On Setting the Bar – Savaria Harris, Law Firm Partner

Harris Headshot

Everyone has those people in their lives who always seem a step ahead of the curve. Especially in law school, those folks may not be the gunners who love the sound of their own voice, but instead the ones who quietly have their act together while everyone else is scrambling. During my three years of law school, that person was Savaria Harris, an outgoing history major at Yale, determined to secure a big firm job upon graduation. Lucky for me, Savaria was also gracious enough to help bring her less diligent friend along for the ride. Savaria was the person who organized our study group, had the good outlines, and was one of the few first-years to secure a big firm job in New York. She even had time to help me get one of those too.

Now, nearly seven years after we graduated from Georgetown, Savaria is still setting the pace. While so many of our classmates from law school have moved on to their second or even third job since law school, Savaria stuck it out in private practice in the Washington, DC office of a large international law firm. Last fall, those efforts came to fruition when she was elected partner. By contrast, it has taken me a few years and a few jobs to find my niche as a lawyer on Capitol Hill. Still, Savaria remains a great source of advice. I sat down with Savaria to get her perspective on what life is like for a junior partner, and what lessons law students and new attorneys might gain from her experience.

Q: What is the best thing about your job now that you’re a partner?

Savaria: The best thing about the job now is having the opportunity to interact directly with clients and to make the strategic calls on my own cases which is both fun and infinitely more interesting. It feels like riding a bike with the training wheels off, because the only person you are accountable to is the client or in some cases a senior partner. But now, as a partner, your decisions and judgments are treated as final, or at least more final than as an associate.

Even to extent that you have a senior partner providing feedback or talking with you about a case, the discussion is much more as a peer, providing pressure testing your judgment, rather than as someone giving direction, so it’s a huge responsibility. I noticed that change instantly. In fact, you will hear a lot of people start their sentences saying, “now that you’re a partner” to make it clear that a different level of performance, a different level of decision-making, and a different level of professionalism is expected from you. It is also expected that you will have a greater level of interest in the business of the firm as a whole.

So as an associate, maybe you know the substantive area of the law and maybe you know the facts –as the partner, you’re supposed to be mindful of not only the facts and the law, but also how to most efficiently and economically achieve a good resolution for your client.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of being an associate at a big law firm?

Savaria: I think you have different challenges at different stages. When you’re a first year, everything is a challenge. It’s a challenge to figure out what your value added will be. It’s a challenge to learn the place where you work. It’s a challenge to learn the law, and it’s a challenge to even learn the facts of your case. For example, looking at my experience, I was a history major in college and I remember getting to a law firm and trying to wrap my head around the chemistry of paint, the patents on scintillation crystals, and in some cases accounting principles as they related to different issues for a client. It can be particularly difficult and challenging for people who go into general litigation because general litigation is a skill, rather than a subject area. General litigation is essentially civil procedure; it’s how you move a client problem from a problem to a cognizable legal issue, to a complaint, and then get it through all of the stages of discovery and perhaps to trial or settlement. The best thing that you can do when you are a first year or second year associate is work really hard and be open to critique because there is a lot of it. There is so much you are trying to learn, and you are bound to make mistakes. So what senior people really want to see is that they’ve got someone who is smart— which has already been vetted for— someone who is hardworking, and someone who is not above being corrected when they either don’t know or have done something in correctly.

When you’re a mid-level associate which is your third year through fifth year, you’re certainly expected to have a better sense of your environment, and a pretty decent handle on the law, and some really good study habits on how to get up to speed on the facts. You are also expected to supervise and mentor attorneys more junior than you to create good work product for the senior associates and partners. It’s a lot of work managing these different responsibilities, but it gives you a fuller sense of the work involved in a case for a client.

When you’re a senior associate, you are largely managing the art of running a case, which takes two things: really great organization skills combined with good judgment about how a case should run. Quarterbacking cases at this level includes refining those skills you began to learn as a mid-level associate to manage the mid-level associates, managing first years, helping team members and increasingly, to manage clients directly.

Q: Retaining associates of color has long been a shortcoming of many big law firms. Are there certain things your firm did right, or are there specific steps that firms can do to improve in this area?

Savaria: I think you make a good distinction between retention and recruitment. A lot of firms are doing a much better job in terms of recruiting attorneys of color. In that respect, firms are very eager to recruit attorneys of color especially if they have high GPA’s. Frankly, there’s even a bidding war for those candidates.

Once people get to firms, there are things firms can do to make it better for women and people of color to remain and advance. First, the chief issue is having a firm culture that seriously endeavors to ensure that work opportunities and experiences are equitable for all attorneys, including those of color. This requires, at a minimum, attention by senior leadership to the opportunities provided to minority attorneys as well as their performance, retention and advancement within the firm. Senior leadership at firms should also be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with minority partners and associates at the firm about their work experiences in an effort to ascertain what should or can be done to make their experiences better.

In addition, I think on a person-to-person level there have to be advocates for women attorneys and attorneys of color. They don’t always have to come from those groups but there have to be people that are interested in seeing women and minorities in leadership positions and seriously mindful of ways to make that happen.

