The Leadership Skills that Cultivate Associate Engagement, with Al Fatale of Labaton

When Al Fatale joined Labaton Sucharow in 2016, he knew he wanted to do something different. Graduating law school in 2007, most of his early career was focused on mortgage-backed securities litigation, working on the defense side for banks during the financial crisis.

An invaluable education, to be sure. But as he was learning to be an effective advocate for clients, he noticed something lacking in his training: Many partners weren’t taking the time to train and advocate for their associates.

“This is fast-paced work,” he says, “and if you’re drowning in it, there’s often an urge to drop the work on someone’s desk without taking the time to properly explain what you need.” He quickly realized that approach wasn’t helpful for the associates, and usually ended up making more work for everyone in the end.

Fortunately, Fatale also had some great mentors, both as an associate and a law student. He absorbed the lessons from all of them, learning what to do and what not to do as his career progressed, he became partner and moved into a mentorship position himself.

Now, Fatale – who is a member of Lawdragon 500 X – The Next Generation and The Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Financial Lawyers – leads a team of attorneys in the litigation securities group at Labaton. He represents institutional and retail investors with claims involving public offerings. He is currently preparing for trial in a case against Uber over alleged misstatements they made about cultural issues and passenger safety ahead of their IPO.

In addition to his legal acumen, Fatale is known in the firm for his mentorship of associates on his team, making sure they build necessary skills and get early experience in depositions and briefings. He also has an eye for spotting talent and advises and advocates for his juniors in their career growth.

Lawdragon: How would you describe your leadership style?

Al Fatale: My leadership style boils down to how I would have liked to have been led as a junior associate. We have a rotation system at Labaton, so most junior attorneys will spend time in my group at one point. I currently have six associates working for me, and I'm really focused on their development and the opportunities that I think every lawyer should have, and often don't.

My mantra and approach in my group is that these young attorneys are punching a little bit above their weight class. My juniors do depositions as soon as they're ready. They argue motions, they write briefs. I had a second-year associate do a deposition just a couple weeks ago in the Uber case. Of course, I was there for him, helping him through the process. But when you're prepared, you're perfectly capable to do these things.

I’m really proud of my team and everything we’ve built. My senior associate on the team right now, Joe Cotilletta, is a master at discovery. He comes from the products liability world – tort cases, hundreds of depositions, trials. I enjoy working with him because he shares my mentality about training associates. Law's all about learning. I learn from them what they're researching, they learn from me on how to approach things. We're all learning from each other and that makes it exciting because the practice of law can be different every day.

Law's all about learning. I learn from them what they're researching, they learn from me on how to approach things.

LD: What do you look for in a mentee?

AF: It’s someone who doesn't see it as a job, the odd person who can get excited about securities litigation. You'll see it early on in an associate when you win some motion to compel, when you find a perfect case, when the brief just really came together well and you can see the excitement in their eyes like, "Wow, we really put this together, we really pulled it off." I'm looking for people who are just having fun because it contributes to my fun.

LD: What drives you to take initiative with developing associates?

AF: The way I see it, their success is the group's success and the firm's success. And the sooner we expose junior associates to this type of work, the sooner they step up and become leaders in the firm.

Every moment I spend training an attorney, working through their writing or their deposition outline or oral argument strategy, is really an investment in the firm. The two hours I spend working with an associate, explaining why we do things the way we do, that can have a bigger return for the firm than two hours of my work product.

Also, I really enjoy it. It gives me a lot of joy. When associates get to do something for the first time, you can see how exciting that is for them, and it keeps me excited in the work, too.

LD: What’s your top piece of advice for young attorneys, in terms of career development?

AF: It’s very hard to plan and see where your career is going to end up. But wherever it is, you need to build skills early on to get there.

I like to tell people how I never thought I’d be a partner at Labaton. I’d been at Fried Frank for nine years and for the first six months, I thought I’d be a trusts & estates attorney. Then the financial crisis happened and I became a securities litigator. I love securities litigation, but I wanted to feel a little bit more victory at the end of the day, and they seemed to be having more fun on the plaintiff side. So when the opportunity came up, I went for it.

The lesson there is that, in the first couple years of practice, there is such a steep learning curve, because you’re learning so much. After about three years, you're polishing skills. But still so much is new, everything's exciting. So stay open to new paths in your career, and absorb everything you can.

LD: Does your career guidance extend to advocating for these associates?

AF: Absolutely. There was an associate in my group, Lisa Strejlau, a brilliant attorney. She worked on a lot of my cases and supported the group really well, but I identified that she had additional skillsets and could also be contributing a lot to the firm through client development. I told my partners, “Lisa needs to be in front of clients more, she has the personality for it and the skillset.” It’s not my area, so I knew she needed those mentors to keep developing. Now she splits her time between litigating and client development.

People sometimes hold on to an associate who they like and who does good work, even when they could be doing something better at the firm or elsewhere. I like to think that the people on my team know they can come talk to me if they want to try something different. I'm absolutely an advocate for them within the firm, and if they wanted to leave the firm, I’ll help them find their next position, too.

The two hours I spend working with an associate, explaining why we do things the way we do, that can have a bigger return for the firm than two hours of my work product.

LD: When did your interest in mentorship first start?

