Scott Swenson is a trusts & estates partner with Connolly Gallagher, LLP in Delaware, which is also an ILN member firm. In this episode, Lindsay and Scott discuss the transition between practicing law and managing your practice, what Scott sees as the role of lawyers and estates lawyers in particular, and how continuous learning keeps the practice fresh.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello, and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host Lindsay Griffiths, executive director of The International Lawyers Network. And our guest this week is Scott Swenson with Connolly Gallagher in Wilmington, Delaware. Scott, welcome. We’re really happy to have you with us.
Scott: Thank you, Lindsay. Very nice to be here.
Lindsay: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your firm and what’s going on at the moment?
Scott: Sure. So the firm is Connolly Gallagher. We are in Wilmington, Delaware. We have about 30 lawyers and we are a general practice firm, we have a number of different practice areas, but we’re sort of a midsize firm by Delaware standards. But by most jurisdictional standards, I suppose we’re probably a small firm. And we work a lot with folks here in Delaware, but we work very frequently with people outside of Delaware who have Delaware needs. So sometimes that is people in other parts of the country. Sometimes that’s people in other parts of the world and oftentimes those folks are coming to us through our ILN partners. So ILN has been a very valuable relationship for us, a very valuable partnership for us. And we appreciate everything that you and the network do for us.
Lindsay: And we appreciate that. I mean, obviously, Delaware is a business center and a very important one in the US, so it makes a lot of sense that you would see a lot of work coming in. And I know you’ve been a long time partner of the ILN, so we’re happy to have you and really glad you’re here. So let’s dive in. What is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome it? I know that’s a tough question to open up with, but we’ll just get right to the hard ones.
Scott: Sure. So from a personal standpoint, I think my biggest challenge at the moment is just sort of managing my practice and sort of transitioning in a way, because I think my practice is sort of to the point now where I can’t do everything myself, I can’t possibly do everything myself and truthfully, it’s probably been that way for at least a couple of years now, but I think I sort of, coming up, I had a mentality that you need to be self-reliant and you need to do things yourself, but that’s really sort of the antithesis of why we’re in partnerships, why we’re in law firms, it’s because you can’t handle everything yourself.
And just sort of getting away from that mindset and getting more into the mindset of managing matters as opposed to doing everything on matters has been a challenge for me, or even handing things off altogether to someone else has been a bit of a challenge for me, but it’s something that I think I’m adapting to and working on. And it’s a great problem to have, so it’s certainly not something I’m complaining about, but it’s been good too to work with other attorneys both here within the firm and outside the firm, including a lot of great ILN partners around the globe that we’ve had the chance to partner with.
Lindsay: That’s a really interesting challenge. I find that’s something I really struggle with myself because a lot of times it is often easier to just work longer than it is to sit down and take the time to explain how you want something done to someone else and trust that they will do it for you. But as you say, especially when it comes to the level of work you have, it’s not often practical to do everything yourself. So when it comes to developing the skills for managing a practice versus just practicing law, how do you handle that transition? Is it something that you… Do you just adapt those skills? Is it something that the firm helps you manage or do you seek to do that on your own?
Scott: I think primarily I’ve tried to learn to do it on my own. It’s something that I think is difficult to learn any other way than by experience, at least it seems that way to me, you can learn, I think, to be better at delegating and be better at mentoring and be better at managing through the example of others. And certainly, that’s one way that I’ve tried to adapt and develop those skills, but apart from observing, I think those are things that are very difficult to teach because they do tend to differ a lot from one situation to the next.
So I don’t know that there’s necessarily a playbook. I think there are, I’m sure there are folks out there who specialize in this sort of thing and professional coaches and things like that. And that I think is probably a pretty valuable resource, one that maybe I ought to think about taking advantage of. So far I’ve been trying to figure it out on my own with the support of my partners. And I think I’m getting there.
Lindsay: That’s great. And you mentioned, and this, I guess sort of leans into it a little bit, the idea of learning from others and the example of others when it comes to this type of thing. And that leads to one of my other questions, which is, who has been the biggest mentor in your career? Is that something that has an impact on how you learn to be a lawyer? And I mean, obviously, mentorship isn’t just about being a lawyer, it can impact you in other ways as well, but how has mentorship impacted you and who has been your biggest mentor?
