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On their journeys: Four associates share the stories of their burgeoning law careers

May 11, 2020
By John McNally
Managing editor

Becoming a lawyer takes a major commitment. Once your foot is in the door as an associate, it’s up to you to take your career where you want it to go.

Chicago Lawyer reached out to associates of varying experience levels to see why they made that vow to join the bar, where it’s taken them initially and where they hope to end up in the near future.

Data from the 2020 Associate Pay Survey, gathered in the early months of the year, remained relatively unchanged from 2019 as the high-water mark of $190,000 per year for big law associates stayed the same. Chicago Lawyer’s breakdown begins on page 19.

Why did these young lawyers take the plunge? Find out now.

Cassie Gawron was driven to become a lawyer to fulfill the dreams of two of the people closest to her — her mother and her late father. Both were lawyers that didn’t reach the heights they wanted to after they married during law school.

“It made me want to be a lawyer as I saw my parents never got the career they wanted to have,” she said.

Sadly, Gawron’s father passed away from cancer at the age of 37 when she was a young child. Gawron’s mother raised her and her sister and then retook and passed the bar after 10 years away from practicing. Her mother was interested in representing children in the justice system, but ended up having to take what opportunities – personal injury and medical malpractice, mostly — Gawron said.

“It was never her thing, but we were so thankful,” she said.

At Locke Lord, Gawron has been working on health care cases, and at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has had “the busiest week of my career” when she spoke with Chicago Lawyer. Health care has always been a major interest to Gawron. She made it a goal while at the University of Notre Dame Law School to blend her passion for health care and the law.

“I’m lucky that I can pursue what I want to pursue,” she said. “When I went to law school, I knew I didn’t want to litigate right away. My personal statement to Notre Dame was I wanted to get into health care. I’ve had a big interest in mental health care law, didn’t know how to align that.”

Gawron worked for Presence Health during her first year of law school and saw all the elements that fascinated her — she “got to see them (from the) transactional, planning and execution side. It made it clear to me that I could combine my interest in healthcare and pair it with the law.”

As a Division I athlete and team captain of the volleyball team at South Carolina State University, Shandice Sluch found she had plenty of skills in the bag when she joined the legal community.

“I’m a person who observes, and sports predict your opponents’ and teammates’ moves, how they learn,” she said. “This translates to law so well … in preparing for trial and mediation. You have to know your teammates (and opponents).”

Prior to joining Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, Sluch spent one semester working within Chicago Public Schools’ Labor and Employee Discipline Unit. She defended the district against employees on matters such as inappropriate contact with students and others, accumulating by arguing 10 hearings.

“I handled them like they were a trial with opening statement, examination,” she said. “It taught me to listen better, craft my communication in a way to understand it and benefit.”

RSHC provided Sluch, who also graduated from the University of Notre Dame Law School, an opportunity to do big law work with big law clients, but remain close with nearly all her colleagues.

“We go to happy hours once a week,” she said. “Everyone wants you win and succeed, especially coming out law school.”

Sluch has been doing a lot of document review, especially on wrongful-conviction cases. She appreciates the mentorship she’s received from firm colleagues Kelly Warner and Joy Anderson.

“(They’re) letting me observe and learn the different processes of a trial,” she said. “You don’t learn about the process in law school.”

Sluch intends to take that knowledge from her work in commercial litigation and bring in fashion and entertainment clients. She’s been interested in fashion since she was five years old and wrote a paper in law school regarding the fashion industry and the environment. Additionally, trademark and copyright issues in the fashion industry are top-of-mind to Sluch.

“Trademark and copyright issues are booming (in fashion). They need lawyers to protect their creativity,” she said. “Can you protect the design of a T-shirt or dress?”

Thomas James, a first-year associate, came out of the University of North Dakota with an electrical engineering degree. He had no idea how important it would be in his career as a patent lawyer.

“It has been invaluable, but I didn’t know it would beforehand,” he said. “It wasn’t serendipitous.”

After receiving his B.S., he moved to the Washington, D.C., area and spent five years with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a patent examiner. He came to Chicago to be closer to home and join the private sector. James joined Fitch Even in Jan. 2017 as a patent agent while he attended DePaul University College of Law at night, completing his J.D. in 2019.

Coming out of law school, James knew he was already where he wanted to be to take his career to new heights. James’ time as a patent agent at Fitch Even allowed him to help the firm prepare patent applications to help secure client’s technologies. As an associate, James was on the team for Micron Inc. et al. v. Lone Star Silicon Innovations LLC (IPR2017-01563) before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, representing Lone Star in a case challenging its patent on a semiconductor.

“Fitch is an IP boutique,” he said. “The semiconductor litigations were highly interesting. Many of those cases presented challenging legal scenarios.”

James enjoys the litigation he’s currently focusing on in his first year, but when he’s ready to branch out James said he’d like to work on trade secret and anti-trust cases.

“I stayed (at Fitch Even) for the work,” he said. “They care about their associates … that comes through by the way partners interact with you.”

Coming from a “modest” J.D. program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, Lucy Holifield says she never thought a job in Chicago or at Mayer Brown “was possible.”

“I felt I had to reach big to get to Chicago,” she said.

Holifield pressed UALR faculty members about who they knew in the city, and one professor secured her an interview with the Big Law firm. Holifield had some knowledge of the Chicago area because she interned at the Chicago Botanic Gardens — but that didn’t offer much networking in the legal world

“I didn’t know anyone when I got here,” she said.

Currently, Holifield said she’s “casting as broad a net as you can.” She’s been handling litigation and dispute resolution cases, particularly a lot of overdraft cases, including a client that’s close to her home back in Arkansas.

“(I’ve) had the opportunity to work with a lot of great people,” she said. “One of our clients is an Arkansas bank that’s growing really quickly. It’s taking a lot of my time.”

Holifield is a member of the LGBT community and appreciates it doesn’t have to be her defining trait.

“If I don’t want to be a gay attorney, I don’t have to be,” she said. “Nobody bats an eye. It doesn’t make me special, and that makes it great. It’s very normal, very accepted.”

The next steps for Holifield’s career, she said, are brief writing (something she got a taste of in law school) and possibly growing a career in animal law and advocacy.

“I’ve gotten some really positive feedback from a few of the matters I have been lucky enough to do some writing in, and I’d like to explore that a bit more and get the chance to flex those muscles,” she said. “William H. Bowen School of Law had a really great legal writing program and I did well in it. So, in addition to the legal research and fact development I do as a new associate, and in addition to revising other people’s writing, I look forward to the opportunity to draft briefs on behalf of my clients, whether animal or human.”

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