fivehundred magazine > Interview with: Heidi Keefe > Do great work, get more work, repeat

Do great work, get more work, repeat

The astrophysicist turned patent trial lawyer on why she dislikes ‘managing expectations’, the importance of connecting with an audience, and why she compares Cooley’s lawyers to entrepreneurs

Heidi Keefe

What makes a great trial lawyer? What do clients look for?

I don’t think there is a single definition of a great trial lawyer, but perhaps the one thing they all have in common is an ability to captivate an audience. You have to be a storyteller, a teacher, and a motivator. Grab their attention with a story that teaches them your facts, while motivating them to love your client. Clients look for all those things, coupled with a great team that responds thoughtfully and quickly at all times.

What was it like the first time you were first chair in a case?

The first time I got to be first chair in a case was exciting. Knowing that someone trusted you to be their voice – to advocate for them – was humbling, and it was oh so joyous to be able to put all the skills together that we had worked on for so long.

What do you think most trial lawyers could be better at?

While most trial lawyers are great talkers, we all need to be better listeners. Some of our best ideas come directly from our teams and from the questions judges or juries ask (whether directly or through the looks on their faces). Having the confidence to allow for more than one point of view always makes the case better.

How do you manage client demands and expectations when the stakes are so high?

The only way to work with a client on a high-stakes case is with brutal and constant honesty, both good and bad. I dislike the term ‘manage expectations’ because it implies some form of manipulation. Instead, the best avenue is being honest and knowing that they are accepting of your honesty.

You like to win, so how do you respond when an argument doesn’t go your way?

Wait, arguments don’t go my way? But seriously, cases in general, and trials in particular, are long, complicated processes. If an avenue is not working, we try to figure out a way to use that to our advantage. Knowledge is always valuable, even if it comes in a ‘loss’, because it can be used to transform the case into a win. Never ever give up, because as my mother used to say, ‘winning isn’t always a victory and losing isn’t always a defeat’. That said, winning is still more fun.

Is there more pressure on litigators or is it comparable to transactional lawyers?

I don’t think anyone can compare pressure or stress. In a service industry, we are always looking to win for our client and to give them what they need to make sure their companies can keep making the technology breakthroughs that we all love – whether through the next great IPO, the big trial, or even the complicated tax or immigration questions our clients face. Each could make or break a company at any given time if we aren’t right.

How is technology changing the lives of trial attorneys?

Honestly, tech changes trial lawyers’ lives the same way it does everyone. We have simpler and easier access to all information all the time, which is its own double-edged sword. I do feel quite strongly, though, that tech can hurt trial lawyers almost more than it can help. We cannot forget to connect with the humans in the room. We need to watch for understanding or lack of understanding. Don’t get buried in the PowerPoint and remember you have a live audience who wants to get to the right answer, not just people taking notes at a lecture.

What initiatives, if any, does Cooley have to mentor the next generation of female partners/trial lawyers?

We pride ourselves on our training programmes. We also sponsor associates to go to NITA trial workshops and have associates regularly shadow partners. But at the end of the day, the best learning is doing, so we try to get them up on their feet as fast as we can. I always tell the team, ‘be careful what you wish for, cause I’ll give it to you’. Sometimes it takes a little longer to get those opportunities than I’d like, but we are always looking for them.

Are there any secrets to rising up the ranks?

No secret at all for me. It was just plain old-fashioned hard work. I took every opportunity to be on my feet, even if it wasn’t ‘glamorous’. I also made sure I knew the record better so the senior guys on the team needed me. Making yourself invaluable is, in fact, invaluable.

How did you plan your journey from associate to partner and second chair to first chair?

I don’t honestly think I planned it at all, I just worked really hard and always tried to stay as busy as I could for the people who had the great work. And clients like to see you win. So, you win for them, they come back. It’s kind of an awesome feedback loop: do great work, get more work, repeat.

You’ve been at Cooley for the best part of a decade, how has the firm shaped your management style/litigation strategy?

The firm, first and foremost, values and rewards collaboration and teamwork. I tell people all the time that if Cooley lawyers weren’t lawyers they would be entrepreneurs, always creating the next unicorn client. And those people don’t have time to worry about titles or fame, they just get the work done. That is how Cooley is. We are one big team getting the stuff done for our clients. It also fosters a wonderful foxhole mentality of everyone being in it together.

What would you say is the key to balancing a successful team?

Everyone on a successful team has to know that their piece of the puzzle is as important as every other piece. And they have to know that their voice will not only be listened to but be heard. I can’t do my job without everyone’s input. Only together do we come up with the best story. I might start at A, while another team member starts at Z. The best answer is probably at L or M. Without the whole team, we would never have gotten there.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

As trite as it may sound, it was to ‘be yourself’. Whether speaking to the client or the court, you can only be you. Whenever you try to emulate someone else, you risk being inauthentic and that is the fastest way to get an audience not to believe you.

What other advice would you give to the next generation interested in becoming litigators?

If you want it, own it, and know that it is a long road. But it is rewarding. People pay us to learn and tell stories. How great is that?!

What is the one thing you would change about litigation?

Other than the billable hours? There has to be a better way to do discovery that isn’t so soul-sucking. Competing on the merits of a case instead of the fringes of discovery serves all of us better than petty bickering over documents.