Scott: I think that absolutely, I’ve learned to, some of the skills that we’re talking about here, how to be a better manager, how to delegate, how to trust others to handle things that maybe you can’t handle yourself. There’s no question that I’ve learned a lot about that from mentors. And I don’t know that there’s any one specific mentor that I could point to that to whom I could say this person has impacted my career to such a great degree that it sort of eclipses everyone else.
I think I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors. A lot of my partners I’ve learned a tremendous amount from, and former colleagues as well, some of whom are on the bench now. And to me, it’s more about learning through observation than necessarily sitting down with someone and having like a teaching session.
I mean, to me, the best lessons that I learned from some of the people that I admire the most in my professional life just came from watching how they do things and observing how they do things or reading their writing, or hearing them, seeing them interact with clients, seeing them interact with other professionals and seeing what their behaviors were, how they tackled challenges, how they approached problems. So I think probably in a lot of cases, some of those folks may not even know necessarily how much they’ve taught me because there was never a time when they sat down and said, here’s the download of information for you, but it was more getting the chance to observe them and learning that way.
Lindsay): I think that’s really true. And I think that’s been true for me. And I’m sure it’s true for a lot of other people where there have been those small mentorship moments for a lot of us where it may not be that you have a sort of formal mentorship relationship with someone, but you’re impacted by the way that they practice or the way that they handle or carry themselves that we all take with us and incorporate into the way that we all do business. And so I think that’s a really impactful statement.
Scott: It is. As I said, I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of people who were very good at what they do surrounding me throughout my professional career, my development as a lawyer, and I think I owe a lot to them because of that. And in turn, I try to be a mentor to younger lawyers who are coming up now, and hopefully, I’m doing a good job with that. Hopefully, I’m imparting lessons to them either directly or indirectly that are positive and helping them in their development as well.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And how about on the client-side, has there been a client that’s really impacted you or changed your practice?
Scott: I would say, I mean, there’s been a lot of clients I’ve had over the years that I think have impacted the way that I do things. Part of that is because part of my practice is transactional, part of it is litigation. And I don’t think I’ve mentioned this up until this point, but I focus primarily on trust and estates. And so for me, a lot of the litigation carries with it lessons that are applicable on the planning side, you get to see what went wrong and make sure that you address that in the future, and matters that you’re handling for clients on the planning end.
And then on the transaction side, on the [inaudible 00:12:18] side, I think having that familiarity with what goes into planning for clients helps in terms of the litigation, helps me understand the issues and why things may have been done the way that they were done with respect to the planning that the trust that maybe is at issue in the litigation. There was one particular case that I was working on for, I think, close to the first, it was at least the first eight years of my career, I think. It was a long-running case obviously, and it involved a very successful family and a trust that had been set up by the founder of this company.
And it was, I learned a tremendous amount in that case because I actually, it was very, there was a lot on the line and I got to work with some of the best lawyers from around the country, frankly, on this case. And it was an interesting one as well, in terms of the facts, I think the sort of the central dispute arose when one of the children of the grantor, the founder of this company ended up adopting her ex-husband and because it served to, well, the idea at least was it would change the way that this trust operated to the benefit of her kids if she adopted their father as an additional child of hers. So it was a pretty juicy sort of backstory, but it was a fascinating case to work on because of the level of sophistication of the council and the issues involved.
Lindsay: That’s really cool. I’m sure you learned a lot. That’s really interesting, especially because there was such a long lifetime of the case.
Scott: I think it sort of got me started down this path of really focusing on private wealth disputes. And I don’t know that I necessarily would have the focus, the practice, specific that I do, were it not for this case and it’s the sort of thing where there’s lots of handling trust litigation, private wealth litigation, you do kind of get a lot of good stories, a lot of very pretty interesting stories, which I kind of like about it, but I mean, that’s probably a case that I’m not sure will ever be eclipsed in terms of the issues, in terms of the stakes, in terms of the sophistication of the council involved. And so, maybe I peaked too early in that regard, but it was a fun one to get to be a part of.
