A Good Fit

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Written by Joelle Phillips

AT&Ts culture of innovation and collaboration perfectly aligns with the personal philosophy about good lawyering I began developing when I was a law student at W&L.

A small commemorative plaque sits on a shelf in my office. The plaque is engraved “In the Trenches Award,” and a tiny shovel adorns it.

I treasure it.

The AT&T Legal Department created the award to recognize the work that lawyers at the company do in collaboration with their non-lawyer colleagues.   The award celebrates an AT&T tradition and philosophy rooted in the long corridors of Bell Laboratories, encouraging the lawyers at AT&T to work closely with their clients and to view their role as a team member, rather than an adjunct or remote resource in a separate department.

Offices at Bell Labs resembled those in other research facilities with equipment placed in a typical fashion – but the people were not.  At Bell Labs, engineers, physicists, and metallurgists were all mixed together, forming teams and partners with distinct skills and different perspectives.

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Inventors of the transistors – John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley

Those teams produced extraordinary innovations, and the approach of building diverse teams is frequently highlighted as the key difference between other research organizations and the place that became known as AT&T’s groundbreaking “Idea Factory.”

No doubt, it’s more comfortable to work in groups where everyone has the same training or uses a similar process, where everyone thinks like a mathematician, chemist, or engineer.

Or, where everyone “thinks like a lawyer.”

It’s tougher to work with partners who are unfamiliar with the lingo we use. Following someone else’s counter-intuitive approach takes extra mental energy.  Yet the leaders at Bell Labs saw the value in collaborating with team members who challenge our default choices or ask questions that require us to articulate an idea in a new way.

I was fortunate that the Legal Department at AT&T appreciates that value.

As an in-house lawyer at AT&T, I counseled a group of clients who handled regulatory and legislative issues.  Initially, most of my work guided clients through state regulatory requirements.  The communications market changed, competition increased, technology evolved. We hit a tipping point. The regulatory structure was outdated and didn’t apply to the market.  Perhaps it was time to stop thinking about compliance with outdated laws and focus on modernizing those laws.

At first, it was a scandalous notion to me, reshaping the laws to fit the modern market realities. But over time, this work became my favorite experience as a lawyer.  When we put changing the law on the table, I had to adjust my framework for legal analysis from the familiar “facts-issues-rules-application-conclusion” into something that allowed me to consider “What if the rules were different?” or “How could different rules be justified?”

The idea of changing the law reset my perspective about the nature of law.  In school and in law firm practice, my work had been confined to executing the law or adjudicating a dispute. I had only a vague and academic notion about the act of legislating. When legislative work became a real option for solving problems, law became even more fascinating – the product of civic experience, human creativity and design.

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I think that reset also broke down a barrier between lawyer and client that I didn’t know existed.  The law, once I started thinking about changing it, seemed more man-made and democratic to me. Non-lawyers wrote and enacted it, and it seemed wrong that my legal training should make me less able to connect and collaborate with non-lawyer professionals. I began to see my legal training more as a skill I brought to the team and less as a characteristic that distinguished me from other team members. I also felt energized to be more creative about finding a smart, ethical way to accomplish our shared goals.

The more I viewed my role as one member of a diverse team, the more I saw new ways to contribute.  My litigation experience prepared me to testify at legislative committee hearings.  My experience crafting legal theories and applying statutes helped me to see how the language in a proposed statute might be applied in practice.  Mediation and negotiation experiences guided my approach to negotiating legislative language and finding common ground with opponents.

I’ve often said those clients (dear, favorite teammates) ruined me as a litigator. I see a legal issue now and, instead of mapping the argument that the existing law favors my preferred course, I’m just as likely to think, “We really should change that law.”

At the very least, working in the trenches alongside the non-lawyer members of the legislative team broadened my view of the lawyer’s role.

In 1992 when I looked over the schedule for my first year of law at W&L, I wondered what we would study in the class called “Lawyer’s Role.”  As we practiced interviewing a client (Professor Phemister delivering a compelling performance as a criminal – playing hard against type), it felt odd and unfamiliar.  I wondered when it would feel intuitive and come without thinking. When would I know how to play the role of lawyer and not feel like I was making it up as I went?

In the trenches, it was no longer the team and the lawyer. Now, I used my legal training as a member of our team, and it was a role I loved playing.

I still smile every time I see that golden shovel.

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