By: Ryan D. Eubanks, Sumrell Sugg PA
A vital part of achieving professional success as a young attorney is the wisdom, guidance, and support of a good mentor. However, often times the insight, advice, and war stories that help shape the young attorneys in a firm do not make it any farther than the four walls of that corner office. As part of this series, the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys will seek to highlight mentors throughout the state whose insight helps mold the next generation of defense attorneys, so that all of our members, but particularly our young attorneys, can benefit from it. Today’s words of wisdom come from a conversation I had with my mentor, Scott C. Hart. Scott is the managing partner at Sumrell Sugg, P.A. in New Bern, North Carolina. He has been practicing law for over 30 years (yes, as young lawyers, that is longer than some of us have been alive) and is a past member of the Board of Directors for the North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys. He primarily focuses his practice area on insurance defense, mediation, and arbitration.
What was the best advice you were given as a young lawyer?
Try the case, not the other lawyer. I remember coming into a senior partner’s office because I was so upset about what another lawyer was doing, and I had all these ideas about how I was going to try to deal with that other lawyer. The senior partner looked at me and he said, ‘you need to try the case and not the other lawyer.’ He told me, ‘your objectivity is the most valuable thing that you can provide to your client, and if you lose your objectivity because of how you feel about the other lawyer, you cannot provide anything to your client.’ That was the best advice I ever got.
What do you believe is the appropriate work-life balance for a young attorney?
I think every experienced lawyer, on some level, probably thinks that he or she had it more difficult than the current young lawyers do, and they are probably wrong about that. The practice of law is far more efficient than it used to be because of computerized research, not just legal research but research generally. The ability to do video interviews and depositions and the use of email, text messages, and cell phones allow attorneys to get a lot more done in a shorter period of time. And so, I think lawyers that are learning how to practice now have more opportunities to get things done because of that efficiency. But I have also seen too many people burn out because they do not take care of themselves. I think it is important to focus on work while you are at work, but you also have to learn the skill of being able to close your office door at the end of the day and walk away from whatever is waiting on your desk. That means figuring out a way to get as much done as you can while you are at the office and figuring out a way to leave it behind when you are not. That is a tough thing to figure out. I think that balance is different for everybody. Some people can handle checking and returning emails late in the evening because it helps them to sleep knowing any issues have been addressed. Some people are better at saying, ‘I am not going to look at my email or respond to anything that comes in after seven or eight o’clock at night.’ I think you need to find out what works best for you. I think it is also important to find hobbies outside of your practice and to get physical exercise. It is important to find time to include those things in your schedule so you can feel like you are doing things that are for you and that you enjoy doing. It is a difficult job, and you will spend a lot of years doing it. If you burn yourself out by the time you are thirty-five, you have defeated the purpose.
What advice do you have for a young attorney who is feeling overwhelmed with their caseload?
I think every successful lawyer occasionally feels overwhelmed by their caseload. Sometimes it is helpful when that happens to carve out some time when no one is in the office to sit down and organize what is on your desk to make sure that you have a sense of what needs to get done. Whether that time is right after the office closes one evening, or coming in early one day, or coming in for an hour or two on a weekend just to kind of get a sense of what needs to be done so that you can handle it a little bit at a time. In my experience, what typically makes you feel overwhelmed is the total volume. The individual tasks are always doable, it is the number of them that overwhelms you. So if you can sit down and figure out how you are going to get through accomplishing each of those tasks, it will feel like it is much more achievable. Do not look at the whole; look at the parts.
Do you think it is important for young attorneys to be involved in organizations outside of the legal profession, whether it is a kickball league or the board of a local nonprofit organization?
Yes, 100 percent. It is good for your career to be able to interact with other professionals and to be a part of your community, but it is also just good for you as a person to be well-rounded and to be involved in things. It helps you realize that there are things going on in your community outside of your law firm. I also think it is important to be involved in legal organizations like the NCADA or the NCBA to be able to interact with other lawyers outside of your law firm and outside of your town because you can learn a tremendous amount from how other people are doing things. It is also nice to know that there are other people that are basically going through the same things that you are going through.
