In a Law.com “How I Made It” Special Report, KCNF’s Aaron Herreras Szot discusses her path to partnership at the firm and insights into achieving a successful legal career.
The article originally appeared in Law.com on July 31, 2023, and is republished below.
How I Made Partner: ‘Answer the Call When You’re Needed,’ Says Aaron H. Szot Of Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch
“My path to partnership came by making the partners’ lives easier.”
Aaron H. Szot, 33, Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, Washington, D.C. Job title: Partner
Practice area: Employment Law
Law school and year of graduation: The George Washington University Law School, 2015
How long have you been at the firm? I’ve been at KCNF for just over seven years.
What was your criteria in selecting your current firm? Before law school, I was a case manager at Bergmann & Moore, LLC, which specializes in veterans’ benefits. That experience solidified my decision to go to law school. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to work at a smaller firm, since they tend to offer associates the opportunity to gain substantial litigation experience at earlier stages of their careers. After interviewing with the partners at KCNF, the firm seemed like a place I wanted to work because of the collegial and collaborative environment. I’m grateful KCNF took a chance on me straight out of law school, and I’ve never looked back.
What do you think was the deciding point for the firm in making you partner? Was it your performance on a specific case? A personality trait? Making connections with the right people? I thought that my role at KCNF evolved naturally over time; however, I’ve since spoken with my mentor, George Chuzi, and realized that I may not be giving myself enough credit.
When I started with KCNF, I decided to become an associate on whom the partners could rely. As I demonstrated my value as an attorney, I received more responsibility. Becoming a partner and taking on more administrative and mentoring responsibilities seemed like a logical next step.
When I spoke to George, however, he gave me a different perspective. He explained there are three criteria the partners consider in elevating associates to partnership. The first is the ability to work independently; the second is the quality of the work product; and the third is judgment.
Not only have I taken ownership of my matters, but I’ve consistently delivered what is considered high-quality work and demonstrated sound judgment. The partners came to trust my opinions and recommendations on issues, because they are consistent with the way the firm sees things.
Who had or has the greatest influence in your career and why? If the above answer hasn’t given it away, one of my mentors is George Chuzi, who is a named partner of the firm and, though he announced his retirement last year, has taken senior counsel status with the firm. George has been my sounding board and editor throughout my entire legal career. He is a brilliant writer, and his mentorship has strengthened my writing and facilitated my ability to find my voice as an attorney. In addition to the impact George has had on my professional life, he officiated my wedding in 2017.
In addition, Elaine Fitch, the managing partner at KCNF, has also served as one of my mentors and role models. I have truly grown as an attorney and as a leader by watching her run this firm.
What advice would you give an associate who wants to make partner? My advice to an associate who wants to make partner is to encourage the firm to think of you as indispensable. Understand your strengths and be part of the solution. Answer the call when you’re needed. My path to partnership came by making the partners’ lives easier. I didn’t have to be micromanaged. When I approached them with problems, I always made sure to bring solutions, as well.
When it comes to career planning and navigating inside a law firm, in your opinion, what’s the most common mistake you see other attorneys making? Not communicating openly with the partners about career planning expectations. At a smaller firm like KCNF, the partner track is flexible, without the goalposts and milestones that may be more evident at bigger firms. This flexibility can be great in some circumstances, but can also cause some anxiety and uncertainty. Clarifying expectations through clear communication can save a lot of energy and confusion.
I touched base with George about this Q&A, and he offered some foundational advice, which can also be applicable to a question about mistakes. He said, “Ask yourself if you really want to be a partner.” He pointed out that being a partner means taking on additional responsibilities. You will have less time for your own caseload, let alone your personal life and family. I think his caution is worth mentioning. Partnership requires sacrifice, and not taking that into account would be a mistake. Not every attorney has to be a partner to be successful and good at their job.
What challenges, if any, did you face or had to overcome in your career path and what was the lesson learned? How did it affect or influence your career? I am grateful that I haven’t experienced any major obstacles in my career path, which has been fairly straightforward and progressed naturally. However, I do notice in myself a tendency toward imposter syndrome. In my employment discrimination class in law school, we discussed the cognitive biases behind gender stereotypes, including why men are more likely than women to project confidence.
I recall a case study where a professor asked his law school class—of which around 50% were women— which students had knowledge about a certain historical event. All the people who raised their hands were men, but some of them had little knowledge about the event. Women who may have had more knowledge than them, however, kept their hands down.
I think many women in this profession doubt themselves. We have to value ourselves, and remember that we have every right to be where we are. We should raise our hands and offer our insights and opinions.
Knowing what you know now about your career path, what advice would you give to your younger self? I would reassure myself—keep dedicating yourself to honing your skill set and doing good work. It is recognized.
How would you describe your work mindset? I describe my work mindset as level-headed and confident.
When I started out, every short turnaround time and urgent task seemed like the most critical priority. Through self-reflection and experience, I now approach issues at work, whether client or administrative, pragmatically and calmly. Deadlines matter and tasks are important, of course; I don’t minimize the importance of employment cases, in which people’s livelihoods are at stake. But there is no problem that isn’t solvable. This mindset — the ability to prioritize — is reflected in my judgment, a criterion that the firm recognized in elevating me to partner.
If you participate in firm or industry initiatives, please mention the initiatives you are working on as well as the impact you hope to achieve. I am co-chair of the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia’s Diversity Committee. Our mission is to promote greater inclusion of diverse women attorneys in the profession by creating awareness through our programming. Through this role, I want to help provide women attorneys with tools and resources to grow in their careers and feel confident that they belong in law.