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Law Office Management

Nov. 2, 2014

Q&A: What advice would you give a new attorney about your practice area?

Five attorneys give practice-specific advice to attorneys.

Mary-Lee Kimber Smith

I have two roles in the work I do and offer advice for each. First, as a class action civil rights litigator, I would offer the advice of not losing touch with the big picture. Class action litigation often ends up being about motion practice and meet and confers but at the end of the day it isn't about the procedural wrangling but rather about the class of people whose rights you are protecting.

Second, as a practitioner in disability rights, your primary goal is to educate. The public often sees disability rights as people trying to get special treatment or even an advantage when they don't deserve it. So you must educate all parties and the general public that disability rights are civil rights and that to protect those civil rights, equal treatment may not be enough to achieve equality. Disability rights work can be an uphill battle though progress is being made, but education about disability rights is key.

Mary-Lee Kimber Smith is managing attorney at Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley. She specializes in complex class actions that advance the civil rights of persons with disabilities.

Lisa A. Callif

For attorneys looking to get into entertainment law, my advice is persistence, persistence, persistence. What "they" say about breaking into the entertainment industry (oh, it's so hard) may just be true, but it's certainly doable. Don't give up! It may take some time to get the exact job you want, but you have to remain upbeat and persistent.

So much about getting a job in entertainment is timing. When a job opening arises you want to be in the right place at the right time. So, network, network, network. Entertainment attorneys are just like any others, they want to work with lawyers who are smarter than themselves, hardworking, driven, and yes, I'll say it, fun to be around. Many entertainment firms are small, so that personality connection is key.

Lastly, take some time to figure out what type of entertainment law you want to do -- do you want to work in house or at a studio? Represent talent? Work on independent film? There are several subsets of entertainment law and it's certainly helpful to know what those are and figure out what's interesting to you. Good luck!

Lisa A. Callif, a named partner at Donaldson & Callif in Beverly Hills, represents independent filmmakers in transactional entertainment law matters.

Peter Kang

Keep your priorities straight. As a first-year public defender, you'll likely be assigned 100 to 150 misdemeanor cases per month. Although the caseload can feel overwhelming at times, it's important to remember the practice is client-centered. Most people facing prosecution feel hopeless and lost. Physical incarceration can be draining. Your job is not only to practice law but to give some dignity to people who are demoralized.

Given the workload, you may at some point catch yourself ignoring clients' phone calls. Make it a priority to return client calls. You are professionally obligated to keep a client reasonably informed. It's not just a matter of courtesy, it's mandatory. This will also help to foster the attorney-client relationship and help your client feel heard.

Finally, don't lose hope. When you go into criminal law, it's easy to lose perspective of the bigger picture. Go easy on the alcohol and make time for friends and family.

Peter Kang, Chief Public Defender for Kern County, has won acquittals on multiple first-degree murder cases with special circumstances.

Stacy D. Phillips

Understand your role as an attorney. Family law attorneys represent good people on their worst behavior -- they are not acting like themselves. Your clients are in a very vulnerable time and you need to be aware of that. At the same time, you must maintain your objectivity. It's very easy to become enmeshed in divorce and custody cases. But when you allow that to happen, you become a less effective lawyer. Balance a compassionate bedside manner with some professional distance. This is a struggle and something that takes time to learn.

Second, build relationships with lawyers outside your practice area. Family law encompasses many areas of law such as estate planning, corporate, tax, bankruptcy, criminal, and real estate. You'll need a go-to coterie of experts in these specialty areas. Knowing attorneys from different practice areas is also a great way to establish referrals to you. Continue relationships with law school classmates and explore a variety of bar activities.

Finally, as my parents would say, "If you do well, you must do good." That means giving back to the community. Do pro bono work, sit on boards, and be a mentor. Active involvement in community and nonprofit organizations will add value to your practice.

Stacy D. Phillips is a certified family law specialist and managing principal of Phillips Lerner in Los Angeles. She represents a wide variety of high-profile and celebrity clients in domestic matters.

Richard M. Wilner

To get your foot in the door, explore volunteer opportunities. Community outreach organizations, bar associations, and religious groups are great places to start making connections in the immigration field. Second, push yourself to study the craft. Even though many immigration cases are not literally matters of life and death, they do significantly impact people's lives. If the visa is not granted: the job is not filled, the athlete doesn't fight, and the relative won't make it to the wedding. Take the work seriously.

Most importantly, have integrity. When I look for new associates, I look for team players such as athletes and members of the armed forces. When it comes down to it, our practice is about honor, integrity, and entrepreneurship. Period.

Richard M. Wilner is a certified specialist in immigration and nationality law. He is a founding member of Wilner & O'Reilly, a boutique immigration law firm based in Orange.

Riley Guerin

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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