53. Patricia Refo, American Bar Association Making The Most Of Going Digital & Adapting Your Law Firm In The Post-Covid World

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Patricia Refo , partner at Snell & Wilmer, has achieved more than most lawyers ever will. Trish has received countless professional recognition and awards, established herself as a first-class commercial litigation lawyer and shes the current president of the American Bar Association.

In todays episode of The Rankings Podcast, Trish tells us all about her journey from aspiring newspaper editor to president of the ABA, and shares with us her views on how the legal industry has had to adapt throughout the pandemic and what she thinks some of the lasting impacts will be.

Transcript

Chris Dreyer

Lisa Kudrow, Cate Blanchett, Ashton Kutcher. Each one of them is an international superstar. But they have something else in common too. They all started out following completely different paths. Psychobiology, economics and fine art, and biochemical engineering to be exact. And my guest today is no different having set out for college with the prestigious editorial career in mind.

Patricia Refo

I went off to college thinking that I was going to be a journalist and that I would grow up in be, I dunno, editor of the Washington Post or something. Um, and I had a terrific professor as an undergrad who introduced me to law and decided for me in a way that, um, I ought to be, uh, going to law school. So that was actually what persuaded me to, to, uh, to, to go the law route instead of journalism. And I’ve never looked back.

Chris Dreyer

My guest today is Patricia Refo, partner at Snell and Wilmer and president of the American Bar Association. Trish has a career spanning over 30 years focusing on commercial litigation and internal investigations. She has been credited as one of the best lawyers in America from 2003 to 2021, and is a highly sought after speaker, both nationally and internationally. Join us as we talk about her experience as president of the ABA, the challenges and opportunities 2020 has given us, what the modern legal industry looks like for women and much more. That’s coming up on The Rankings Podcast, the show where founders, entrepreneurs, and elite personal injury attorneys share their inspiring stories about what they did to get to the top and what keeps them there. I’m Chris Dreyer stay with us. Trish has a passion and a talent for taking on big challenges. So I wanted to find out where that desire to take on such complicated cases came from.

Patricia Refo

I‘ve sort of always been a “big law” girl for better or worse. Um, and I certainly loved the big cases. I love the challenges and the intellectual, um, parts of practicing in a complex commercial litigation. Um, but you know, some of the, to be honest is just sort of, if that’s where you start, there’s a degree of inertia that, uh, that keeps you in one place. And that’s not to say I don’t love what I do. It’s just, I think often we, um, we stay with what we learned and what we know how to do. Well, I had the chance yesterday to actually argue on appeal. I haven’t been a real lawyer for a couple of months, um, because the ABA has been taking up pretty much all of my time, but, um, I had an appeal to argue yesterday, which was great fun, and it was actually a terrific opportunity to be a lawyer for a little bit.

Chris Dreyer

Absolutely. So, so let’s, let’s jump right into the, the ABA, the American Bar Association. You’ve just become the 10th female president in the ABA‘s history. So congratulations. But you know, what was it like stepping into the role in such a crazy year, such as 2020?

Patricia Refo

Well, it is a crazy year and, um, I, I just decided from the get-go that the only way to approach it was to say, and we’re going to make it great. And I have tried to keep that mindset. And as it turns out, there really is some lemonade that we’re making out of the lemons that, that we’ve been given this year. Um, the flip side of that, Chris, is that actually, I truly believe that the American Bar Association has never been more important. The voice of the rule of law – the voice of lawyers in a moment like this is deeply important, uh, to our nation and beyond really. So it is, um, on the one hand kind of a weird year, but on the other hand, kind of a wonderful year to be serving as president of the ABA.

Chris Dreyer

I couldn’t agree more. And I got to say that. This year, there’s just been an acceleration of things, particularly on the technology side. And I wanted to kind of jump in there. You know, now we’ve got hearings happening on Zoom and the ABA is putting out thousands of webinars. So can you tell me a little bit more about technology and how it’s making an impact for the ABA?

