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DTCI: Summer associates: Find your 'Bill Wooden' mentor

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DTCI-Misha-Rabinowitch-sigRoughly 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.•

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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.

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  1. I can understand a 10 yr suspension for drinking and driving and not following the rules,but don't you think the people who compleate their sentences and are trying to be good people of their community,and are on the right path should be able to obtain a drivers license to do as they please.We as a state should encourage good behavior instead of saying well you did all your time but we can't give you a license come on.When is a persons time served than cause from where I'm standing,its still a punishment,when u can't have the freedom to go where ever you want to in car,truck ,motorcycle,maybe their should be better programs for people instead of just throwing them away like daily trash,then expecting them to change because they we in jail or prison for x amount of yrs.Everyone should look around because we all pay each others bills,and keep each other in business..better knowledge equals better community equals better people...just my 2 cents

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  4. I expressed my thought in the title, long as it was. I am shocked that there is ever immunity from accountability for ANY Government agency. That appears to violate every principle in the US Constitution, which exists to limit Government power and to ensure Government accountability. I don't know how many cases of legitimate child abuse exist, but in the few cases in which I knew the people involved, in every example an anonymous caller used DCS as their personal weapon to strike at innocent people over trivial disagreements that had no connection with any facts. Given that the system is vulnerable to abuse, and given the extreme harm any action by DCS causes to families, I would assume any degree of failure to comply with the smallest infraction of personal rights would result in mandatory review. Even one day of parent-child separation in the absence of reasonable cause for a felony arrest should result in severe penalties to those involved in the action. It appears to me, that like all bureaucracies, DCS is prone to interpret every case as legitimate. This is not an accusation against DCS. It is a statement about the nature of bureaucracies, and the need for ADDED scrutiny of all bureaucratic actions. Frankly, I question the constitutionality of bureaucracies in general, because their power is delegated, and therefore unaccountable. No Government action can be unaccountable if we want to avoid its eventual degeneration into irrelevance and lawlessness, and the law of the jungle. Our Constitution is the source of all Government power, and it is the contract that legitimizes all Government power. To the extent that its various protections against intrusion are set aside, so is the power afforded by that contract. Eventually overstepping the limits of power eliminates that power, as a law of nature. Even total tyranny eventually crumbles to nothing.

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