Q&A with Rod Heard

Rod Heard, a partner in the litigation practice at Barnes & Thornburg, took some time to answer a few of our questions.

 Why did you become a lawyer?

My path to a career as a trial lawyer was not crooked, but it was winding.  In the 1950s in grade school, I thought about becoming an astronaut so that I could be the “First Heard Shot Around The World.” Later, I decided that basing a career decision solely on a bad pun was unwise. But, it would have made a great headline in the New York Times.

Then came Atticus Finch, who was a lawyer’s role model for standing up for justice in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his movie portrayal of the brave lawyer who defied small town prejudice to defend a worthy cause. I was inspired.  Also in my formative years, Earl Stanley Gardner created Perry Mason, and Raymond Burr immortalized the successful criminal defense lawyer in the long running television series (yes, we really watched it on small black and white televisions.) While Atticus and Perry made the legal profession sound noble, I was still way too shallow to be persuaded. I enjoyed debating in high school and thought about being a lawyer. But as a materialistic kid,  I wanted to be an advertising executive. Yes, one of the Madison Avenue “Mad Men.”  I was so low on the organizational charts that it was not until decades later through the television series  that I realized how much fun my bosses were having while I was working.

In the late 1960s, I got a master’s degree in advertising at Northwestern and headed to an advertising agency in New York. At Young & Rubicam, I worked on the Eastern Airlines and Log Cabin Syrup accounts. Today, one of those brands is dead and the other one is still moving very slowly. I loved the creative side of the advertising business, attempting to persuade an audience with limited time or space. In my 20s, I was having a great time, but I worked around many worried-looking 40-year-olds; anxious that someone younger could perform their job at half the salary. I hoped law might be a career where age and experience were assets, but I could still persuade people. Before the golden handcuffs of advertising locked me in, I decided to try law school. For me, it was the best career decision I ever made. As a lawyer, I still attempt to creatively persuade an audience within limited time and space.  Instead of selling maple syrup, I try to solve problems; but I sometimes still sugar-coat them a little bit.  I do wistfully watch Mad Men on occasion.

How has the practice of law changed since you started?

As a young lawyer, I was lucky enough to try all sorts of cases:  cab and bus crashes, dram shop, med mal, and product liability cases. As an older lawyer, I took on commercial cases, including antitrust, securities, franchise, distributor, and complex contract cases.  Along the way, I tried environmental and intellectual property cases. Each trial is an enormous learning experience, but usually the losses were more educational than the victories.  But, the runaway costs of trial have become destructive to the process.   As trial practice has become more sophisticated and expensive, the small trials which were not only enjoyable and a great educational tool for young lawyers have all but disappeared. My friend Bob Burns who is the “Guru of Evidence” at Northwestern Law School wrote a book called the “Death of the American Trial.”  I hope he is wrong, but today most clients are understandably attracted to dispute resolution alternatives that are cheaper and faster than the courts.

In addition to the changes in the profession, the business world has dramatically expanded globally.  Today, young lawyers are understandably uncertain in a rapidly changing world.  But, they are smarter and more technologically savvy than my generation. While the last couple of years have been tough for everyone, the future is unlimited for lawyers who focus on being creative problem solvers.  As the world gets smaller, international disputes will become a routine part of almost every lawyer’s practice. With 1.3 billion people in China, 1.2 billion in India, and another 2 billion spread out elsewhere, our U.S. population of a mere 300 million will be increasingly dependent on global transactions.  Disputes will always erupt when people interact.  Whether it is arbitration, trial, or some hybrid the world’s rapidly growing population needs a civil way to solve its disputes.  So, learn a foreign language, travel, read about diverse cultures and invent better ways to avoid or resolve your clients’ global disputes.  The Internet has made us interdependent with almost every corner of the world, so your clients and most future disputes will cross international borders.

What advice do you have for young lawyers?

As an adjunct professor at Northwestern and Loyola law schools, I am impressed by the intelligence and work ethic of law students.  They are also adept at multi-tasking.  They can e-mail friends and listen to my lectures at the same time.  But, to succeed as lawyers, they need to forge those qualities into becoming problem solvers.  Of course, integrity, perseverance and hard work are essential qualities for any good lawyer. But, these core qualities are only the foundation. What distinguishes the adequate from the successful associate is that the latter take ownership of their assignments.

When you get an assignment, immediately meet with the assigning partner to define it. After that initial meeting, send a short e-mail to the partner which describes your task as you understand it. This e-mail may help to better define the assignment, but it may later serve as your protection that you spent time on the right problem. Sometimes partners are not precise in their assignments, so this email ensures definition of the task at the beginning. Then, take ownership of seeking solutions. Too often, partners will talk over a problem with an associate, but when the associate leaves the office, the problem is still on the partner’s desk.  Don’t just answer their question, handle the matter. When obstacles occur, and they will, do not merely report it. Layout the options or solutions and recommend the one you would take. Clients look to law firms to solve their problems, so young lawyers should train by becoming problem solvers for partners.

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