Career Advice for the New(er) ERISA Lawyer

Each year when Henry Eickelberg of General Dynamics and I finish our course on Employee Benefits in Corporate Transactions at Georgetown, we take our students to my pub, the Irish Channel in DC, and the talk inevitably turns to jobs (or lack thereof) and careers in ERISA. I thought it might be useful to share some of that discussion with the BNA Pension & Benefits readers.

What should the new ERISA attorneys do to advance their careers? Here are some tips:

Stay current.

Congress amends ERISA and the benefits provisions of the Internal Revenue Code at least once a year, sometimes more often, and the courts are constantly making new law. There is almost no way you can keep on top of these changes by yourself even if you are religiously reading the BNA Pension & Benefits Daily, as you should be. In addition to the BNA Pension & Benefits Daily, BenefitsLink is a great free resource on the Internet that not only posts new rulings, regulations and decisions, but also posts client memos from law firms and consulting firms that analyze these new developments, giving you insights you might not get if you just read the new ruling, regulation or decision. You can sign up for daily e-mails for the news on retirement plans, health plans or both. Join a lunch group, or create your own, so you can bounce issues off other people. If you live in DC or can easily get here, the May meeting of the ABA Tax Section is a good opportunity to learn what's been happening and hear experienced practitioners discuss what these changes mean. The Tax Section's Employee Benefits Committee meets for two days, May 7 and 8, starting with subcommittee meetings on Friday morning. The first subcommittee meeting is New Employee Benefits Attorneys Forum, which meets at 7 am on Friday, May 7, in the Wilson Room on Level 3B of the Grand Hyatt in DC. The Tax Section also meets in the fall (this year September 24-25 in Toronto) and in January (Boca Raton, January 21-22, 2011). If you're a labor lawyer or a litigator, I'd recommend the mid-year meeting of the ABA Labor Section Employee Benefits Committee, next year in Savannah, February 16-19, 2011. First time attendees and law students can attend these meetings for free, so you can go to both a Tax Section meeting and a Labor Section meeting for free and see which one better fits your practice and your interests. Your local bar may also have an employee benefits committee where you can learn what's going on and meet other ERISA practioners.


There's a great book you should read, Rain Making: The Professional's Guide to Attracting New Clients, by Ford Harding. He makes the point that there is no one way that rainmakers make rain. You should choose the style that works for you. But something that inevitably helps is to build a network of contacts. He compares building a network of contacts to compound interest in your IRA or 401(k) plan: if you make a few more contacts each year and keep in touch with most of your contacts, in a few years you will have a sizable network. Harding quotes an environmental partner: "I began to develop business early when I was an associate. I learned that the best source of business was existing clients. I developed relationships with people at my level at companies where we were already doing work. As they moved up the corporate ladder and I moved up the firm ladder, I developed the trust and relationship that resulted in them calling me when they had legal matters. Some moved to other companies and would call me, and this brought in new clients. After ten years, I had a strong base of business. . . ."

Master a Hot Topic.

As a young associate, you may already be doing this because you've been assigned to write a client memo on a new law, regulation or decision. In the movie "The Graduate," a Los Angeles businessman takes Dustin Hoffman aside and advises him, "I just want to say one word to you -- just one word -- 'plastics.' " For new ERISA lawyers, the word today is "health." The recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ("PPACA") is for your generation what ERISA was for mine. It will be easier for you to learn the new rules since you won't have to unlearn the existing rules. To get you started, the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits will be presenting a 90-minute teleconference on "Health Care Reform: What Employers Need to Know Now!" on Thursday, April 29, that you can listen to from your office. If health isn't your thing, section 409A and section 457A offer plenty of opportunities in the executive compensation arena, there are new DOL regulations coming on fiduciary issues and the Supreme Court has just decided a couple of cases that will inevitably muck things up more than than they clarify the law (see Marc Machiz's recent blog on Conkright v. Frommert: The Justices Make Mistakes).

Never publish anything only once (advice attributed to Professor Martin Ginsburg at Georgetown).

Once you've mastered your hot topic, write an article or give a speech on the topic. Then give another speech to a different audience or write another article for a different publication with a different emphasis.

Invite yourself to the party.

Shortly after I graduated from law school, I was working at the IRS Chief Counsel's office on a variety of projects, including the legislation that became the Multiemployer Pension Plan Amendments Act of 1980. I had a law school friend who was working for one of the Congressional committees on the same legislation. One day, when we were chatting about something else, she asked if I was coming to the meeting on the legislation the following Tuesday. "What meeting?" I said and she filled me in on the details. I then called the person I worked with at Treasury and asked if he wanted me to come to the meeting. He said sure, if I wanted to, and I then reported to my branch chief at the IRS that I had to go to the meeting on Tuesday. (Truthfully, I just wanted to get out of the office.) As a result, I was much more involved in the legislation than I would have been had I stayed in my office and worked on my little corner of the bill. Years later I didn't follow my instincts when my firm was representing the RJ Reynolds management that wanted to buy the company and take it private (see Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco). I asked my senior corporate partner whether I should come to New York for the negotiations and he said I didn't need to. I didn't go and our client lost the deal to KKR based on how they dealt with employee benefits. I don't know if my being there would have changed the result but I've always regretted asking my partner instead of simply getting on the plane to NY and being part of the deal team in person.

Get a life.

I was lucky enough to be married when I went to law school. My husband was a whitewater canoe paddler and he raced competitively. It's very difficult to take a lot of books and papers with you when you're paddling on a whitewater river or when everything in the car is likely to get wet. The world did not end because I took the weekend off and I'm still married to the same husband 35+ years later.

-- Nell Hennessy