Photo provided by Milberg LLP

Photo provided by Milberg LLP

New Year, new perspective, and there’s no fresher perspective than a newly minted partner’s view of the legal profession. Milberg partner Nicole Duckett Fricke was promoted to her new position at the class action plaintiffs' firm in March 2013, and the UCLA Law School graduate has many insights to share about her partnership track. First thing on her list of things to master as a new partner: Thinking like a partner. According to Fricke, it is not as easy as one would think. Apparently, the skill does not come automatically with the title.

“It comes with a lot of practice,” Fricke, who is based in Los Angeles, said. “As a partner, I have to tell myself I’m ultimately responsible for what happens in a case. If the buck stops with me, I need to know what I need to do differently and how to take more responsibility. And this goes outside the office as well. If I’m seated in a board meeting for the Federal Bar Association, I would tell myself that I’m a partner and there’s a higher expectation of my abilities, my experience and my general professionalism, and I want to meet those expectations.”

Lawdragon: Describe to us your path to partnership and what you think helped you the most in your partnership track.

NDF: The first thing was really developing my base of knowledge and experience, first at two large defense firms and then at Milberg. I was really dedicated to getting the most experience, constantly studying and looking for areas to focus on as well as being out in the legal community, speaking on panels and joining legal organizations that were relevant to my practice area. Once I felt I had done a significant amount of that I was ready to distinguish myself with respect to having the ability to develop clients and be an expert in the field.

LD: If you’re just starting out, how do you that?

NDF: The concrete thing that new associates can do very early on in their careers is to get involved outside of the office, joining bar organizations and other legal groups that are particular to their practice area. That’s something very young lawyers can do and the other thing they want to do, and I’ve spoken about this on panels to young lawyers and law students, is to take control over the work they’re getting as much as they can. That means going to the senior associate or to the partner and saying "I want to do a deposition, I want to write a certain kind of brief." If they say no you can still sit in at the depostion or  go along to the argument. It is important to take some control over the experience you get. Often it requires going and asking for certain kinds of work.

It is also crucial to get involved with business development as early on as you can. As an associate you don’t necessarily get access to clients so you have to do it on your own. You can’t rely on the senior people at your law firm. There are some legal groups you’d like to be involved with in order to get yourself known out there, but not just bar associations. Figure out some groups and conferences that you can go to and be involved with where potential clients will be.

One good example is the National Association of Securities Professionals (NASP). Here’s a group, it’s in my industry and it’s not a bunch of lawyers -- it’s all potential clients. I started going to their conferences even though the senior lawyers at the office were not going to them because I figured I’d be able to make some useful contacts, and I was right. There are plenty of groups like that out there. Look at the city you’re in and look at the industry, go online and figure out what is it that you can go to where you won’t be surrounded by other people in the same position as you and where you’d be around people who could eventually give you business.

LD: You originally started at a defense firm. What attracted you to plaintiffs’ litigation?

NDF: I really wanted to come at the securities profession from the standpoint of the client and I think that in plaintiffs’ work you’re doing that a lot more than in the defense work. Securities defense, you’re really focusing on protecting your client from having to litigate and from being sued. In representing plaintiffs you’re going after your client’s interest. You’re actually prosecuting, going out there and fighting for your client’s interest. The work we do at Milberg focuses on fighting for shareholders’ interests and that really appeals to me. And we not only help clients in court; we also play an advisory role so that our securities clients can be compliant with all the new regulations.

LD: When you were in law school, did you even imagine you’d be doing plaintiffs’ class action cases?

NDF: I originally wanted to be a criminal prosecutor. I had watched a lot of television by the time I got to law school and I really sort of felt that I was going to go out there and clean up the world. I did work for the federal prosecutor while I was in law school here in California. While I found it to be very invigorating and inspiring and I was working with some of the smartest people I’d ever met, it can feel personal - at least for somebody who is as sensitive as I am. I realized I could probably be the most effective attorney if I could separate my work from my personal feelings.