Patricia Refo

Well, I mean, if we didn’t have, uh, the technology who knows what any of us would be able to do, to, to earn a livelihood for Pete’s sake. Right. We all had to go virtual almost overnight. My law firm, uh, did in multiple offices and certainly lots of other folks and lots of other places had to do the same. Um, our, at the ABA, all of our staff has been working remotely since March. With no particular sign, um, that our staff will be coming back anytime soon. So when you call the ABA service center, for example, with a question about some product, uh, that you, that you tried to order, it gets answered by somebody from their home because we don’t have an actual service center anymore. So one of the things that we’ve learned, Chris, is that there is a real, um, yearning, I think for lawyers out there to have, um, remote participation in what we’re doing. Um, we’ve done everything virtual since about March and our numbers are up. We’re getting more attendance at our meetings. We’re getting more attendance at our CLE programs. Lawyers who couldn’t participate in what we were doing before are now able to. And that’s a positive that we were, um, a little bit, I guess, surprised by. And one of the interesting things for us that, that lies ahead is figuring out how to, when we do start coming out of this pandemic, how to service the people like me who want to be in the room where it happened, because we want to be with people and do the in-person network, how to satisfy me and satisfy our other members who’d rather just sit in their office and participate remotely.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah, I’d say that’s, it’s definitely a challenge because you’re you, you’re going to have those individuals that just want to be in the home office. Like I’m in myself. Have you started to get pressure maybe from the education side for like, you know, online law degrees and, and I know myself, I actually emailed the ABA and I was like, “Hey, are there any accredited online schools to get my law degree?” Has there been any, any talk about that because of, of what the success, uh, how successful the zoom hearings and technology’s been.

Patricia Refo

Uh, going forward. There is not presently an accredited online law school, but certainly. Lots of law schools have had to adjust their teaching, right. And our teaching in, um, if not hybrid in, in virtual format because they have to, for right now. What we’re going to need to figure out is what have we learned from that? Um, in this country and frankly, in most places in, in the Western world, anyway, the law degree has always been something that in our heads required you to go for three years, here, to a brick and mortar facility, um, to be physically present with other budding law students to be taught by, in-person, um, uh, law professors. It’s going to be interesting to see how that model gets stretched as a consequence of the experiences that we’re going to come out of this pandemic having had. I mean, one of the, one of the things that I think is so profound about this moment is that the change in the legal profession has been accelerated really beyond belief. I mean, I don’t know. What has it been like about a decade of change that we’ve squished into the last eight months? And on some level we got to catch our breath a little bit. Um, but on another level, it’s a really exciting time to watch what’s happening in the legal profession, whether it’s legal education, whether it’s courtrooms, um, whether it’s law firms or what.

Chris Dreyer

The legal system has had to adapt extremely quickly to everything 2020 has thrown at it. And with the adoption of remote working and Zoom hearings, I wanted to find out what role the ABA had to play in this time of accelerated development.

Patricia Refo

The experimentation that’s going on around the regulation of law and the practice of law, um, is pretty interesting stuff. And yeah. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, except maybe that Westerners are just, uh, more contrarian, is there it’s a lot of it is happening in the West, or at least a lot of the initial steps forward to actually do something are happening in our Western States, my own state, Arizona being one of them. And one of the things that is deeply important, both to me personally, and to the ABA, is to make sure that we study these experiments and have actual results that we can talk about. Um, so, uh, our center for innovation at the ABA for example, is gathering together, um, court leaders and academics who study courts to talk about what are we going to measure in all of these states that are trying these different approaches? Because if, you know, if we measure the output of apples in Utah, because of the changes they’re making, and we measure the output oranges in Arizona, because of the changes that we’re making, we’re not going to be able to compare them together, to come up with anything that says which ones kind of worked and which ones really didn’t. So one of the things that the ABA can do is convene the folks to have those conversations. And I think that’s a really important next step.

Chris Dreyer

I couldn’t agree more. You, you have to have those measurables. Otherwise it’s just opinions. 2020 was the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. It was also the year that saw the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg who had done so much for women’s rights and the perception of women in the legal profession. As the 10th woman to become president of the ABA, I wanted to ask Trish what the legal landscape looked like for women right now.