AF: Back in college. I wasn't particularly a strong writer, but I had one professor who, if she gave you a C on a paper, would offer to go over it with you, give you a chance to make edits, and then increase your grade. If you got a B that time, she’d go over it with you again. And this wasn’t even a writing class, it was Greek and Latin classics and mythology, but she invested that time. My writing improved, thanks to her approach.

I do the same thing as a lawyer now. I'll mark up the brief, we'll sit down, I'll come around the other side of the desk and show you my edits. I don’t talk at you, I work through it with you because that's how I learned. I had great mentors at my previous firm, too. I also had situations where I thought, “That’s not how I want to handle it.” I think everyone’s had a boss at some point where you think, "I don't get it. Why are we doing it that way?" And I try to remember that. You learn what you want to emulate, and what you don’t want to do.

LD: Can you talk more about the approaches that you’ve found were not effective?

AF: The hands-off style of, "Here's your assignment on Friday, let's talk on Monday." What am I going to get from an associate on Monday where I haven't made the investment on the front end to explain what the assignment is, to hear questions, to answer questions? Look, we're all fast-paced and I think sometimes we're all drowning under work, and a lot of times there's just an urge to push it off on someone else. But I’m not setting someone up for success in an assignment inside a firm if I just drop the work on their desk and not take the time, the frontend investment of time, to make sure that we're going to put together a good work product.

Even when I’m incredible busy, which is often, I take the time to think, "This is what I actually need the person to do.” And I’ll explain, “This is how you should structure the brief or the letter or the argument. Let's talk about that for an hour. Now you go do your work and come back to me." That hour at the beginning would've been five or six hours on the other end when I'm reworking the brief because I didn't make the investment in giving good instruction and approaching it in a collaborative way.

LD: Who were your mentors when you first joined Labaton?

AF: So, I was hired by an attorney who shortly thereafter left the firm for another opportunity. I was early on in adrift in the firm and then looking around to see who I was going to work with. I met a great colleague named Jonathan Gardner, who's the head of litigation now at Labaton. I went to him and said, "John, I'd like to work with you. I'm looking for a mentor and someone to support me in the firm." He said, "Well, I'm happy to have you work with me. You certainly have a lot of skills, but prove them to me and we'll see how I can support you." That lit a fire under me. It's been a great relationship ever since. He was a mentor for many years and now that I'm a partner with him, he's a colleague, a peer and a true friend.

I was also mentored by Carol Villegas and Mike Canty, the two other practice leaders at the firm. I learned so much from all of them.

LD: How have those mentor/mentee relationship evolved now that you’re partner?

AF: We work very collaboratively on the big picture stuff. Let me run my theory of the case by you, or a strategy. They’re not marking up my work anymore, it’s a discussion. We talk all the time, on the phone, over texts and when we see each other in person. It’s really collaborative in that sense at the high level.

We are representing people who have been defrauded by some of the biggest companies in the world, and that should give you some energy. If it doesn’t, then it's probably not the work for you.

John, as head of litigation, mentors and collaborates with all the practice group leaders at the firm. I meet with him once a week for a strategy call on my cases. We go over the big picture things: How can we resolve this case? How can we get past this issue we're having? What do you think about this judge? This ruling? Do you think there's a fraud at this company? Just a very frank discussion.

LD: What's your top advice for young attorneys who are trying to make a name for themselves in plaintiffs’ securities work?

AF: Plaintiffs’ work is about contributions to the matter. What are you doing to contribute to the case? How excited are you about contributing that? It's not about coming in, getting your assignment, finishing and going home. Defense firms can be like that: You get your assignment, you bill a hundred hours to it, and you move on.

In plaintiffs’ work, we're all investing in our cases. That's the model. The firm puts money, time and resources into cases, and successful associates understand that their work is an investment in the case. The ones who treat it like that are going to have great work product because they care about it, take ownership and commit themselves to it.

At the end of the day, our work is something you can care about. We are representing pension funds, so teachers and firefighters and steel workers, individuals who invested their whole life savings in a company that they were told was going to be the next Amazon or something and lost it all. We are representing people who have been defrauded by some of the biggest companies in the world, and that should give you some energy. If it doesn’t, then it's probably not the work for you.

LD: What do you appreciate about Labaton as a platform for your practice?

AF: People, people, people. I'm working with colleagues that are brilliant and collaborative. There isn't siloing, everybody's on the same team. That culture, that formula, is a rare opportunity, and I feel very lucky to find myself part of the team at Labaton.

LD: What are some of the biggest positive lessons that you learned from your mentors that you're still using today?

AF: That's an important question. It was a big lesson for me to see the attorneys who have a work life balance that works for them and their practice, and how much more successful they are in the end.

That lesson came to me later in life. I worked at a defense firm doing 3000 hours a year. I did the grind. Working all weekend, through vacations. I saw people wear it with pride that they’re missing their brother’s wedding, missing time with their kids. They’re driving themselves into a hole and doing themselves a big disservice.

I tried it that way, and I’ve tried a more balanced approach, and I can see clearly that your work product, your longevity and your mind is better when you make an investment in a moderate lifestyle that gives you time for self-care. I've never been more productive than when I've learned, particularly during Covid, that there comes a time at night where you need to turn the work off. It only adds to your success in the end.

LD: What does the work-life balance look like for you?

AF: I have a lake house in the Poconos, and I spend half my time there. I recharge there. I hike, I camp and I canoe. I just did a 40-mile canoe trip down the Delaware River.