Lindsay: Maybe you’ll bookend your career and start with a really interesting case and end with a really interesting case. And you never know.
Scott: Maybe, I mean, it’d be nice if 40 years from now, someone else is talking about a case where they were the junior associate and I was the lead partner, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be quite that lucky.
Lindsay: You never know. All right. So speaking of your line of work, tell us something that most people misunderstand about your field of work. I think lawyers especially have a pretty broad understanding of, and even people who aren’t lawyers of corporate work litigation, but trust and estates I see is sort of a narrow niche area. So people don’t know a lot about it unless they practice in that area. So tell us something that you think people misunderstand about it.
Scott: I think that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about trust and estates. I mean, there are a lot of misconceptions about the legal profession in general. I think people know or think they know a lot about lawyers as informed by what they see on TV and in movies which of course is usually the inside of a courtroom. And so I think people think they understand that or they think they understand trials, but outside of that, I don’t think that most people really know what it is that lawyers do, let alone trust and estate lawyers.
So to me, I mean, the way that I usually try to describe myself to laypeople, actually the way that I’ve described myself to my seven-year-old who still doesn’t really know what a lawyer does, is that I’m a professional problem solver. And frankly, that’s the way that I like to think about what I do. People come with problems that are beyond their capability to solve and I work with them to solve them. And sometimes those problems are the dispute with a family member over or dispute with a trustee over money.
And sometimes those problems are, hey, I am selling my company and how do I make sure that I pay the least amount that I can in taxes? Or it could be, I have a special needs child, and what’s the best way to take care of that special needs child after I’m gone? So there are a lot of different ways in which these problems present. But I think that’s the one thing that all my clients have in common is they have a problem and they need someone that they can turn to, to help them through it.
And frankly, that’s what gives me the most gratification in what I do is being that professional problem solver, having the ability to look at these things and whether it’s bringing substantive knowledge to bear, tax specific knowledge or Delaware specific knowledge, or whether it’s just sort of bringing a sort of a practical or even a more of a compassionate approach, it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to help people through problems.
Lindsay: I really like that. And I think that’s a really unique and important way to see the profession and specifically what you do.
Scott: I mean, as I said, it’s the part of it that I enjoy the most. And I like to think that any good lawyer sees themselves as a counselor, as a problem solver. You shouldn’t, for most people, their interactions with lawyers and their lives tend to be few and far between, and they should be because you hopefully only need to see a lawyer on very rare occasions. And because most of the time when you’re seeing a lawyer, it’s because there’s something wrong or something has to be done that’s beyond your capability. And so I think a good lawyer helps people get through that challenge, whatever may be and helps them get on with their lives.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And gives them, I think when you mention the word compassion before, a lot of it is peace of mind and compassion, whether it’s dealing with individuals or it’s dealing with companies and both of those things are very important. So what do you think has been the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career? And it may tie into that?
Scott: I think that when I was younger, I probably thought that there would come a point in my career where I would’ve arrived, I would’ve become, I would’ve mastered it, I would’ve… I would get to a point where it’s like, okay, I know everything now, and now I’m an expert and now I have this command of the practice area. And the reality of it is, it’s a constant evolution. You never really get there. You can never rest on your laurels because there’s always something more to learn. You can always improve. You can always get better, you can always hone your craft.
And so I think to me, that’s the biggest lesson is that it’s just a constant evolution, but I also think that’s what makes the practice of law interesting and rewarding in many regards, because I’ve described it to people as it’s not the sort of job where you get promotions necessarily, right, and that’s how you move up the ladder. I mean, usually, if you’re in private practice, they’re sort of the one big promotion, which is going from associate to partner. But beyond that, you don’t really, there’s nothing necessarily to strive for in terms of professional milestones, but it’s still tremendously rewarding and you’re always striving because you’re always looking to improve yourself, and you’re always, your practice sort of grows with you over time. You develop more expertise, which changes the sorts of matters that you’re working on and changes the sorts of clients that you’re working with and the level of sophistication of the problems that you’re addressing.
