How I Made Practice Group Chair: ‘Be as Present as Possible,’ Says Carolyn Caufield of Herrick Feinstein

July 3, 2024 – Media Mention

Private Clients Practice Group Chair, Carolyn R. Caufield, was profiled in's How I Made Practice Group Q&A series.

How many years have you been at your firm?

Two years

What made you pick your practice area?

When I first entered practice, I was intent on becoming a litigator. After I was given an offer to practice at my first firm out of law school, I even made my acceptance conditional on being placed in the litigation group.

As part of my training, I rotated through the trusts and estates department and was exposed to a lot of excellent work. To everyone’s shock, I quickly became the tax geek that I am today and determined that I had found my home in the profession. As trusts and estates counsel, I still get to do a fair amount of litigation, so I never missed out on that part of my career.

How did you develop your expertise in your practice area?

Most partners who work with private clients have always had a passion for the field. Since I had not entered the practice intending on focusing on trusts and estates work, once I committed to the field, I went back to NYU for an LL.M. While I did not end up finishing the degree, I rolled up my sleeves and studied on my own like no one’s business. There’s a lot of material to know and as one of my early mentors said, you can’t wait for the right assignment to fly through the window. You have to learn the area and be prepared for anything you encounter. While I was practicing law and attending NYU at night, I would get back to my house in Queens at midnight. It was a rough period, but I dedicated myself to learning everything about the practice, which helped get me started.

Why did you want to become a practice area leader?

Honestly, I didn’t. I saw how much effort that group chairs at my prior firm put into the role, and how much time they spent on administration and conflict resolution. I wasn’t lining up for that. But there were also attractive aspects of the job. When I became chair of the trusts and estates practice at my prior firm in 2010, the group had never before had a female chair. Breaking that gender barrier was meaningful to me. Also, at that point, I had already been drawn into the group’s decision-making and enjoyed playing a small leadership role. I felt complimented to be asked by partners to expand that role as chair. Likewise, after our group moved to Herrick in 2022, I was excited to be selected to lead the private clients department here. Leading this group is a fresh challenge for me, and it’s nice to undertake it at a firm with other female leaders in chair positions.

What skill sets do you need to be an effective practice group leader (i.e., knowing more about the practice, hiring, business development, financial management, etc.)?

For me, my most important task in overseeing a group is taking a mile-high view of the group to make sure that the members are getting the resources and education that they need to ensure professional growth. I keep my eyes peeled for seminars to make sure that the more junior members of our group are exposed to different areas of our practices. We also meet once a month for a formal meeting but are constantly in and out of each other’s offices. As a practice chair, you will hear about it if someone needs a new computer, but they may not be so proactive in reaching out about the professional development that could help them.

Relatedly, feedback is important. I try to be disciplined in reviewing our people informally. It is important for me to leave a pipeline of excellent well-trained attorneys who will continue the practice after I retire.

How do you balance client work with management work?

I hope you’re asking because you have some tips to share. Seriously, I’m not sure that any practice chairs feel like they excel at this, but I’ll say that over the years I’ve learned to prioritize. Sometimes, that means taking a client project home with me. During tax season, it might mean spending fewer hours on management work. But whatever burdens you’re dealing with, I think it’s important that neither your clients nor the lawyers and staff in your group “feel your pain.” They deserve and get my full attention, and if I’m causing them hesitation in coming to me, that’s a failure of leadership.

How does having a practice leadership role give you a sense of the broader strategic vision of the firm?

I have probably gotten to know Herrick better in my role as a partner in the private clients department than I have as chair of our group. Our work is not siloed at all; we are frequently working with complementary practices. If a group of physicians is selling a medical practice, for instance, our corporate lawyers handling the deal may pull us in to advise the individual seller(s) whose finances are going to change as a result. That kind of day-to-day, side-by-side work is irreplaceable in getting to understand the heartbeat and strategic imperatives of other groups, and the firm as a whole.

What other roles or experiences help you in this current role?

I was helped in so many ways by my experience working under the previous chair of our group at my former law firm—I have a natural instinct to mentor people because I had such great mentors. He delegated so much to me that I had a very good handle on what the position entailed when I took it. Also, the mentorship that I received from him is something that I have eagerly tried to replicate for others. I’ve been an enthusiastic mentor, and it’s been my pleasure to watch so many of my mentees assume significant roles. That experience as a mentor has been invaluable in chairing a group.

What are key priorities for your practice area?

The biggest thing—maybe the only thing—is maintaining the overall excellence of our service. In dealing with private clients, for instance, I want to see us maintaining a standard of responding to every client contact by the close of business the same day. That’s just an example of a baseline for client service. In private clients, everyone thinks they are the only client, and I encourage them to feel that way. I also make a practice of keeping my active files close to me so that I can be responsive as soon as I hear from a client. Of course, as lawyers progress, our expectations increase. Anyone who wants to contribute to our practice as a third- or fourth-year associate must have a strong handle on the tax component of our practice. And most importantly, in a small group like ours, everyone must have a willingness to pitch in and help others. You aren’t going to get anywhere without that.

Do you have a broader influence in this role over improving diversity at your firm? If yes, how so.

I have influence on one of the more important levers for increasing diversity: hiring. Some of our best hires in recent years have been diverse candidates, and we are focusing continuous attention on how we can better identify, attract, and retain diverse lawyers. We certainly are not the only group or firm with that goal, and I am trying to listen more than I speak on this important topic. I would only say that we approach our goal of increasing our diversity with a sincere and full commitment.

Is succession planning a part of your role as a practice group leader, and if yes, how so?

It should be a major part of any practice group leader’s role. Earlier in my career, I worked through a transition in which our group chair had not paid enough attention to succession planning. He died at 69 without preparing his clients, and a lot of work went into tasks like appointing replacement trustees on his files. In contrast, I worked under another chair who had everything prepared for her departure. That transition could not have been smoother, and I continue to service a number of her former clients today.

Effective succession planning will vary a lot from group to group. For my part, an important aspect of it is making sure that my senior (and even junior) associates know my clients and have the ability to step in if and when I’m unavailable. Clients tend to stay with the firm because they have relationships with multiple members of the department.

Is there anything that surprised you about the role?

Hiring and firing are both more challenging than I expected. That’s related to a broader point, which is that chairing a practice group can feel like you’ve become a part-time psychiatrist or therapist. I understood on some level that my predecessors played that role, but I did not appreciate that some days there would be a line outside my door. Happily for me, I enjoy that work—and it’s a muscle that you get to exercise a lot in a trusts and estates practice, where your client relationships are intimate. You have to have strong interpersonal skills to represent three generations of a family. In that sense, my work has a lot of overlap with what I do as chair.

How has the role given you insights into client needs?

It really hasn’t. Leading the practice has very little to do with the way I service clients. Although, I will say that clients love the fact that my business card says “Chair.”

Is there any other advice you’d share for those looking to become a practice leader?

I’m eventually going to have to replace myself, so I’ve given this some thought. You need to be as present as possible. The strength of an individual’s network inside the group, and inside the law firm, is the reason they get selected for the role. Prospective chairs should be in close contact with their colleagues, physically or otherwise. Above all else, they should be a person their colleagues trust and that everyone believes have their best interests at heart.