For example, each year, we have a training exercise at my firm that requires you to put on a mock trial before senior partners at the firm. I had always done well in this exercise and because I did well the year I was up for partner, a female senior partner in the Chicago office contacted partners in my DC office and recommended not only that I should get certain kinds of trial experience and opportunities that year, but went the step further of saying that she supported my candidacy and intended to be a vocal supporter. She told her colleagues that she wanted to know about my progress, my success, and was going to have an eye on my promotion track to partner. She had a unique platform for sharing these views in an impactful way because she sat on a firm wide committee established for tracking minority promotion to partnership.

Q: How have things changed since becoming a partner?

Savaria: One of the interesting things is that your role on a case is more scrutinized. As a partner, there’s a greater focus and emphasis on exactly what this person is going to be bringing to the table that a senior associate can’t bring or that a senior partner can’t bring.

As such, the onus is on you to justify what you can do and where your niche is going to be. I think for every junior partner that’s going to be different. Some people might have an area of expertise and some people may be very good at running cases. For each lawyer, that’s different, but that definitely ties in with the discussion.

Another thing that is different is that you when you’re a partner, you are now in the position of leadership. As such, whether you should think about it consciously or not, your decisions impact the opportunities, the development, and the growth of the people junior to you. While as an associate you certainly can manage junior associates, issues regarding equity, teaching, and strength building should play a larger part in how you run the case as a partner. It’s a balancing act to play to people’s strengths, but also to make sure that you’re not causing anyone to be deficient in their areas of development. So you’ve got a lot more to focus on. You are paying attention to the growth of the talent in the firm.

Q: Was there anything about becoming a partner that surprised you or that you did not
expect?

Savaria: It didn’t surprise me, but people always say that at firms it’s important to have advocates. And that’s true. During your time at a firm it is important to have various people, not just one person speak highly of your work. It is critically important when the firm is making a decision regarding your progress. I think the only surprising thing was how much the people who did support me respected the process of me getting promoted to partner and respected that strong supportive opinions regarding my promotion were going to need to be voiced in a thoughtful and a strategic way.

I have to say that was probably the part of the equation that I came to appreciate the most in terms of how much of an impact it can have. It goes back to the old saying that if a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound? Whenever you’re up for a major decision like that, you want your tree to make a sound. What I was surprised by and grateful for was the appreciation of people more senior to me, who had given thought about what they would say about my performance, to whom they would say it, and how it was going to be conveyed.

Q: How rigorous was the review and vetting process?

Savaria: I don’t want to speak out of school. I think how committees ultimately reach the decision to elect someone to become partner is very much the province of those committees, what the firm’s needs are, and what the committee determines for a practice group in a given year. I can say, however, that it was very thorough. There were questions about what skills I had acquired as well as how many times I had practiced them. I don’t think they were looking for a hard and fast number, but they were definitely paying attention to the experience.

Another thing they were interested in was your contributions to firm in a larger sense, such as the committees you were on and how were you demonstrating interest in the firm’s commitment outside of just billing hours.

Q: What was the smartest thing that you did early in your career that helped you reach this point?

Savaria: Pro-bono work. I think that a lot of law students have the impression that if you go to a big firm you won’t have an opportunity to do work for the community or clients that don’t have a lot of money. That’s a misconception. A lot of firms including my own have very robust prop bono programs where time spent doing pro-bono counts towards billable hours for paying clients. Moreover, those pro-bono cases provide the experiences that young lawyers need, that they might not otherwise get early in their careers. Pro-bono work allows young lawyers to gain experiences so that they can practice that skill and demonstrate that they are prepared for more advanced assignments. I think that is probably one of the most valuable things young lawyers can do towards their own development, to say nothing for the good that it does and the gratitude that it yields from individuals who might not otherwise have the benefit of a major law firm. It’s a win-win, but I think a lot of times people get the impression that its only good for their clients. The reality is that it’s good for the lawyers too.

Q: What advice do you have for young associates of color who aspire to become a partner?

Savaria: I think recognizing, as we’ve discussed, what is expected at each stage and meeting those standards is what you can do and what is in your control in terms of making partner. That’s not to say that people who haven’t made partner haven’t made those efforts.

The reality is that any time someone else is evaluating your promotion or performance or candidacy, the decision is out of your control. So I don’t think there is a “how-to” guide about making partner any more than there is a credible “how-to” guide about getting into an Ivy League School. The bottom line is that there are things you can do that are in your control to improve your case, but ultimately it goes back to that old Abraham Lincoln quote, “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”

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About Donald K. Sherman

Donald K. Sherman is an attorney on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and author of the unique careers blog “Somebody Does That?!” (www.somebodydoesthat.com). Donald graduated cum laude from Georgetown University with a degree in American Studies and earned his law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center. In addition to his day job, Donald mentors high school and college students, and serves as Board Chair of the Patrick Healy Fellowship, a mentoring program for student leaders at Georgetown University. Donald’s writing has appeared in the award-nominated book Family Affair, the Georgetown University Journal on Gender and the Law. He has also participated in numerous career panels hosted by youth organizations such as the Patrick Healy Fellowship and the DC-based mentoring program, Capital Partners for Education. You can find Donald on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his blog “Somebody Does That?!” online.

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