Michael McFadden joined the U.S. Navy just days after his 18th birthday. It was 1982. His father was in the Navy. He always thought he'd spend his life there, too.
"Neither of my parents went to college. It never even occurred to me to go to college," McFadden said.
After eight years in the Navy, another 10 working for Hughes Communications -- much of that time spent attending night school to complete a bachelor's and law degree -- and less than eight years as an associate, McFadden made partner in the past year at Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Mallory & Natsis.
Among the latest crop of new partners at firms across California, McFadden, 45, is one of those who have taken an unconventional route to partnership. Their stories show there's more than one way to get there, and that it's as much about who you meet and what you learn outside of a law firm or clerkship as it is the time you put in as an associate.
Steven Ragland, 40, had a bit of wanderlust before law school, to put it lightly.
The son of a professor, he was always expected to go to graduate school. Instead, after college, he taught for a nonprofit, waited tables, worked as an animal rights activist -- "one of things I did was travel around the country with a 7-foot-tall carrot, promoting vegetarian meals in schools" -- and even tried a stint as a juggling clown.
The teaching and clown jobs both provided "a chance to entertain and to control an audience, to think on your feet, and to be able to maintain the audience's attention. It got me comfortable in front of groups and prepared me for the courtroom," said Ragland, who made partner at Keker & Van Nest this year.
A turning point in his career was when he met Michael Tigar, who taught a course at American University Washington College of Law, where Ragland earned his J.D. in 2002.
Tigar hired him as of counsel at the Tigar Law Firm after he graduated.
"I always encourage people to explore other options," Ragland said. "Don't do anything just because you feel like that's the path to success." His decision to say at American University, rather than try to transfer to a higher-level school as some had encouraged him to do, "was a great decision, because I never would have worked with Tigar, and I never would have ended up here." He also passed on summer associate offers at big firms in order to start a human rights litigation clinic. "It was following my heart and I ended up forging a deeper relationship with Michael Tigar, and opened up more avenues than what people would view as the safe route."
Heather Moser, 34, graduated top of her class at University of Texas School of Law in 2000, and had a job at Morrison & Foerster and a federal clerkship lined up. Then the opportunity to move to Switzerland arose. Her husband, who is French and a physicist, wanted to work at a particle accelerator there.
So she decided to drop the clerkship and instead do a one-year master's in public international law at l'Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales in Geneva. She simultaneously interned in the legal affairs division of the World Trade Organization.
"It was really an against-the-grain decision, and everything they tell you you have to do in law school to succeed," Moser said. People asked her, "Why would you leave a federal judge for something that's not important to your practice?"
But she says it was one of the most important experiences in her development as a lawyer.
"The confluence of diplomacy, negotiation and legal coming together in one place at the WTO taught me how to conduct myself with somebody of a very different background with a very different point of view," said Moser, who made partner this year at MoFo. "In law school, you learn if you are a litigator, you have to fight at all times. I learned so much [more] about diplomacy than I would have if I were a young lawyer on the traditional path. More senior lawyers come to the decision that [diplomacy is] the best way to litigate."
J. Tom Boer, 36, entered law school knowing he wanted to practice environmental law, and went to George Washington University Law School in D.C. so he could intern at government agencies.
"When I was going through my career, I wasn't making decisions based on how is this going to help me become a partner," Boer said.
In retrospect, finding a niche served him well in a firm environment.
He spent 2 1/2 years at the Environmental Protection Agency's office of general counsel, and seven years prosecuting environmental crimes at the Department of Justice. He decided to enter private practice to broaden his scope of practice and career opportunities. The one catch: He had no clients.
"I had to find a firm who believed I was worth the investment," he said. It worked out well. He made partner this year at 20-attorney environmental litigation boutique Barg Coffin Lewis & Trapp.
"The traditional path to partnership has become much more difficult," Boer said. "It's much harder to go to a large firm as an associate, and just by showing up every day, you will one day become a partner. It's good to develop specialized knowledge, by either working for a government agency or the courts."
For John Kyle, 45, the goal to be a lawyer came second to being a fighter pilot.
"If I couldn't accomplish that goal, law school was always something I wanted to consider," Kyle said. "I call it a grown-up job."
He achieved both. He flew AV-8B Harriers -- single-seat, single-engine jets used for putting bombs on targets for troops in combat -- as a major in the Marine Corps for 8 1/2 years.
Overseas deployments to Okinawa and Kuwait were hard on his wife and children, and Kyle turned to law so he could spend more time with his family.
This year, he was promoted to partner at Cooley Godward Kronish. As an intellectual property lawyer in the San Diego office, he plays a significant role in managing Cooley's relationship with client Qualcomm Inc., which he first worked for as an associate at Procopio Cory Hargreaves & Savitch.
"One thing the Marines are notable for is a lot of discipline. You have that discipline, focus and goal-oriented mission," he said. In law, it's not that different. "Whether it's in a case or law school, you set a mission and do what it takes to accomplish that mission."
For McFadden, who started at Allen Matkins as a junior lawyer at 37 years old and now chairs the Century City real estate group, making partner also came down to something that the Navy had instilled in him: a respect for the chain of command.
He had decided to pursue an MBA until, one night while discussing his career with his wife, he said off the cuff, "What I'd really like to do is be a lawyer." Without studying, he took the LSAT, applied only to Loyola Law School and was the first night student to become managing editor of its law review.
One of his teachers at Loyola was Anton "Tony" Natsis, now a name partner at Allen Matkins.
Natsis hired him after McFadden spent his only two weeks of vacation from Hughes Communications summering for the firm. Then, as a junior associate, he told Natsis from the start to think of him for any assignment from a client that is "not a lot of fun."
Natsis didn't balk at that offer. His routine was to spend evenings with his kids and then call McFadden.
"We would do a lot from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. at night, and that, as a result, got me a great deal of experience with a very senior partner who is working on very complicated deals," McFadden said.
He says it would be difficult to find someone who took a more nontraditional route to partnership than he did. So for young associates, he has simple advice: "If you can attach yourself with someone else at the firm, preferably someone influential at the firm, that can be a tremendous boost in your career. And the way you attach yourself to that person is by making their life easier."