The following is an excerpt from my book, A Lawyer’s Guide to Creating a Life, Not Just a Living: Ordinary lawyers doing extraordinary things.
Everyone knows that success in business is in direct correlation with the relationships one fosters. In the legal profession, relationships have been the foundation of building a practice or a career path. It was the only option before lawyers were allowed to advertise and certainly before social media.
Many internet marketers beat the drum about SEO and pay-per-click advertising. They have their place in a modern business development strategy, but they will never replace a good old-fashioned relationship.
So how do you build relationships that matter? One of the ways is to listen—be present. You never know where a seemingly insignificant conversation may lead. To listen is the greatest gift you can give another human being. We all know the feeling we get when someone isn’t listening. It’s dismissive and demeaning, certainly not conducive to building relationships.
There is a secret to building relationships that matter, relationships that are genuine and authentic. It’s about looking for opportunities to connect on common ground.
I spoke with a lawyer that is a master relationship builders. Clarissa Rodriguez is a shining example of why building relationships is the key to a practice you love. She’s a commercial litigator and an international arbitrator. She describes herself as becoming Indiana Jones.
Black: So Clarissa, I am dying to hear the backstory of you becoming Indiana Jones.
Rodriguez: Well, believe it or not, Indiana Jones raised me. I can recite any line from any of the first three films cold. At age nine, I boldly declared to my parents that I’d be an archeologist when I grew up. Instead of being proud or impressed, my parents were practical. They reminded me I didn’t like the outdoors. I’d prove them wrong and try to camp in our backyard, but I wouldn’t make it to sundown. Archeology seemed out of the question.
Despite the setback, I found myself taking church history courses, art classes, and getting a minor in anthropology in college. I didn’t, however, become an archeologist. I became an attorney.
My practice area has always been international. Miami being the hub between Latin America and Europe has afforded me the chance to work with international clients on cross-border investments, international arbitration, and litigation.
This focus drew me to professional organizations for international practitioners, like the Miami International Arbitration Society and the Florida Bar International Law Section. I volunteered for everything to get involved, and it paid off. Within a few years, I found myself voted on the executive council of the International Law Section, and later onto the executive board. I’m slated to become the fourth woman president of the International Law Section in thirty-eight years.
Every year, the International Law Section hosts a premier conference in Miami, titled the iLaw. The iLaw 2017 invited world renowned Donald S. Burris to be the keynote speaker. Mr. Burris’s work was characterized in the movie Woman in Gold.
As you may know, Woman in Gold is a film starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, about Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann’s fight against the Austrian government to retrieve a series of Nazi-looted art taken from her family during World War II. It happens that Maria’s family had commissioned the artist Gustav Klimt to paint the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. He painted what would be called Woman in Gold, also known as Austria’s Mona Lisa.
Maria Altmann’s quest was to get back her family’s art collection. She hired a friend of the family, Randy Schoenberg. He was a solo practitioner renting a cubicle in the same building as Don Burris.
Black: Neither Randy nor Mr. Burris were big firm lawyers?
Rodriguez: No, neither. Amazing, right? Randy and Mr. Burris had been friends for years. Mr. Burris bumped into Randy in the elevator of his office building. He asked Randy what was going on and catching up, when Randy mentioned he had opened up his own firm and needed help with the Altmann case. Don agreed to help.
Black: So did either of them have experience in restituting looted art?
Rodriguez: No. Neither of them had experience retrieving art from anyone, much less looted art. Together they sued the Austrian government, and fought for eleven years to retrieve the artwork. They successfully argued before the Supreme Court and won the right to sue the Austrian government.
Once they had the right to sue Austria, they engaged in an international arbitration and won. The Austrian government was compelled to return the entire collection to the Altmann family, consisting of eleven pieces of art, setting the precedent for this kind of work.
The movie Woman in Gold chronicles the legal battle. And since then, Mr. Burris has become the preeminent legal expert in the field of looted art and its restitution. Hearing this, I knew I would enjoy his talk at the conference.
Black: How did it come about that you met Mr. Burris?
Rodriguez: The International Law Section was hosting an opening ceremony cocktail party for the iLaw conference, and I was asked to entertain Mr. Burris and his wife, a California couple in their seventies, and make them feel welcome. I was hooked.
Mr. Burris and his wife invited me to dinner, and by the end of the night, I had an invitation to their home in Los Angeles. We became instant friends, and he insisted I call him Don.
