Roughly this time of year, 18 years ago, I sat in Bill Wooden’s office listening intently as he provided the information that he believed was necessary for me to complete a time-sensitive research project. Admittedly, as a newly minted summer law clerk, I was intimidated and nervous, but I was excited to “hit the books” and report to Bill the results of my hard work. The anxiousness of the moment was more than I anticipated because when I sat down at my desk to digest Bill’s instructions, I could barely remember the issue and I had no clue where to start.
I toiled in the library for what seemed like an eternity, then several hours later I returned to Bill’s office, statute book in hand (hoping – no praying – that it was the right one), and said sheepishly, “Bill, I have some questions about my assignment.” I remember his response as if it were yesterday. Clearly pressed for time, Bill, bow tie and all, leaned back in his chair, peered across his desk over his half glasses, scowled, and said, “Son, I don’t have time for questions, I need answers.” Immediately, I started to sweat, but somehow I came up with an answer that apparently pleased him, although I recall leaving his office not entirely confident that what I told him was accurate.
I know that Bill was not the first, and will not be the last, senior partner to intimidate a young law clerk, but the lessons of that day, and the days and years thereafter as I watched Bill in action, live with me to this day. Lessons such as: make sure you ask the right questions up front; don’t wait until it’s too late. Remember that although lawyers may not have all the answers at hand, they must react and respond quickly and confidently, all the while realizing that words have consequences.
Bill passed away in February, but his legacy endures. He was humble and loyal to his clients, his partners, and the practice of law. For Bill, being a lawyer meant much more than a job, it was an art that required serious thought and reflection, precision, and compassion. He worked tirelessly for his clients and put firm above himself. A fierce advocate, he was at the same time dedicated to practicing his trade and treating others with the highest level of professionalism. He was proud to be considered a “lawyer’s lawyer.”
In 1994, Bill was the recipient of DTCI’s Lawyer of the Year Award, but his humility and disdain for lawyer advertising and self-aggrandizement probably made it difficult for him even to accept the honor. In fact, I’m not sure he would approve of this article. Bill’s steadfast belief was that if you did good work, clients would follow. Perhaps times have changed in that regard, but the premise underlying his belief — the importance of providing high-quality legal service — is time tested.
So my simple message to the 2011 class of summer associates and, for that matter, all young lawyers, is to find your own Bill Wooden — a mentor who in your eyes sets the bar for what a lawyer should be. Try not to get lost in message delivery. Lawyers by nature are busy and often not the best communicators. The lessons you learn may not be immediately obvious, but they are there. Build relationships with your mentors, not just because in the short term doing so may land you a job, but because in the long run it will make you a better lawyer and, more important, a better person.•
Misha Rabinowitch is a partner in the Indianapolis firm of Wooden & McLaughlin LLP and is a member of the DTCI Board of Directors. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.