We often hear the term jack of all trades, master of none. Do you think young attorneys are better served focusing on mastering a few select practice areas, or should young attorneys be willing to take on unfamiliar subject matters?
There are certain areas that you can learn. The question is whether you can be competent to provide the legal services because you have an ethical obligation to make sure before you take a case or a matter that you can competently provide those services. So if someone comes to you and asks you to work on a matter that requires a tremendous amount of technical skill and you do not have that, and no one in your firm has that, and you cannot associate someone to walk you through it, then I think you are making a mistake handling that matter. If you have got those resources available to you, either inside or outside of your firm, so that you have a chance to learn that area through that process, then it is helpful. There are certain areas that are highly technical, areas like tax, finance, and banking, that I would be very hesitant to try to do if you did not have mentoring and expertise. Before you write a will or handle an estate, you want to absolutely make sure that you understand the law well enough to provide those services competently because there can be major repercussions if something is done incorrectly. I think the key is making sure that you have resources and mentoring or guidance from other lawyers and that you can learn thoroughly the area that you need for that case before you take it.
What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you first started practicing law?
I wish I would have known how quickly the time was going to pass. I wish I had appreciated more the times that I spent with other lawyers working on cases. I was so busy and so wrapped up in taking care of that case and moving on to the next one that I often did not take the time to step back and reflect on how much I was enjoying it. Before I knew it, I blinked, and 30 years were gone. I wish I had known how fast it would go.
What trial tips do you have for young attorneys?
I think the most important thing that a young trial lawyer can do is make sure that you come into trial with a theory and a theme and that you keep those two things in mind throughout the trial. Be willing to shift if you need to because of unexpected things that happen in the trial itself. But you have got to look at the case as it is being presented to the jury through the lens of your theme and theory of the case so that you make sure you are able to present a consistent message to the jury.
How should a young attorney prepare for their first trial?
You should write everything out that you can and try your best to prepare for every eventuality that may happen. By writing out, I mean write out your plan for your jury voir dire, your plan for your opening statement, your plan for direct and cross-examinations, and your plan for your closing. You will likely not actually follow what you have written down to the letter, but the exercise of writing it down will help you organize it. As you progress in your career, and the more cases that you try, it will become less important to write everything down in advance, but I think that it is helpful for young attorneys as they get used to trying cases. You should also try to think of every potential eventuality of what the other side might do and think about what your response will be so that you have already thought through a number of different possibilities and in your mind plotted out a way to respond to each of them.
What mediation tips do you have for young attorneys?
You should assume that your case concludes at or shortly after mediation. It is a mistake to assume that mediation is just one step in the case. If you do not go into mediation hoping to utilize it to its greatest effect, you will not get the greatest benefit out of it. We know that most cases end in mediation or shortly thereafter, so you should plan for that. You should structure your discovery around the mediation because your case is more likely to end at mediation because of the good job you did in discovery than it is to end with a jury verdict. Not that many cases get to go to trial anymore. So prepare for discovery and prepare for mediation as if they are the determining aspects of your case. They probably are.
Is it helpful to start with a reasonable response to an opening demand in mediation, or should a young attorney start with a low offer?
If you are on the defense side, in almost every case, I think you are most effective by making an aggressive opening offer and then, if necessary, making smaller moves from that point. A lowball offer almost always results in bad blood that slows the process down. If your goal is to settle your case, then you are more likely to do so with an aggressive opening move than you are with a lowball opening move.
What deposition tips do you have for young attorneys?
Prepare for your depositions as if your case depends on them. Have an outline that you use as your backbone for all of your depositions because then, no matter what happens, you have a structure that you can follow that is logical and covers not only background information but the facts of your case. Prepare for the deposition as if you were going to be taking someone’s trial testimony. Be prepared by doing a background investigation on the witness to try to find out everything you can about that witness and read their written discovery. Because a deposition is your opportunity put a witness on the spot, get their testimony, and evaluate how they perform, you need to be prepared in order to make sure you get the best out of that.
