My Smart Phone Makes Me A Better Lawyer

by: Julianna Merback Burdo

Julianna Merback BurdoI practiced law for a decade before owning a smart phone. During that time, I constantly struggled with retrieving and responding to voice mail messages. Try as I might, calls from clients would come in and messages were left in droves that went unanswered. I simply could not be the type of lawyer who made “that promise” to return your call by the close of business. In 2001, I made the leap to my first smart phone. At first, I resisted text messaging as I viewed texting as a back-up method of direct communication – less intimate, less personable. That summer I had back-to-back jury trials in New York City which lasted a combined 6 weeks. When I returned to the office, I had 79 voice mail messages some of which were discontented clients while others were missed calls regarding new potential cases. Something had to give.

Over the next few years and to this day, I realized that my smart phone was a business asset. Then and now, I provide every client with my cell phone information and immediately begin a text chain between us telling them that “we are now connected 24/7, and please never hesitate to contact me for any reason.” While I understand lawyers who opt not to offer their clients constant, direct access to them via cell, I have seen first-hand the positive impact doing this has had on my client relationships.

As a medical malpractice lawyer, I understand that each of my clients and their extended families are experiencing a life-altering, catastrophic event. The last thing they need is to feel neglected or ignored by their lawyer or even reluctant to call and ask a “silly question”. Texting with clients, for me, erases those feelings and encourages clients to communicate freely about their issues and concerns. Whenever a client apologizes for having sent a late night or weekend text, it reinforces my belief that clients need an opportunity to be heard at all times throughout the legal process and not just during normal business hours.

Associates Should Recognize the Hidden Value of a Mentor: Julianna Merback Burdo

  • This (revised) article was published on May 1, 2014 in The Legal Intelligencer.

Calling all associates. A well-kept secret is revealed below. And there are no out-of-pocket expenses incurred. All you need to do is look around. These hidden treasures are called mentors, or influential senior sponsors, and they are out there for each of you, ripe for the taking.

In the practice of law, an interested and invested mentor can help a “mind and grind” associate venture out far beyond the four corners of his or her desk. In life, an influential senior supporter can help shape your self-perception and approach to others.

My experience compelled me to write this article. My goal here is to inspire senior attorneys to take an active interest in raising and teaching the “bunny” associates who need your guidance, but I mostly want to speak to younger lawyers, to suggest they look for and glom onto the counsel and tutelage of those around you who are senior, whose ways may seem archaic, but whose war stories and old-school antics will guide, teach and inspire you well beyond your mentorless peers.

I was a litigation paralegal at a law Philadelphia law firm for nearly nine years before heading to law school. During those years assisting mostly partners who had already earned their law licenses and the right to sign their names. I was mentored by two or more lawyers with whom I worked. They took me everywhere – every client meeting, every deposition, every arbitration and mediation, and even jury trials. I think we probably tried 35 to 40 cases or more to verdict before I even sat for the LSATs.

Without even realizing or asking to be mentored, these lawyers taught me by example – about court, about preparation, about conduct, about professionalism. In the words of one, after missing my first deadline, “If this is the worst day you’ll ever have, you will have a wonderful career.” In the words of another, perhaps my favorite (may he rest in peace), “Please get me what I need to speak intelligently about the file.”

Looking back, I am not sure if it was a conscious effort to mentor or to be mentored, so much as a true sense of camaraderie, trust and a desire to work hard, and to shine, for our clients and the firm.

These mentors not only taught me by leading, but by entrusting me with critical tasks that were integral to their own success. By doing so, they taught me through their own exemplary behavior to emulate them, and, by doing so, develop into my own practice by integrating what I now know to be old-school work ethic, old-school exhaustive preparation, old-school professionalism, and old-school class and dignity in the practice of law.

My experience with these great mentors as a paralegal propelled me into law school. Upon my journey, as these mentors aged and as I grew, a new mentor (of a different ilk and approach) blessed me with expanded ways to advocate, to achieve and to grow. My transition from my former mentors had elements of sadness, but I realized how lucky I was to have found my new mentor when I did. My new mentor was generous with his time and approach, imparting exciting and challenging way to show me his old-school, gun-and-holster style of advocacy.

Luckily for me, my list of great and trusting mentors is quite long. Serendipitously, my mentors came along in the perfect chronology, guiding my growth as I aged and my career matured. As a lawyer of (now 32) years, I still recognize the greatness around me.

As I now say to my children and would say to all young associates out there, an invested leader, a shining example, a class act with huge shoes to follow teaches and inspires more than any extra research assignment or excess billable hour. If not for these mentors, I might still be signing my name as a legal assistant, or running into the courthouse two minutes before the commencement of trial, rather than spending my time planning, preparing and emulating the greatness that has paved my pathway.

To all young lawyers, nothing is more valuable than an invested mentor. Get one. Don’t roll your eyes and take a pass when one invites you to lunch, takes you under their wing or encourages you to attend a deposition.

I was lucky to have great mentor after great mentor, each who inspired me to stand in their giant shoes. My life and career would be entirely different without each and every one of them. I know for a fact that each and every one of my mentors (even the crème de la crème) had their own mentors who imprinted their lives and their careers in similarly inspiring ways. James Beasley, Sr. did not just leave his name on a law school; he imparted greatness to those who touched my career with his tidbits.

So, for the young lawyers out there: Do not pass on the opportunity. Great mentors are still out there, and willing to inspire. Go find them. And, if you find them, glom on and go for the ride.