The next day, at the conference, his speech “From Tragedy to Triumph: Altmann, Benningson, and the Pursuit of Looted Art” was a splash of cold water on me. His work was impressive, inherently noble, and utterly captivating. For days I couldn’t stop thinking about Don’s lecture. It was an adrenaline rush.
Fast forward to a few days later, when you and I had our follow-up meeting to develop my practice. You knew I had lots of international work experience. And I remember we were trying to find the right one to explore and focus on. Casually, I mentioned the conference and began talking about Don, and suddenly your eyes widened. You screamed, and “Wait, stop!” Remember?
Black: Oh, yes, I do.
Rodriguez: You asked, “Why didn’t you start our session with this? Are you listening to what you’re saying?”
Honestly, no. I was telling you about meeting this amazing man with this incredible practice. And what you heard was me discuss the invitation to dinner, the invitation to visit in LA, and the invitation to stay in touch. It had not occurred to me that these invitations meant something. You recognized I had a connection with Don because of our mutual passion and his area of practice. It was international, historical, and unique; it was exactly what I wanted to do.
Remember how we immediately set aside the rest of the afternoon and got to work on becoming Indiana Jones?
Black: We were both so excited, weren’t we? Explain how your relationship with Mr. Burris has evolved so far.
Rodriguez: Becoming Indiana Jones has been a blast. It happens that I’m already drawn to cases involving the discovery of antiquities, the battle over the return of stolen art, and the processes used to resolve these types of disputes. With your help, we created a series of soft agenda items toward the main goal, which is co-counseling with Don on these types of cases.
The first step we crafted together was building rapport. We fine-tuned the legal and news feeds I read to focus on looted art cases. Every time I saw a case, I printed it and wrote down a handwritten note with my thoughts on the case.
When I called him, because I was coming to Los Angeles and wanted to schedule a coffee, he mentioned he received and read everything I sent him. With your creativity, strategy and support, I’ve met with Don in Miami, in LA, and recently in New York. Each personal visit has helped advance the idea of working together.
Don mentioned we should use his cases to pursue Cuban looted art, exactly what we hoped to hear. Since then, I’ve been researching this issue and how it relates to Nazi-looted-art cases. South Florida is special for this practice area because of the large Jewish and Cuban communities, both unique diasporas.
Black: Now, as I recall, you were skeptical about doing this, right?
Rodriguez: I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about our goal you and I set to have a formal affiliation with Don, but I soldiered on, so to speak. While attending a few lectures with Don, I broached the subject of my office serving as his Florida go-to office and him becoming of counsel at my firm. I was so nervous. He thought it was a great idea, because he is asked to speak in Florida regularly.
He’s constantly meeting Holocaust survivors and heirs, and thought the idea of having a local office was a good idea. Additionally, I mentioned needing his help as I pursue Cuban-looted-art cases. He is excited to see what we can do together.
As you said, if you don’t ask, you don’t get, right?
Black: Absolutely. And next is all about action, and you can’t wait for permission, can you?
Rodriguez: You, my partner, Laura Reich, and I sprang into action. We crafted a fait accompli; we updated our firm website to include Don as of counsel. We incorporated his biography, his cases, and expanded the breadth of services we can offer under restituting and restoring looted art.
During my most recent meeting with Don in New York, I presented him with the of counsel mockup of our new website together. He loved it and gave it two thumbs up. Don and I attended our first potential client meeting together. It’s a case involving a cotton mill in Germany confiscated by the Nazis. I can hear the soundtrack to Indiana Jones playing in the background.
Black: Clarissa, I am now a believer. You are becoming Indiana Jones.
What did Clarissa do? She tapped into wisdom and passion with a cross-generational relationship. And I’m sure Mr. Burris was just as thrilled to find a young lawyer who was as passionate about looted art as he is, and indicated he wanted to work with Clarissa.
She didn’t wait for permission to create the prototype for the website. Her fear of overstepping her bounds didn’t stop her. What was the worst that could happen? He said no? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time someone had told Clarissa no. She had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
I encourage you to rent the movie Woman in Gold, and you will understand why Clarissa is so excited about this relationship and the opportunities that lie ahead.
So I ask you, who is in your area of interest that you could help and learn from? Commit to finding that person and give the relationship top priority. I promise you things will start to happen that were once unimaginable.