Bill Lee, Managing Partner at WilmerHale, recently came to speak to one of my 1L courses, and talked about integrity, mentorship, and one really bad suit he wore to his interview at the firm in 1976.
Lee first highlighted differences in law practice now from when he began, a time before cell phones, voice mail, computers, or fax machines. (The class chuckled at ourselves for our amazement at picturing such a time.) But more than the the technological changes in law practice, Lee emphasized the shift toward measuring law firm competition based on economic performance, focusing on the business of law, and noting figures like profits per partner. He outlined the move from regional markets with longstanding, loyal clients to the evolving international market today. With incredible clarity, Lee laid out some of the costs and benefits of law practice now compared to that when he began forty years ago including increased productivity and opportunities through technology, and a danger of over-emphasis on some economic measures of firms at the expense of valuing relationships and quality of work.
Speaking more personally, Lee talked about great mentorship experiences he had at the firm, and urged the class to work to become respectful and meaningful colleagues. In one anecdote, he described arriving in Boston for law firm interviews and only having two suits. Betting that his second interview would require the more traditional suit, Lee wore a completely white suit to his Wilmer Hale interview not knowing what else to do. (He also mentioned that some of the older partners will still joke with him about it.) Elaborating on the importance of mentorship and development of a community, Lee talked about the importance of contributing as a firm, and described the service culture at Wilmer Hale, where nearly 7% of billed hours are devoted to pro bono.
Closing with ten pieces of advice for future law firm work (or practice in other areas), Lee urged students to learn the craft of being a lawyer — beyond simply being a smart analytical thinker — and to work and live with integrity. When students piped up to ask him questions, Lee also elaborated on the importance of asking oneself if and why to pursue law firm practice, and to note the degree of respect and collegiality afforded everyone in the organization. Even while noting the shift in law firm practice away from client relationships that go back for decades, Lee shared how building relationships with clients, colleagues, and co-workers makes for satisfying and meaningful work.