The YLD and Committee on Professionalism team up to educate students on how to handle the pressures of practice
By Megan E. Davis
The root cause of unprofessionalism among lawyers often boils down to a common factor — work and life balance, according to Sean Desmond, a member and former chair of the Bar’s Committee on Professionalism.
“What causes people to get out of whack and do things they probably shouldn’t do?” he said. “It’s usually because people’s lives are out of control. They’ve taken on too many responsibilities. They’ve taken on too much pressure. They’ve gotten in over their heads.”
The consequences are all too common, Desmond said.
“Around the eighth year of practice is when you start seeing the greatest number of grievances and Bar complaints,” he said. “They don’t have a sufficient cash flow, because they’re overextended, so they start raiding trust accounts. Or people get too busy, a phone call comes in, and they don’t return it. Then an email comes in, they set it to the side, and before you know it, a week and half has gone by and people start getting in trouble.”
Desmond’s words came during a recent panel discussion about balancing the law and life attended by about 30 law students at Florida State University. Through that program and similar events organized at law schools throughout the state, the committee and the Bar’s Law Student Division of the Young Lawyers Division hope to curb unprofessionalism by planting the seed early.
With the benefit of years of experience, panelists discussed what’s made them happy, kept them healthy, and brought success.
Don’t Buy the Big Firm Hype
“One of the big pressures I felt in law school was that you’re not a successful law student unless you get hired by one of the big firms, and I succumbed to that,” said Leon County Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson.
When she graduated from Florida State, she “had all the boxes checked.”
“The next box to check was joining a big firm,” Richardson said. “I got to the big firm, made the big money, and I hated it. I was just a cog in the wheel. A smaller firm where I wasn’t micromanaged and the billable hour didn’t control my life was much more fulfilling to me.”
Carrie Roane, a member of the Committee of Professionalism and a lawyer with Guilday Law, said her experience was similar.
“The advantage of a smaller firm is that I set my own hours and manage myself,” she said. “I drop my kids off at 8 a.m. and leave at 5 p.m. to pick them up from karate. When I have a trial, I work from home every night after my kids go to bed. My practice has been very flexible because of the firms I’ve chosen to go with.”
Consider Public Service
“If you have an opportunity to be an intern or a clerk in circuit court as a prosecutor or public defender, do that the first few years after you’re out of law school,” Richardson said. “I cannot tell you the amount of skill sets you will achieve.”
Prosecutors and public defenders have the opportunity to participate in more than 200 trials each year, she said.
“That self-confidence you have from knowing you can manage just about anything, you can try just about anything, you can complete every step of the litigation process is a skill you can’t put monetary value on,” Richardson said. “After a couple years, firms will pay you for that, and they will be looking for you.”
Those skills transfer well into civil practice as well as criminal, she said.
Safeguard Your Reputation
Jim Floyd, an assistant senior attorney for the City of Tallahassee, said no attribute is more important to the practice of law than a good reputation.
“You can have a Ferrari, Mercedes, Cadillac, whatever you want, but your biggest asset is going to be your reputation,” he said. “Don’t get into that situation, because if you lose it, you’ll probably never get it back.”
Roane said she lives by the personal motto: “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
“If you’re a nice person, your clients like you, you treat them well, and you treat your opposing counsel well, everything is going to be OK,” she said. “As a result, with opposing counsel, you make lifelong friendships. Practicing law is much more enjoyable and billing your time is not as bad as it would otherwise be. But if you come out of the gates like a bull in a china shop, it’s not going to end very well.”
Find Something You Like Doing
While the panelists represented a diversity of practice areas, most said they enjoy the work they do.
“There isn’t a law firm in the country that has the book of business they could offer me,” said Richard Lawson, director of the Consumer Protection Division in the Florida Office of the Attorney General.
“Companies out there have done the math and thought I’m going to make more money by being bad than good,” he said. “I go and outwit these guys. I don’t care who their clients are, who their attorneys are, who their support staff is, I’m gonna get them. That is fun.”
Charlie Venture, a solo personal injury practitioner, who describes himself as having a “type C personality,” said he likes the flexibility his work provides.
“I had the opportunity to work for a very successful personal injury firm, but I didn’t go to school for 20 years to work 80 hours a week,” he said. “For 17 years, my wife and I have been in charge of youth ministry in our church, and I play in a traveling band. It’s given me flexibility to do some stuff I really wanted to do.”
Keep Your Overhead Low
“A lot of people get out and say I’ll get this lease and that,” Desmond said. “Next thing you know, you’re tied to a firm and you can’t leave even though you’re miserable. You’ve got to have that salary in order to make good on your payments.”
Lawyers who don’t overextend themselves financially have more flexibility, he said.
Remember Who You Work For
“When I opened up my own practice, a friend told me the first thing you need to do is get a picture of your family and put it on your desk, because that’s who you’re working for,” Lawson said.
“When you’re at the office, you want them staring right at you to remind you that’s what it’s all about.”
“What’s most important to me is what I do in church and with my family,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what counts.”
Make Time for Fun
For Roane, athleticism is a way to destress and restore balance.
“I play soccer three times a week,” she said. “It’s what I need to do to get away from everybody and everything. When I’m on the field chasing a ball, I don’t think about being a mother, wife, or partner. When I step off the field two hours later, my head is completely clear.”
Develop Good Habits Now
In law school, Richardson said she found herself out of balance — pulling all-nighters, skipping exercise, stress unchecked.
“Balance is a daily practice,” she said. “The number one thing I was good at in law school was procrastinating. Please get your time management in check now. Get your schedule, sit down, and develop a plan of action.”