmed down, I did. A week later, the revised and now vetted version was in my in box, with an A+ on it — and with the signatures of my mentors. That’s one special memory.
I recognized in that experience that it takes more time and effort to make the law and the facts simple and understandable than complex and obtuse.
The attorneys who taught me these lessons were good mentors. They inspire me every day to be one, as well. They taught me that mentoring is not about inspiration, listening, encouraging gauzy goals or uttering encouraging words — none of the above. It is, I see now, about being caring but candid. Thanks, guys.