Audra Braden of Clark Hill: “Encourage Communication”

Encourage Communication. Regular and clear communication with clients is vital to becoming successful in my practice area. Client expectations must be understood and managed throughout the life of a matter. I ask my clients how often they want to hear from me, and we develop a procedure and schedule to ensure we maintain regular communication. […]

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Encourage Communication. Regular and clear communication with clients is vital to becoming successful in my practice area. Client expectations must be understood and managed throughout the life of a matter. I ask my clients how often they want to hear from me, and we develop a procedure and schedule to ensure we maintain regular communication. For example, I provide a comprehensive update to one of my clients’ executives at a quarterly meeting, so we all are aware of the issues facing the company. I also set up alerts for new litigation so that I can keep my clients updated when I’m aware of a new matter. Communicating with my partners and associates is equally as important. The teams we assemble to handle client matters would not function without regular and appropriate communication.

The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Audra Leigh Braden.

Audra Leigh Braden, Clark Hill represents companies and individuals in disputes related to contracts, trade secrets, collections, and business torts. She also represents companies as their outside general counsel overseeing legal, risk, and compliance functions.

As outside general counsel, Audra manages companies’ legal matters through relationships with other Clark Hill attorneys and coordinates representation for all legal issues, including corporate, litigation, immigration, data privacy and cybersecurity, real estate, employment, and intellectual property matters. She also attends Board meetings and Officer meetings, as well as maintains regular contact with clients regarding active and potential new matters.

In her general litigation practice, Audra advises technology and energy companies, among others, on strategies to achieve their legal goals and resolve disputes. As a litigator for over a decade, Audra has extensive courtroom experience, including jury trials, bench trials, and injunction evidentiary hearings. She supports her clients through the entire litigation process.

What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?

I was raised in the small town of Giddings, Texas, home to 5,000 people. Growing up, I didn’t know any lawyers or what lawyers even did, but law seemed like a mysterious, prestigious career that would be a challenge to reach. I always loved reading, writing and advocacy, and I had always made good grades. So, I decided when I was a kid that I was going to be a lawyer. I tried to meet lawyers where I could, but there just weren’t a lot of opportunities.

In college, I chose to major in political science as a path to law school. Everyone would ask, what’s your backup plan? I didn’t really have one. This is what I’m doing. I really wanted to accomplish the goal of being a lawyer. I knew that I liked connecting with and being an advocate for people, and I really liked language and writing, so it ended up being a good fit for me.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

I’m a litigator. I have practiced business and civil litigation throughout my career. In the last two years, I have shifted my practice to focus a significant amount of time on outside General Counsel (GC) work. I currently represent multiple companies who do not have any attorneys in their businesses. They look to me to handle or manage all their legal issues, as a kind of quarterback for them. I provide guidance and litigate their matters, manage, oversee and/or delegate anything that is not litigation.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Three character traits most important to my success are determination, humility, and compassion. My determination and sheer desire to achieve my goals has provided me with success. For example, my path to becoming a lawyer was driven by determination. I chose to focus my energy on getting into this career while I was young because it was the loftiest goal, I could imagine for myself as a small-town kid. I stuck with the path, even when I perceived doubts from others about whether I had the right pedigree, personality or looks to be a lawyer. When I’m doubted or told I can’t do something, it makes me work even harder to prove people wrong.

Humility was instilled in me by my parents and I have always been inclined to practice it. I strive to be confident without being boastful, and while emphasizing collaboration with teams. For example, I regularly delegate work to others at my firm and take a team approach. In doing so, I strive to show gratitude for the help of my peers and value other perspectives. This team approach has led to more successful outcomes for my clients, as attorneys who are the most suited for each matter or in specialty areas are assigned to their cases. I believe clients and peers respect me when I have the confidence to defer to others without fear of showing some sort of weakness. I have also had the opportunity to learn from my colleagues through practicing humility. Valuing the input of associates at my firm has also led to meaningful working relationships.

Compassion and empathy have also helped me to gain trust of my clients, connect with my colleagues, and be relatable in the courtroom. I was told early in my career that I was too “nice” to be a lawyer. I disagree. Genuinely caring about other people has led to opportunities I otherwise would not have had. In my opinion, this third character trait is also a unique quality that other attorneys may not emphasize. Lawyers do not need to act like “bulldogs” or bullies to be successful advocates for their clients. Kindness to clients, partners, and opposing counsel has enabled me to grow my book of business and successfully resolve disputes.

Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?

