Insight

Bringing Down the Hammer

Thor relied on one weapon, his mighty hammer. General counsel tends to play to their own strengths. What worked for the Viking deity may be a bad idea for you.

Gold plated toolbox with gold tools popping out of it
JT

Joseph Trotti

August 31, 2023 11:00 PM

The Marvel Comics superhero Thor, and the Viking deity that inspired him, wields the magical hammer Mjölnir to smite adversaries large and small. It’s the only weapon he uses because it’s the only one he needs.

We humans, however, face the danger of the Golden Hammer Rule—the famous dictum that if you’re really good with a hammer, you’ll approach every problem as though it’s a nail.

As a general counsel, it’s only natural that you focus on your strengths, particularly in the context of litigation. It’s how you provide your clients with the best representation and the greatest chance to achieve their goals. But it can also lead to bias, even unconsciously so, favoring one course of action or one legal area over another, when that might not be the best option.

The thing to do, I’ve learned from my 40 years in practice, is to put down the hammer you’re so good with and become proficient with the other tools in the box. Sooner or later, you’ll need them.

If you’re really good with a hammer, you’ll approach every problem as though it’s a nail."

At my firm, I head the Litigation Department as well as the Family Law practice, and the two have informed each other much more than I ever thought they would. Both areas entail financial as well as personal aspects; knowing how to navigate them and how to comprehensively advocate for my clients in one facet has made me better in the other as well.

Whether most of your work is transactional and contractual or personal, invariably your practice, narrow or wide as it might be, touches on other areas of law you don’t practice or even necessarily have solid knowledge about. It’s important to deepen your knowledge constantly and to collaborate with colleagues as well as other relevant professionals.

For example, dissolving a business partnership or a marriage is a similar process (and, indeed, the two sometimes go together). How so? To properly advise your client, you must be able to evaluate a multitude of topics from different legal perspectives: tax law, real estate law, pension obligations, corporate law, trusts and estates, labor law and much else besides. They might not all be directly relevant, but overlooking those that are because they’re outside your bailiwick potentially does your client a disservice. More than once in my career, I’ve seen that myopia border—or even cross the line into—malpractice.

Another example: Say a company, family, couple or individual owns several properties. Aside from the business and family law aspects, your understanding of real estate law must go beyond the rudimentary—otherwise how can you factor in the tax basis for each property, or the capital gains?

I’m not advocating for being the best at everything. No one is or can be. A jack of all trades is the master of none. But be good. Don’t neglect the things you don’t like or that you think you can work around.

Likewise, don’t hesitate to work with and learn from others. Shadow colleagues when possible. Join a networking group. Take CLEs regularly, in a variety of disciplines, even if you don’t need the credits. Even Thor needs the rest of the Avengers sometimes. Assemble your team.

By the same token, never get so busy that you’re not keeping up with the law. Legislation and application constantly change, and there’s always something new you need to know—whether you know it or not.

The same goes for your approach to representation. If your work is mostly contractual, you’re probably detailed and meticulous. If you mostly litigate, chances are you’re assertive. You’ve got to be both. Often, what your client needs is for you to be simultaneously a realistic advisor and a fierce advocate. Be both from the initial consult.

That way, when you do need that big hammer, you’ll be worthy of it.

Joseph Trotti is a partner at Vishnick McGovern Milizio LLP in New York, where he heads the Litigation Department and the Matrimonial & Family Law practice. He is the founding partner of the VMM Family InstituteSM, which applies Collaborative Law principles to domestic cases. He can be reached at 516.437.4385 x140 and jtrotti@vmmlegal.com.

Headline Image: Adobe Stock/Alexander

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