LD: How did you transition from defense work to plaintiffs’ work? Were you apprehensive at all?

NDF: There was definitely apprehension about it being uncharted territory. My first several months, maybe even two years into the job, there was a serious learning curve. The plaintiffs’ class action world has all of its own specific laws and nuances that I had to master. You have to constantly challenge yourself and look at new areas and find new issues to invigorate your practice.

Most recently, I’ve really been focusing on advisory compliance work for our pension fund clients and it grows and changes every day. I’m really learning, educating myself, doing my own reading every day,  and going to panels. There are so many new regulations that have recently been introduced that investors are expected to comply with and I have to learn all of those and be an expert in them so I can advise my clients effectively.

LD: Did you have a favorite class in law school or a favorite law professor?

NDF: My favorite class has nothing to do with what I am doing now, criminal law. It was a first-year class. My professor was David Sklansky. He was the one who got me interested to work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It just goes to show you shouldn’t feel so stressed out that you have no idea what practice area you’re going to focus on after law school. Here I am 18 years later doing something completely different. But I am still very grateful for what I learned in that class. I learned that whatever practice area you are in, you have to try to find a way to keep things exciting. Some people would laugh and say exciting practice of law is an oxymoron. It was very exciting reading criminal cases, clients doing all kinds of crazy things, lawyers manipulating clients.

But the way I keep things exciting now even though most of my clients are large pension funds and not criminal defendants is I really approach my job as a problem solver. I really take an interest in exactly what they’re doing and really take it very seriously. Securities fraud is a very serious thing. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of enforcements from the government and it really falls on plaintiffs’ firms to keep it from happening.

LD: How important do you think is having a mentor for a young professional? Did you have a mentor?

NDF: It really is one of the most important parts of having success in an area. I’ve always had mentors and I still rely on my mentors. I have mentors that I talk to regularly and I take very seriously the mentoring that I do for lawyers at my firm, the lawyers that I am involved with and the high school students that I mentor. The best piece of advice for any young person pursuing a legal career, in addition to taking control of your legal career, is to get yourself a good mentor -- at least one, if not two. Your mentor can change over time. You can start with a mid-level associate, then you can find a junior partner and then a partner.

If you continue you want to find a mentor outside your office, you really need somebody that doesn’t have an agenda that can help you throughout your career. A lot of times you get assigned a mentor at your firm, but the mentor you get assigned to may not be the best mentor for you. You really need to take control of your career so go get yourself a mentor, and you would want to figure who that would be.  That person has to have two things: They should be trustworthy and in a position to guide you. A mentor is wiser than you and is trustworthy. That trust part is important because you may find in your career it is not that easy to find people you can trust. A person with a little more wisdom and more power than you have and who has your best interest in mind is ideal. And once you figure out who that person is, just ask them and tell them that you want them to be your mentor.

LD: You are a City Commissioner for the Los Angeles Convention Center and related entities, including L.A. Live, the Staples Center, and the Los Angeles Visitors Bureau. How did you get involved in city government?

NDF: My family has been involved in Los Angeles city and county in one way or another for several decades. My grandmother was the first African-American social worker for the county of Los Angeles, and my mother has worked as a speech pathologist since 1965 for the city. My grandfather was one of the first African Americans to serve on the grand jury for the county of Los Angeles. So I’ve been involved for a long time in that way and I basically got into a position to be considered through one of the legal organizations that I mentioned earlier. There is a woman who sits on the NASP Board with me who was stepping off the Commission and she recommended me to replace her, and I ended up being appointed to a higher position. It really just goes to show that the more and deeper you get yourself involved in groups out in the community, the more you benefit from your association with them. You have to find at least one or two groups and really commit and be very active. That’s something I didn’t really figure out until later.

LD: What do you do for fun?

NDF: I’m a movie buff. I guess when you live in L.A., you just cannot escape the film world. Movies are just everywhere. People always ask me if I wanted to be an entertainment lawyer but I tell them I just love watching movies. I just saw American Hustle. I thought it was so funny and well acted.