In this episode, we are joined by Littler Mendelson Shareholder and former Litigation and Trial Practice Group Co-Chair, Helene Wasserman. We discuss the role mentors have played in her own career, the value of mentors for firms and the industry, and practical tips for emerging practitioners seeking to navigate the field and identify mentors in a newly remote “new normal” for many in the legal profession.
Teresa Barber: Very interesting. I want to ask you a little bit, change gears and ask you a little bit about what drew you to the legal profession, Helene? How did you decide that this was what you wanted to do when you grew up?
Helene Wasserman: I think it had something to do with the fact that when I was a young child, many people often said, "You've got a big mouth; you may make a good lawyer someday." And I really do think that stuck. I really think that stuck because, while I've had some family members that are lawyers, they weren't people that necessarily drew me to the law.
Barber: Very interesting. And you mentioned family members. That's something I've always been very interested in learning about, how established professionals found their way into their careers. And mentors and role models are so important. Were there any mentors or special role models that you really looked up to or that played an important role for you?
Wasserman: Yeah. Well, I was going to say, as a lawyer, I've had a couple of people that I truly view as being true mentors. Interestingly, the first person... Actually, a little bit of my history is I'm with Littler now. I actually started my career with Littler and then after two and a half years, I left—and I found my way home. But during that time when I was a brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, I worked with somebody who actually I'm fortunate enough to work with now—a phenomenal lawyer in our San Francisco office, Alan Levins.
Wasserman: He saw me as this young, little lawyer fresh out of law school and gave me so many opportunities. I remember as a very junior, like one-and-a-half-year lawyer, handling labor arbitrations by myself with no coaching. Obviously, he was in the background and helping me, but handling them on my own as like a one-and-a-half-year lawyer. And that really gave me the ability to get my feet wet in a way that not a lot of people get that kind of support and guidance early on in their career.
Wasserman: And then when I moved from Littler the first time, I joined a tremendous labor and employment boutique in Los Angeles. And that's where I met John Golper. And to this day, I'm practicing now, law, thirty-plus years, I truly believe that he created me into the lawyer that I am today. He was hard on me and that helped, but he also saw something. I remember I think I was like a four-and-a-half, five-year lawyer when I had my first trial. And it was with John. And John said, "Okay, well, I think you need to play the role of lead trial counsel here."
Wasserman: I was like, "Okay." So I did opening, I did closing, I cross-examined the plaintiff. And even did closing with laryngitis because by the time the trial ended, I had no voice. So everybody was listening to me like this. But the fact that he had such faith in me and guided me through being able to say that I literally was first chair for my first trial, that really has molded me. And it developed me into the trial attorney that I am today. And he helped me learn to think and how to strategize. And I can't say enough about his role in my career.
Barber: Thank you for sharing. That's really a wonderful story. And I just can't help but think about the new graduates, the new attorneys coming into this world in a pretty interesting time. There's just so much disruption, and it's definitely impacted newer associates and law school graduates. What would your advice be for someone coming into the field today, in this moment?
Wasserman: Well, the current generation of new lawyers is uniquely equipped to deal with some of the issues that my generation of lawyers, or older generations than I am, have been struggling with. And that's the technology.
Wasserman: This is a generation who isn't going to be concerned about communicating with people online because they've been doing it since they've been kids.
Wasserman: So that's not going to be as much of a challenge. The bigger challenge is going to be to find mentors and to find people that they can work with, and to find firms and develop within the culture, and to learn from the people, because that's more difficult. It's becoming less difficult as time goes on, but it's more difficult not being able to go down the hall and grab a cup of coffee.
Wasserman: So that's going to be the bigger challenge for the new lawyers right now. We've done a lot of hiring, and I've met some of the new lawyers, met them virtually online. We have team meetings. We talk to folks. I remember when the pandemic started, I made it a point to everybody that I work with, "We have to have a meeting and you can't disable your video."
Wasserman: We have to do this. It's getting people into the habit, and that's what this new generation of lawyers is going to have to do. They're going to have to in some respects, force the rest of us to do what they've been doing for years, which is communicating online. Maybe we're not doing it through avatars that they may be doing it in. And it may not be a true game, because it's not a game. But getting us to acknowledge them and getting us to know who they are, it's on us as well.
Wasserman: If we're bringing new people on, it's on us to get to know them and to build them into the culture. But I think that's going to be the biggest challenge. It's the communication. It's the developing the mentorship relationships, and it's finding your way to learn from culture when what you're learning is how to communicate via Zoom. Firms have to do their best to communicate, and communicate more frequently than ever before, about who we are and what we are, and things that we're doing and ways we're helping people. And being inviting to this new generation of lawyers.
Barber: Okay. Wonderful. Well, Helene, it has been an absolute delight having you on today and just hearing your perspectives. I can't thank you enough for being our guest.
Wasserman: Oh, thank you so much for the opportunity.