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Paula Boggs: Success is built on life-long relationships

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Paula Boggs

While still Starbucks general counsel, a University of Washington law student emailed me asking for a meeting. Impressed, I agreed, and he came to my office. After exchanging pleasantries, the student asked boldly how he could someday be general counsel of a Fortune 500 company like Starbucks.

I was taken aback because as a law student, I didn’t know what a Fortune 500 general counsel was, and even if I had, it would be the last thing I saw myself doing. You see, on day one and throughout law school, I knew I had to give Uncle Sam four years of active-duty military service upon graduation in exchange for the U.S. Army having paid for my college education. That’s all I knew.

Oh, the people you’ll meet

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of diversity in my career and, honestly, the path to general counsel became obvious only in the last third of it. I’ve seen the profession from many angles—as an Army officer, a federal prosecutor (even though I hated criminal law in law school!), an adjunct law professor, a big-firm law partner, an in-house lawyer, a Fortune 500 general counsel of an iconic company, a law practice retiree, and as a bar leader.

Given this diversity, I wish I’d known in law school how important life-long relationships would be and how central active participation in local and national bar activity would be to my career. I started bar service as a young lawyer, almost by happenstance, and my motivations for participating have changed at different points in my career. As a federal prosecutor, my local bar and the American Bar Association served as ways for me to know lawyers beyond my relatively narrow federal criminal law practice. Not only did I meet young lawyers practicing in real estate, family law, intellectual property, and the like, but I also met more senior lawyers.

Soon after joining my local bar I got to serve on a judicial screening committee. Lawyers I met through the ABA became mentors, friends, and sources of business when I left public service to become a law firm partner. I was local counsel for multi-state litigation through my ABA connections, and after going in-house I had a 50-state network of lawyers upon which to draw.

Retired, but still active

As a more seasoned lawyer, I’ve known and worked with law students and young lawyers who give me hope for our profession. Even after leaving the active practice of law for music, bar activity, most principally serving on the ABA board of governors, helps me engage with the law on my terms.

Through bar membership and service I’m able to maintain personal and professional relationships, shape the legal profession’s future, advocate for access to justice, mentor talent, promote diversity, get health insurance, and make sure I earn enough continuing legal education credits to satisfy my state bar’s requirements.

Though I didn’t say this to the law student, I don’t think I’d have become Starbucks general counsel but for years of relationship building and bar service before I got that headhunter call. I know bar service may seem only “nice to have” when student loans loom large and just landing a job is daunting. Here’s the deal, though, and I understand it better today than ever: The legal profession is about relationships.

In my career, whom I know has been as important as what I know. Never burning a bridge and keeping friends close has been my secret sauce.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.