Patricia Refo

You know, one of the things that, um, I bring to that question is, um, almost not quite, but almost 40 years in the practice. And when you’ve been in a practice a long time, um, especially, uh, for this set of years, I’ve seen a ton of change and a ton of improvement and a lot of advancement for women, um, in the legal profession. I mean, on the first day that I showed up at law school and there’d never been a woman on the United States Supreme court on the first day that I showed up at law school, there’d never been a woman president of the ABA. Um, my law school at the time had exactly two women faculty, right? Well, none of those things is true anymore. So you can see with clarity that we’ve made great progress in a number of respects. At the same time, we still have enormous work to do. Um, in big law, the numbers remain sort of, um, sad. Uh, not enough women partners, not enough women, equity partners, not enough women managing partners and on and on. Um, it gets a little better in other sorts of practice settings. Um, but not wildly better. Um, and we need still to come to grips with what we need to do as a profession, to make ourselves more hospitable, uh, to women practitioners. Um, and again, we’re better than, than it was, but there’s still much to be done. It is, on the ABA side, it is my fervent hope that I am the last person who has a number attached to her when she’s, um, talked about as an ABA president. I am the 10th and I’m actually kind of excited to be the 10th. And my hope is that whoever’s the 11th. We won’t be counting anymore. Right? That will start to just be done with it. Um, and one of the great joys, Chris, for me, uh, on my ABA journey, um, is that all of the nine women who came before me are my friends have been my mentors, every single one of them, um, is there for me and has always been there for me and has helped to uplift me and get me to this place, um, where I am. So I can be sad that there have been only 10. But I have this amazing cadre of women presidents, who, um, I have learned so much from, and that’s pretty cool actually.

Chris Dreyer

It’s good to know that some progress has been made. And with strong advocates like Trish driving advancement, there’s hope that true representation and recognition of women in the legal industry will be achieved a lot sooner. 2020 threw a ton of challenges at us, so I asked Trish what advice she had for attorneys to ensure their businesses continue to thrive?

Patricia Refo

Well, I think one of the things we have to, um, be, um, focused on frankly, is being intentional about our relationships. Gone are the days when we are passing people in the hallway and catching up because we stopped for a minute and say how you doing for 45 seconds and then move on. Gone are the days when we can, uh, meet with lawyers who are referral sources or potential clients in-person. So we have to be intentional about building our relationships in a virtual world. And that means, um, focusing on following up with your clients, following up with your referral sources, trying to be as present as we can in a world in which we actually can’t be present. One of the things that is powerful to me, that we have all lost is the unintentional, unplanned contact with other people. And, um, that means we have to replace it with something that is unintentional, right? I mean, you can’t just call somebody, or at least I find it’s really hard to just call somebody, you got to send an email, right to figure out a time that’s convenient for people to get on a Zoom call. Um, it’s just, everything’s a little bit more complicated, but that’s okay. We’re getting there.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. And I like what you said about being intentional, because I know every attorney, business owner loves referrals. They bring with them trust and, and, you know, that’s where you get a lot of those great leads, but. You have to be intentional to build those relationships, to have those opportunities, whether it’s through education or just being a good person and giving and without even any, any thought of reciprocity. The other thing that you mentioned that I think is really true is, you know, we’re talking on Zoom and I can kind of read your body language and see when you smile and hear the tone in your voice. But a lot of times we’re, we’re jumping over to Slack or to email and you just miss those emotional intelligence type, you know, empathy types, signals, and through inflection, just emphasizing maybe a word differently where it’s kind of lost through technology versus in-person.

Patricia Refo

Absolutely. And you know, I just read a piece the other day. I thought it was really interesting about how much more energy it takes to be on Zoom versus to actually be in a room with the same number of people that the, it was, the author was arguing that if you’re looking at the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares, depending on how old you are, um, a crowd of people on zoom, it’s actually really hard to sort of do the checking that you need to do to try and figure out who’s paying attention and who’s not, and who’s listening and who’s got a sour face and all of those things. Um, and so it can be actually just personally exhausting to do it this way versus doing it in person.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah. And when, when there’s a black screen or people are bouncing in and out at different times and it kind of has that interruption effect. Um, so, so let’s kinda jumping over on more on the personal side, you know, many of the elite attorneys and entrepreneurs that I speak with, talk about the importance of maintaining a good work-life balance. What’s something you do to kind of balance that work and life, um, that you’ve got going on?

Patricia Refo

Well in a way it’s easier right now. Um, because, um, my walk to work is, I don’t know, 30, 45 seconds from one part of the house to the other. Um, so that helps one of the things that’s always been important to me is the family dinner. And that’s been true throughout my motherhood um, and in my career. It was really important in the home I grew up in and, um, I guess my mom did a good job of instilling it in me. And so in my home we spend energy to make sure that we still have that meal together at the end of the day, that brings the family together and talks about how was your day and you know, maybe it’s only a half an hour, but it’s a discipline that has helped us as a family and certainly helped me as a human to keep some of that balance. It is on the other hand, harder to keep the balance when it’s all happening inside your house. And I think everybody’s experiencing some of that um, that sure it’s easier ‘cause, gee-wizz, you don’t have to drive downtown and the commute is short, et cetera. But on the other hand, there are no boundaries anymore, unless we create them for ourselves. Um, when your computer is sitting at your kitchen table, um, the risk to spend all of your time doing work versus doing the other things that helped to make us rounded and grounded and sane people is, is sometimes too high. We all need to be careful that we’re taking care, not only of ourselves, but of our colleagues. Um, lawyer wellness is a serious issue on a good day. And these aren’t good days, um, for some people. And so making sure that we’re alert to the needs of our friends, the needs of our colleagues, the needs of others in the legal profession who may be experiencing anxiety or depression, um, is really important. And there are lots of resources around, uh, lawyer wellness in particular on the ABA website that I think are quite good.