I know in your depositions you do not introduce a lot of exhibits. What is your thinking behind that, and do you recommend that to others?
I think it is a personal preference thing. I know some lawyers who are extremely effective and who use lots of exhibits in their depositions. I have always tried in my depositions to focus on how a witness is handling my questions, and I can do that better by focusing my attention on the witness and their answers rather than giving them an exhibit. I also want to know how they are going to respond to me without the benefit of having something in front of them to refer to. But I am always willing, if they have given me information that is contrary to something that I have, to put an exhibit in front of them that shows they are inconsistent. I usually bring exhibits, but I often don’t use them. I never admit exhibits just for the sake of having them.
What are the most common mistakes you see young attorneys make, and how can those mistakes be avoided?
The biggest mistake I see young lawyers make is being unpleasant to other lawyers. This job is stressful enough without unnecessarily getting into fights with lawyers on the other side or on the same side about cases. In my experience, most disputes can be worked out between lawyers behaving reasonably. I think too many young lawyers think that their job is to be in a constant state of altercation, and I do not think that is helpful at all. Some of my best friends are people that I have had on the other side of cases, that I became good friends with during the case, and who I respected and trusted a great deal. We did battle in court when we needed to, but I also trusted them at their word and respected them for the job that they were doing. There is no need for things to become personal, and it should not ever become personal. As a young attorney, there is something to be said for building trust and relationships with attorneys on the opposing side because you will almost certainly see them again, and building those relationships may pay off for you and your clients later in your career. Be prepared, be professional, and be pleasant. Those are the three most important things I think a lawyer can do to cement their reputation. Be prepared for your case to make sure that nothing happens that you haven’t spent time thinking about and preparing for. Be professional and make sure that you are being courteous and providing good communication with other lawyers, and treating them the way you would want to be treated. Be pleasant, be enjoyable to work with, and be a nice person; it is not going to hurt your client, and it will make your life a lot more fun.
What has impressed you the most about the young attorneys that you have come into contact with?
Because law school has become so expensive, people only go to law school if they really want to be lawyers. When I went to school law school, it was relatively inexpensive, and there were people who did it because they did not know what else they wanted to do. Because it is now such a financial commitment, I think that the people that are going into it really want to do it and do it well. So, the commitment that I have seen in young lawyers has been impressive to me. I also think that our law schools are doing a good job of training our young lawyers for legal analysis. That is a skill that is very helpful for a young lawyer, and I have been impressed with that.
What tips do you have for young attorneys that want to continue to advance professionally?
Find practice areas and cases that you have a passion for because if you truly enjoy the work, you will excel at it. Clients will find you, work will find you, and you will be successful. Do not get caught up in how profitable it is because if it makes you happy and challenges you, that is the work you should be doing.
What advice do you have for a young attorney who finds themselves facing off against a more experienced attorney?
You cannot control the facts of your case, and you cannot control how much age and experience the other side has, but you can control how hard you work in preparing the case. You can make sure that you never go into a deposition, a mediation, a hearing, or a trial where you have been outworked. There is at least a decent chance that the older, more experienced lawyer may not have had the time that you have been able to commit to it. They do not simply provide victories to the person with the grayest hair.
Do you think experienced staff should play a role in guiding a young attorney?
Absolutely. I think an experienced legal assistant or paralegal can be a huge help to a young lawyer in trying to figure out how to do things. Young lawyers should be open to listening to experienced staff. Some of the best judges I have ever seen learned more from the clerks than from anybody else. Do not think that just because you have a law degree hanging on your wall that there is nothing you can learn from anybody else in the building.
What risks should a young attorney be willing to take?
I think you should always be willing to run the risk that you are going to lose a case. If you are a defense lawyer, the better you are at defending cases, the more difficult cases you are going to get, and you are not going to get to win all of those. It is not your job to win every case; it is your job to provide good legal advice and to fully evaluate and handle your cases. So, do not get wrapped up in the wins and losses, they are really meaningless.
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