Paula Barran | Crain's Seattle

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Paula Barran

Background:  

Barran Liebman LLP is a Portland-based law firm that focuses on management-side employment, labor and benefits law.

The Mistake:  

Feeling the need to unleash only the inner warrior, particularly as a woman, because female attorneys often think they must be twice as tenacious as their male counterparts to be taken seriously in the legal profession. When I started, it wasn't the best written product that proved you were the best of the best, it was how well you stared down the competition and left them quaking. I have tucked away in one of my cabinets the brass balls I was awarded by an organization. Honest to Pete.

The expectation of attorneys is that we are tough, that we are fighters, gladiators. You have to figure out how to fight like crazy but build bridges with your opponents. As a young attorney, I believed that to fight like crazy and win meant I was doing my best. You fall in love with a case, want to do right by a client, and you get really mad at people who oppose it. And you can spend a lot of time fighting, objecting to everything. But when you object to everything and create too many obstacles, you’re merely wasting time and therefore, money, because you're not moving toward resolution.

You have to figure out how to fight like crazy but build bridges with your opponents

The Lesson: 

I think it’s helpful to take a cue from sports, and some of the best at sports, say Muhammed Ali. You’ve got to figure out how to come out blazing, fight your heart out and then hug when it’s all over. There is a way to act professionally, do what you need to do and still recognize that we are part of a larger community.

I ran into some people we opposed a few years ago, and now they’ve joined our organization. It’s possible to keep what we do strictly business and to maintain a level of generosity, returning phone calls and generally not being annoying.

I tell people this story about a woman lawyer who goes into a room for a deposition. A male attorney sees her and says, "Sweetie, will you get me a cup of coffee?" Without any hesitation, she replies: "Sure. How do you take it?" She gets the coffee and sets it down for him, then takes her place, and the man was completely embarrassed. Getting upset would have totally been a legitimate reaction, but if we're working on building bridges, her action might have been more useful. He hopefully had the grace to recognize he was a jerk and appreciated her.

We talk about this with our newer associates, that it’s OK to listen and be less combative if it makes sense for a particular client or case. You can be tenacious as well as respected. Like many things in life, it’s about finding the right balance.

Pictured: Paula Barran. | Photo courtesy of Barran Liebman.

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