Volume 20, Number 6
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Voices of Experience
H. Stanley Riffle
What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
I attended a small Midwest liberal arts school on, of all things, a music scholarship (jazz drums), though I majored in English and political science with a philosophy minor. It was not until my senior year of college that I decided to attend law school. I initially intended to use my law degree to enter some non-legal career, but during mock trials I found that I had a talent and fondness for litigation.
What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/solo/small firm career?
During my first three years as a lawyer, as an associate with a small personal injury firm in Milwaukee, I litigated about 20 jury trials to verdict. When it became apparent that I would not soon be offered partner status, my best friend offered to let me join his start-up firm. My three new partners practiced in municipal and banking law; a general practitioner/litigator was needed to provide opportunities for diversification.
What did you find hardest about setting up as a general practice/solo/small firm lawyer, and where did your biggest help come from?
With no real mentor, I was consigned to the "hard knocks" instruction method. Eventually, I developed a network of lawyers and judges that I could call on for assistance.
What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
The significant trial work that I was thrown into was the best possible experience I could have had. I was not all that happy or comfortable with the situation at the time, and had many late and sleepless nights, but there really could have been no better way to gain valuable experience.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
Do not accept work or agree to representation if you have the slightest disdain for the client or cause.
What was the worst professional advice you ever received?
To accept "loss leader" cases. Rarely, if ever, do these dogs lead to a lucrative case, and in the meantime you can't stand looking at the file.
What can the ABA and/or GP Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
The Section should focus on providing "nuts-and-bolts" real-world practical information to its members.
What personality trait has served you best through the years?
My sense of humor and ability to relate to and get along with all kinds of people.
What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the law/lawyers?
Many lawyers simply talk for the sake of talking, as if paid by the word. Brevity is a dying art, but show me a trial or appellate lawyer that has mastered brevity and I'll show you a master lawyer.
What advice would you give new lawyers?
- Put a sign on your desk or create a scrolling screen saver that says "DO IT NOW."
- Return every telephone call before you go home every day, without fail.
- Each week, take a half-hour or an hour to prepare a weekly to-do list.
- Don't be afraid to say no: no to a new case or client that doesn't seem right for any reason; no to a client that demands more than is reasonable; no to opposing counsel, if warranted. Assuming that your work product is thorough, timely, and well prepared, the fact that it was done on your terms will engender the respect that you deserve.