Chris Dreyer

Yeah, I think that’s a great piece of advice. And I liked the family dinner aspect. And I feel, when I’m on the same level of my house, because you know, our master bedrooms on the same level as my office, I feel I need to go downstairs after work. And it’s like, I’m off work, right? When I go downstairs, the brain just kind of shifts to a different, uh, different thought process.

Patricia Refo

I do the same thing. I mean, I’ve got a room that I commandeered from everybody else in the house that’s now become my office because years ago, when we, when we built our house, uh, my husband got an office and I got a kitchen and it’s a great, that’s a joke in our family. It’s a great kitchen, but I’m not going to work in my kitchen. Right. So, um, uh, but like you, I have a room that’s kind of a dedicated space and I don’t go in it unless I’m working anymore. And when I leave it and go into other rooms, then it’s my, okay, I’m not working any more time.

Chris Dreyer

So outside the sphere of law, you know, what other great passions do you have in your life?

Patricia Refo

Um, honestly, my, my greatest passion is my family. I have a great family, two big brothers, um, lots of nieces and nephews to whom I’m very close and, um, our parents are both gone. And so my brothers and I are kind of filling the gap, the void of the grandparents who, um, who left us much too soon. So I spent a lot of time hanging out with virtually, or live when we used to be able to, with my family. I love to cook. Um, I love to read, um, and lately I have been taking lots of walks because here in Phoenix, it just got in the last month or so, back to nice weather while everyone else is worrying this time of year about the weather being awful and getting cold. We are celebrating the end of summer where we can emerge from our homes again and be outside.

Chris Dreyer

That’s great. And, uh, Trish, as we end, we have this final segment. It’s, it’s our three for three. It’s just three questions, kind of a rapid fire three in three minutes. And I’m just going to jump right in. What’s your number one marketing tip for attorneys.

Patricia Refo

Don’t be afraid of making a cold call. Um, if you have a connection that you can use to get to somebody, one of my dearest clients, um, was a cold call. Cause I figured out that we’d gone to the same, um, undergraduate program, and I use that, um, to just kinda chase him down and, um, it worked.

Chris Dreyer

I like it. That intentional part. And which entrepreneur do you admire the most?

Patricia Refo

Um, you know, I think the entrepreneurs right now, I admire the most, um, are the ones who are, um, reinventing their businesses to thrive in a COVID environment, right? The restaurants who’ve had to completely redo, um, what they did before to be, um, in a virtual environment. Um, the, the cocktail shipping companies that I’m not sure existed before we got into this mess who now will ship cocktails to your friends, if you want to have a party. Um, those are the entrepreneurs. I think I admire right now.

Chris Dreyer

The innovators. I like it. I like it. And then final question here. Big, broad question. What’s next on your bucket list?

Patricia Refo

Next on my bucket list is getting back to a place where I can travel. Um, I gotta be the first ABA president since the Wright brothers invented the airplane who has gone even this long without being on an airplane, right? I was expecting 300 nights this year to be sleeping in a hotel room. Not so fast. So, um, someplace, you know, wonderful and warm when this is all behind us.

Chris Dreyer

I think we’re all looking forward to visiting some warmer climates once we’re able to, again. A lot of great points there from Trish – from putting in effort to gain new connections, to looking out for ourselves and our colleagues. These are lessons that we should take with us even beyond the pandemic. And as the sector continues to evolve with the new challenges it faces, I think her advice being able to adapt is going to be key. You‘ve been listening to The Rankings Podcast. I’m Chris Dreyer. A huge thank you to today’s guest Patricia Refo for joining us. And you can find all of the links from today’s conversation in the show notes. And we want to hear from you. Have you adapted to the challenges brought about by the pandemic? Drop us a review and share your thoughts. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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