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When Drinker Biddle lawyers need career advice, they turn to Maria Lewis

Sam Wood, Staff Writer

Updated: Tuesday, February 20, 2018, 3:01 AM

Maria Lewis, a litigator at Drinker Biddle who is also the staff career counselor.

It’s easy for a young lawyer to feel lost in a big law firm.

Maria Lewis knows from experience.

A litigator in Drinker Biddle & Reath’s labor and employment practice group for the last decade, Lewis also serves as in-house career counselor to the national firm’s 227 associates.

“It’s like attorney coaching,” Lewis said.

Lewis began practicing law 20 years ago, first at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and then at Pepper Hamilton.

As she was building her career, “I felt a bit lost,” she said. “I didn’t know where I fit in or how to make the next steps. I would have appreciated having someone to talk to, someone who could have gotten answers.”

So when executive partners at Drinker approached Lewis 18 months ago to provide confidential in-house counseling to junior lawyers, she jumped at the opportunity, and now sees from two to five lawyers a week.

“I don’t know if there are other firms providing these services, but we were looking at what our younger attorneys needed and this was it,” she said. “We want our associates to be successful, not just for their time at Drinker, but for their entire careers.”

What are the most common problems young associates face?

The most common is gaining an understanding of how they’re doing at the firm and their career in general.

For example, I’ll get situations where someone believes they’re having a struggle with a partner, but usually it’s because they don’t know how to talk to the partner. So they talk to me first and we think through the problem. There may be an intervention on my part, if the associate wants me to do that.

They may want to gather information or ask a question that they’re not in a position to ask directly. For example, they’ll need policy clarification or information on the year-end review process.

What’s crucial to my role is the confidentiality aspect. They feel confident that our conversations aren’t going to get to firm management. That’s crucial to the success of the career counselor position.

Was the position created to retain talent?

Absolutely. As with any good firm, we want to retain talent. It’s not really my job to talk someone out of something they really want to do. But I want to make sure they’ve thought through the decision. Sometimes it comes down to a misunderstanding that needs to be addressed. But with retaining talent, you also share that you care about people and their careers and I think we’ve been successful in that regard.

How much of your job is about combating attorney burnout?

The potential for burnout is definitely there. And that’s something we focus on.

Sometimes there are cases where someone is really excelling and they get a lot of work and don’t know how to say “no.” They need help saying “no.”

The firm provides data, reviews and the hours that help me to lead conversations with folks to make sure they’re OK. I had one case: The person was handling too much. She was doing wonderful work and everyone wanted to work with her. She was going to burn out, and sometimes people need help walking through that.

What about rebalancing and refocusing?

That, too. Sometimes my job is about helping people put things into perspective. For someone who is a junior attorney, it can be hard to see what the next day might bring. For many associates, it’s hard to talk to people about their work if those people aren’t at a large law firm because people on the outside don’t understand the full struggle.

Sometimes you feel trapped as a junior attorney. They can feel like they can’t talk to partners because they don’t want them to think about them differently, and friends and loved ones may not understand. I usually have continual or ongoing conversations with attorneys about their issues.

(Responses were edited for clarity and concision.)

Sam Wood, Staff Writer

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