So there’s never really a dull moment. There’s never really a point where, and frankly that’s a very good thing. I’m glad that there’s not a point where I can say all right, I know everything there is to know because I have a feeling that it would probably be pretty boring from that point forward. I like being constantly challenged and constantly asked to expand and just having new experiences and trying to learn from them and become better at what I do.
Lindsay: No, there’s a lot of truth to that. And you’re right. Thankfully it isn’t boring and things are always changing and we’ve always got something new to learn.
Scott: I think, I probably never appreciated fully when I was younger that your practice grows along with you and that’s to me what makes the practice of law so rewarding.
Lindsay: It’s true. Yes. I agree. So tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know.
Scott: Well, something that I’m sure most people don’t know is I almost went to seminary at one point. When I was in college, I was at one point strongly considering it, I guess there was even a point where I would say I made the decision that that’s what I was going to do after I graduated. I was going to go on to seminary. And it’s, obviously, I didn’t end up going that route, but that’s something that I would say most people probably don’t know about me.
Lindsay: That’s true. That’s very funny. Do you think that has any impact on your work today? Do you feel like there is still a dual calling for you?
Scott: Well, I don’t know that I would say it’s a dual calling necessarily, but I think looking back, my reasons why I wanted to go to seminary back then were really because I felt like I wanted to serve others. And I obviously have that opportunity in the practice of law. It’s a very different setting. And I don’t know that I fully appreciated that when I made the decision to go to law school, but I think there probably are a lot of similarities in terms of the professions. I mean, it is an opportunity to serve others and it’s obvious, I would not equate the practice of law to being called to the clergy. But I do think that lawyers are expected to adhere to standards that aren’t applicable to others and to put clients above self and to put a lot of interests above your own. And so I think there may be is some crossover there on some level.
Lindsay: Certainly. And one final, well, two final questions. So first I would say is what does being a part of the ILN mean to you?
Scott: Well, it’s, I mean, there’s a lot of benefits to being part of ILN, but I think one of the biggest benefits really is it, for firms like ours, which is only here in Delaware, it’s the opportunity to partner with lots of great lawyers and great law firms from other jurisdictions around the globe here in the United States and abroad. And I think that really gives us an edge competitively because it allows us to work with clients who may have needs in other jurisdictions. And there’s an increasing number of law firms nowadays that really are global in scope. And it’s difficult for smaller firms to compete with them on some level when it comes to a certain kind of client and having a partnership like the ILN that allows us to be plugged in with firms of similar stature and caliber, and their jurisdictions around the world really sort of gives us a competitive edge, I think, that other firms of our size don’t have.
And it’s great for our clients in that regard because when I have clients who have needs that come up in other jurisdictions, it’s great to know that I can rely on our partners in those jurisdictions and that it brings comfort to the client as well, to know that this is not just a referral that someone’s uncle’s friend had, this has been vetted, this is trusted, this is someone that we know, someone that we work with, someone that we know has the requisite expertise.
Lindsay: That’s great. I love to hear that. And my final question is, the one I always love to ask is what is one thing you’re enjoying right now that has nothing to do with work or ILN or anything?
Scott: One thing I am enjoying right now. Well, I would say, I mean, so I mentioned my seven-year-old earlier, we’ve also got a four-year-old and a two-year-old. So sometimes, oftentimes it could be a little bit of a challenge at home with the three of them running around. But I have to say, I do really enjoy it, especially now with our youngest being two and a half, maybe it’s gotten a little bit easier than when they were really little, but it’s fun seeing the three of them interact and really start to become friends and do things themselves. It used to be more like us interacting with them more so than them necessarily interacting with each other. But now that they’re interacting with each other, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Lindsay: And those are such hilarious ages. Especially like once they start to get over two and a half, then they’re really, really funny.
Scott: It’s always funny to watch them and see what they come up with. It’s really never-ending.
Lindsay: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for joining us this week Scott, I really appreciate it, it’s been a wonderful conversation, and thanks so much to all of our listeners, too, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another guest. And when you have a moment, please rate, review and subscribe over on Apple Podcast or wherever you like to listen. And we really appreciate it. Thank you so much.