Kirkland & Ellis LLP partner Eric White shares litigation strategies he developed from teaching sixth grade in Charlotte, N.C., with Teach for America. He’s traded in lesson planning and teaching middle schoolers for planning courtroom strategy and mentoring associates, but he finds valuable similarities between the two experiences.
Unlike everyone in my immediate family, never did I imagine that I would be a teacher at some point in my career. As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer. So much so that I competed in nearly 100 debate tournaments and speech contests (including in Latin). Law school seemed like the logical next step for me after undergrad.
But that changed when a classmate invited me to a Teach for America recruitment session on the eve of submitting my law school applications in 2006. I was all in.
When I hear attorneys lament the challenges of law school or life as a law firm associate, I often respond with a smile, “try teaching the sixth grade!”
Middle school is a special, awkward time for everyone. But for too many kids, the challenges of middle school are compounded by decades of income, health care, housing, and criminal justice disparities. My students in Charlotte were, on average, two to four grade levels behind. And my school had the highest suspension rate in the district.
My teaching experience affirmed my belief that education pays long-term dividends for students outside the classroom. Convincing my students to share that belief became the core of my daily lesson plan.
Although I’ve since traded lesson planning for trial planning, as I reflect back on my time in the classroom, I am convinced that I learned invaluable lessons that benefit my practice and clients every day.
Begin With the End
Purposeful planning is crucial for effective teaching, and particularly, backward planning. Each year, I began by identifying the big goals and academic metrics that I wanted my students to achieve by the end of the year. I then worked backwards from there, focusing on how each subject-matter unit and daily lesson plan would fit together and steer us toward those year-end goals.
I’ve adopted a similar backward-planning approach as a trial attorney and found it to be highly successful. From the outset of a case, I sit down with the team and discuss how best to achieve a favorable outcome with an eye toward trial—researching issues for dispositive motions, evaluating potential jury instructions, and sketching out trial themes.
This strategy informs every aspect of the case as we move forward: the witnesses and documents we will need, the key testimony to elicit at depositions, and the trial outline. By approaching our cases this way, we end up focused on what truly matters, are more proactive, and are better able to counsel our clients on strategic decisions.
Show Up as You
During my first several months in the classroom, I must have tried a dozen different teaching styles. None of the approaches worked because they weren’t authentic to me, and my students knew it and let me know in no uncertain terms. Over time, I found my own style—sometimes even breaking down complex concepts over R&B and rap beats. Although sometimes my students laughed at my expense, the lessons stuck.
I went through the same learning process in my legal career. Early in my practice, I tried to adopt others’ style of taking depositions, preparing witnesses, and engaging with opposing counsel. But I wasn’t as effective as I could have been because, frankly, I wasn’t being me. People can tell when you’re confidently being yourself, and when you’re not. And I firmly believe that unapologetically bringing my individual talent, experience, and approach to cases—and working as part of a diverse, authentic team—allows us to deliver better outcomes for our clients.
Invest in People
I also realized early on that to survive as a teacher, I would not be able to go it alone. I needed help from my colleagues as well as buy-in from my students, both of which required me to build genuine relationships.
My job became easier when I shared lesson plans with fellow teachers and worked with administrators to unpack disciplinary data to improve classroom outcomes. My students were more engaged and open when I took the time to cheer at weekend games or check in occasionally at the home of a struggling student. I did these things because I genuinely cared and without expecting anything in return. But, in fact, those relationships paved the way for some of my best classroom successes.
I consider building strong relationships to be a cornerstone of my legal practice. I try to bring junior associates into strategy discussions, get to know them personally, and mentor them beyond merely editing their work product. I also believe that extra time spent preparing witnesses for deposition and trial—addressing their questions and concerns, building up their confidence, and developing a trusted relationship—is incredibly worthwhile.
And when working with clients, I try to always put in the time to understand their business and their goals, and get to know every member of their team. By fostering relationships, I find associates more committed, witnesses more comfortable and credible, and clients more confident in our ability to deliver successful outcomes.
While I will always miss seeing the excitement in a student’s eyes when they master a concept, I am forever grateful for the lessons my students taught me and how they made me the lawyer that I am today. May my classroom be a gift to you as well.