I think there’s an element of luck that comes with everybody’s success. Things must align properly; I’ve had opportunities to benefit from new client relationships when my colleagues have taken other jobs. I was able to leverage those openings by redefining our role and building stronger bonds to maximize client service. Taking over leadership for all these clients’ legal issues wasn’t a slam dunk. I had to create my own vision for how to best provide legal services to the companies and present these ideas in a way that made sense. It was fortunate they had a need, and I was available to fill that for them. There’s an element of luck with success, but you need to be aligned with a client’s culture, goals and personnel. They still must want to transition work to you and trust you to be a leader and advisor for them.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

I graduated cum laude from Southern Methodist University Law School, which is well respected in North Texas. I wanted to live in the Dallas area, and this choice made the most sense to me. I do think it is important to obtain a quality education, but I don’t know that the school that I went to necessarily has a bearing on my success. Each client has different needs and expectations, and the quality of school I attended has not been an issue or question any potential client has ever raised with me. While education is clearly important, I don’t think it defines success or necessarily limits someone from succeeding if they did not attend a top-tier school.

Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?

At 20, I would have been halfway through college. I would say, don’t be fearful of taking your own path. I began my college experience and career doing what I thought was required to be successful based on what I observed or heard from others. I was afraid to deviate from the path I thought was required. At this point in my life, I realize that there is not only one right way to accomplish goals and achieve success. You can achieve the same goals as someone else in your own authentic way. For example, I would tell my younger self to take more college classes in subjects that I enjoyed, such as history and psychology, rather than focus on political science. I still would have ended up in the same law school, but I would have collected more knowledge that interested me. You can go farther when you go your own way.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

I appreciate a challenge. I have always been more satisfied in life when I didn’t take the easy or obvious choice. The ability to achieve goals through hard work and dedication is a concept instilled in me by my family. One of my grandmothers went to nursing school at 16 years old and had a successful, serious career when many women did not work out of the house. My mother earned a degree in computer science when not a single computer existed in her town. My grandfather started his own construction company when his employer failed to give him a raise that he had earned. My primary motivation behind choosing the field of law and staying in it is the desire to challenge myself and achieve goals through determination, which ultimately brings satisfaction in life.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Some of the most exciting projects I am working on relate to client reorganization and acquisitions. As a litigator, I have a unique view of these projects through my outside GC role. While corporate specialists supervise these projects, I participate with the client as their GC. Being included in these opportunities to watch and help clients grow is an invaluable experience that has also helped me grow more familiar with my clients’ businesses and become more integrated with their executive teams.

Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?

I currently enjoy my work and law firm, but I thrive on challenging myself. I lead the BOLD group in our Collin County, Texas office. BOLD encourages the professional growth and promotion of women throughout the firm, the legal profession, and the global business community. In the next chapter of my career, I would like to expand my leadership within my law firm. I would also continue to grow my practice by bringing on additional clients and becoming an equity partner at my firm.

Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?

As the pandemic was just beginning in 2020, we obtained an ex parte Temporary Restraining Order for a client in a small, West Texas town. Within the month, we were facing a full evidentiary hearing to seek a Temporary Injunction. The court in this town was not prepared to conduct such a hearing virtually, so we were required to travel to the small town with our clients and present essentially a mini-trial. We reluctantly traveled. We did not feel safe flying, so we drove over 5 hours to this town. We were some of the only individuals at the local hotel. It was such a strange time to be out of our houses and in an actual courtroom for the first time in three months. During the four-hour hearing, we put on evidence and obtained all the relief our client sought. The judge commented on the record that he was providing hand sanitizer and that only 10 people were allowed in the courtroom. I will never forget this experience.

Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?

I like the flexibility a hybrid work environment provides, and I think that younger attorneys are going to expect some leeway that most of the older generations have never had. I prefer a hybrid model because it has enabled me to have a better work/life balance. I can work at home or wherever I am. I save time on driving and getting ready. I can travel and still be available to clients wherever I am. Now that most clients are versed in virtual meetings, this model makes sense. I think attorneys and staff should have the option to work from home if they can work as effectively and they have a desire for flexibility. While flexibility is important, I still value spending time at the office and meeting clients in person. Some level of face time is important to mentor younger attorneys, boost company morale and collaboration among colleagues. I think the future of law office operation will consist of more hybrid models.

How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?

The world has changed since COVID. So, legal roles have changed, too. Courts have adapted to virtual legal work, and I anticipate that virtual hearings will continue to be an option in many courts going forward. Virtual hearings are cost-effective and efficient for many clients. Litigators have had to learn how to attend court virtually without losing all the formality of a courtroom. We have had to learn how to mentor younger attorneys, get to know our new partners, and build comradery at our offices without the option of seeing our colleagues face-to-face. We have also had to learn to find unique ways to develop business. I think the virtual skills we have learned will continue to aid us in the future and will help us stay connected to our colleagues and clients across the country and the world on a level we weren’t able to achieve prior to COVID.

We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?

The importance of networking hasn’t changed, but the nature of networking has. Opportunities must be found and cultivated in more creative ways. We are working in smaller groups now to reach our audiences. In-person speaking opportunities of the past are now virtual. For example, I recently gave a virtual presentation for a local bar association on my outside GC work. Networking within my firm, in the community, even with existing and prospective clients is crucial. Networking is one of the biggest parts of my job.

Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?

I choose to keep my social media accounts private so that I can separate my personal image from my professional image. Occasionally, I do share some professional content on my personal pages. My friends all know that I am a lawyer and do reach out to me when they have a legal need. I also benefit from my firm’s activity on social media platforms, which helps our attorneys build our practices. Utilizing social media allows our firm to tell our story. We create content to highlight our attorneys as leaders and individuals, and to promote awareness of our thought leadership. My firm promoted a recent Continuing Legal Education (CLE) presentation I led, which successfully increased attendance for the event. Leveraging our presentation content on a variety of platforms allows us to get our key messages out to our target audiences. Clients, prospective clients and referral sources can see our values, the type of work we do, and have easy access to contact us.

Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.

In my experience as a litigator who also serves clients as their outside general counsel, there are 5 things you need to become a top lawyer.

  1. Embody Leadership– To maintain a successful relationship as outside GC, it is essential to be seen by your clients as a leader. In many instances, you are the “face” of legal for the company, even though you are not an employee. Since I am employed by my law firm and not the client company, it is imperative to find ways to create opportunities to show leadership. For example, when I start a new relationship with my clients, I develop a plan, meet with the executives and establish a regular meeting schedule. For one client, we established a “Legal Council” comprised with a select group of my clients’ executives. I lead weekly meetings with this group and the company’s employees have been instructed to send all legal questions to the Legal Council. As a leader, it is important for me to know my values and emulate them, be professional, and have a healthy balance of confidence and humility. I also attend board meetings and weekly officer meetings at no charge to my clients, which demonstrates an investment in their success and provides regular opportunities be in a leadership role with the team.
  2. Cultivate Trust– Trust is imperative in every attorney-client relationship. It is equally important in relationships with peers and colleagues in the law firm setting. The greater the trust, the more open clients and other attorneys on my team can be in sharing issues and information, which generates the best results in resolving disputes and in anticipating new legal issues. My clients trust me to ensure billing is correct and transparent, assign attorneys in my firm and local counsel who are appropriate for each matter, and to be honest with them. I have cultivated trust with clients by spending investment hours learning about my clients’ businesses and industries, company cultures, and executive expectations. For example, I was handling litigation for a client for a few years. Over time, their trust in my abilities grew. When I had an opportunity to submit a proposal to serve as their point of contact for all legal work, the executives chose me because they trusted me to receive the work and promote their best interests. My ability to show respect and to read the audience has built trust over time with clients and colleagues.
  3. Embrace Collaboration– A successful attorney is almost always surrounded by a team of colleagues. I enjoy relationship building within my firm, which has enabled me to assemble and manage teams to litigate cases, close transactions, and protect company trade secrets. Staffing of matters requires considering attorney competence, personalities and diversity. Collaborating benefits clients because we can delegate work where appropriate, leverage technology, staff and attorneys who specialize in unique areas of the law, and we can complete matters efficiently and timely. For example, I collaborate with attorneys in my firm across the country and across practice areas to meet client needs. Networking within the firm has allowed me to become familiar with attorneys who have stepped in to help when collaboration was required.
  4. Encourage Communication– Regular and clear communication with clients is vital to becoming successful in my practice area. Client expectations must be understood and managed throughout the life of a matter. I ask my clients how often they want to hear from me, and we develop a procedure and schedule to ensure we maintain regular communication. For example, I provide a comprehensive update to one of my clients’ executives at a quarterly meeting, so we all are aware of the issues facing the company. I also set up alerts for new litigation so that I can keep my clients updated when I’m aware of a new matter. Communicating with my partners and associates is equally as important. The teams we assemble to handle client matters would not function without regular and appropriate communication.
  5. Pursue Mentorship– To be successful in this profession, you must be willing to learn from others. I have been fortunate to have partners over my career who have taught me how they identify legal needs for potential clients and best serve them. I have consistently expressed interest in learning from my experienced and effective colleagues, and I have observed what makes them successful. Knowing that lawyers at all stages of their careers can benefit from associating with someone who has more experience than them in certain areas, I have grown my practice by finding opportunities to be mentored. I also make a point to mentor others and share the knowledge I have acquired to pay it forward. For example, my first big client relationship was developed when I was an associate through advice from one of my law partners. He served as outside general counsel for clients and was versed in what worked for him. I keep in regular contact with him and we recently presented a CLE on nuts and bolts of an outside GC relationship. And I am still the attorney for this client today. Without his mentorship, my career would not have grown as quickly, and I may not have found this area of the law that I greatly enjoy.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Like many other people around the world, I have been fascinated with the success and drive of Oprah Winfrey. I grew up watching her show and seeing her touch lives and make the world a better place. She has a wealth of knowledge gained through her interviews with the most influential people of our time. She is brilliant, eloquent, and created her success by determination and compassion. I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with her.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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