Current title and employer?
Senior Partner, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP in Los Angeles
What is your particular role as a partner?
I litigate business and regulatory cases and appeals for large hospital systems and other health industry providers. I am a member of the firm’s Board of Directors. I co-chair our appellate litigation practice and was the Co-Chair of the firm’s Litigation Division for seven years (2000-2006).
Law school? Law review?
Emory. And, yes, I was an editor of the Emory Law Journal.
Other than the money, what’s the best thing about being a Partner?
Two things: Having ultimate responsibility and getting new-client business.
Do you enjoy managing clients?
Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job.
It’s what makes being a lawyer real. For clients, it’s not about theory or law, it’s about results. They expect to win, not to have their expectations managed. Large institutional clients are often stressed with other large problems, so what they need is execution, not just sound judgment. Clients become repeat clients because you win, not because “you fight the good fight” and lose. Vince Lombardi wasn’t wrong.
Did you ever consider a career change, or are you a law geek through and through?
Law geek all the way. This apparently has roots in elementary school, where I disagreed reflexively with everyone. I got sent home from first grade several times—once for telling the teacher the food pyramid was a fraud. I live and breathe the law. Before getting married, I had at least the same chance of boring a date with obtuse drivel about my cases as [Living the Dream’s] Nick Conley did in “Typo.”
How did you eventually become a Senior Partner / Head of Litigation? Was it easy?
Definitely not easy. I practiced in relative obscurity my first five years at Manatt—15 years into my career. I was well-regarded as a lawyer, but that was it. Things turned when I began generating business in my focus area, health law. Five years later (late 1999), I was selected to co-lead our Litigation Division. I had no interest in a senior management position, and I did not ask or politick for the role. The incoming Manatt managing partner thought I had a certain collegial spirit that would be helpful. I’d also earned a reputation for taking an “enterprise” approach to some great clients. That meant not only putting the most effective lawyers before the clients, but also sharing large amounts of origination credit with other lawyers for repeat business and even new client work. Back then, not too many partners in law firms were infusing other lawyers with real hard-dollar ownership of client work, so I may have been leading a bit by example.
Worst memory of being a lawyer?
The first time I got to argue anything in a courtroom. It was an appeal in the Second Circuit. I was a second year, which was unheard of (most litigators cut their teeth arguing something much more pedestrian, like a discovery motion), but we were a little firm with big clients—and the partner had a trial starting that day. I didn’t sleep for three days before that argument.
So, there I am in Foley Square getting hammered by all three Second Circuit Justices who thought the court had no jurisdiction. I wasn’t prepared for that. The partner had convinced another panel of the same court two weeks earlier that there was jurisdiction. I start ripping apart my court clip trying to find the order while I attempted to explain, but I was no different than some kid saying, “Hey, that’s not fair!” Bad move. Jurisdiction does not work that way, and the court ripped me some more.
Somehow we won the appeal, but I’ve never been nervous in a courtroom since. That was rock bottom, albeit with a happy ending. I frequently tell young litigators this story when they’re panicked about heading off to court. My humiliation tends to calm their nerves.
Best memory (thus far) of being a lawyer?
We were in a Birmingham Federal District Court in 1980. I was a first year on a team of five lawyers (one-half of our little firm), and we had just defeated a motion to stop a tender offer. Skadden, who represented the target and brought at least 10 lawyers, had launched full-on securities and antitrust litigation to stop it. After the judge denied the injunction, our client’s CEO basically said to the partner, “Take the company jet wherever you want to go for the weekend.” The partner looked at me and asked, “Where to?” I said Paradise Island, and off we went. We stayed at Howard Hughes’ Brittania Beach Hotel. I love being a lawyer, but it never got more extravagant than that.
What’s the best advice you ever received as an associate?
A partner I worked for years ago gave me a private pep talk once. I was just starting my second year and had billed something like 2600 hours my first year. I was feeling overwrought, and it showed. The partner handed me a thick case file and said, “Barry, there are two kinds of people in this world—those who get it done, and those with perfectly reasonable excuses for not getting it done. Which one do you want to be?”
Any advice you want to pass along to associates looking to impress?
Produce high-quality, compelling legal writing. Without it, the “on your feet” work that associates want in court and with clients won’t happen. Lawyers excel at different things, but where I came from, great legal writing was the associate’s rite of passage. It’s the one thing a young associate can control because there is no one between her or him and the computer screen. Get that done right, and you’re on your way.
What makes an associate a superstar?
In addition to superb legal scholarship, a superstar associate takes the project to a materially better—and sometimes different—place. That requires a young associate to have the self-confidence to push back and not always tell the partner what he/she wants to hear. It seems obvious, but it does not happen often. Many excellent associates are task-oriented, often because they are stretched with many assignments from partners on different cases. They do well just to answer all the partners’ questions correctly. (I wouldn’t want to be an associate again.) But, what if the partner is asking the wrong question? Many associates won’t go there. Life is short, they figure. A superstar associate seeks me out and says, “Hey, Barry, I think you’re wrong here, and here’s why. I think we ought to argue this instead.”
Also, a superstar associate almost never offers a “perfectly reasonable excuse” for declining work. He or she just “gets it done.”
What makes an associate mediocre?
“Rounding off” on legal problems that demand rigorous consideration. That includes dashing off emails with unfinished thoughts. A mediocre associate reflexively considers him or herself to be overwrought. He or she might say, “I’m drowning,” when the water is only ankle-high.
What’s the best way for an ambitious associate to actually make partner these days?
It’s easy—just be a superstar.
Seriously though, you don’t have to be the law firm equivalent of Kobe Bryant, born with such prodigious talent. It’s a law firm. Everyone is smart. A partner—or prospective partner—is someone who has worked his/her tail off, excelled substantively, shows great judgment, and who exudes a “first-chair” presence. By that, I mean someone who can lead a complex matter and the client from start to successful finish. Having clients doesn’t hurt either, but it’s not a prerequisite.
Note that I did not say that we advance an average associate who is merely connected to the “right” partner. At our firm, that won’t work. Sure, doing superb work for “important” partners’ practices might help that particular associate’s visibility, but it’s also true that successful partners and great associates tend to converge, with one fueling the other.
At Manatt, we have a distinct process for senior associates up for partnership. The point of it is to conduct an in-depth career review of the person’s work and prospects for future success. It doesn’t matter if the associate has spent little or no time working with any one partner. What matters is the quality of the associate’s work, judgment, character, and integrity. Does the associate act like an owner of this business? What are the associate’s prospects to contribute as a partner? Has the associate become an “important” lawyer, based upon his/her success for clients and being “out there” in the legal community?
This is not the full list of partnership criteria, but it is fair to say that it’s no popularity contest, and we don’t make partners just because someone has worked hard or done his/her time. We look at everything that should matter. It’s business, but it’s also an associate’s professional career on the line.