GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2004
Voices of Experience
Joseph A. DeWoskin
What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
My father is an attorney in St. Louis. I grew up around the law. Even in high school I knew I wanted to become a lawyer. As a high school senior, we prepared a list of memories and predictions on what we would do in the future. Among my predictions, I wrote that I would go to college, go to law school, go into the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps for three years, and then return to St. Louis to practice law. My predictions came pretty close: After college (Washington and Jefferson in Washington, Pennsylvania), law school (University of Missouri-Kansas City), and being admitted into the Missouri Bar, I did enter the U.S. Army JAG Corps. But rather than three years, I spent almost nine on active duty, stationed at Fort Drum, New York, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I was also “fortunate” to be deployed to Homestead, Florida, for Hurricane Andrew cleanup, to Somalia on two occasions, and to Haiti. When I left active duty, I decided to settle in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area and to set up my practice there. I also sat for the Kansas Bar Exam, which I passed, but I swore to my wife that we would never move to another state.
What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/solo/small firm career?
The interest in having control over my own life and having variety in my legal practice. After leaving active duty with the U.S. Army, my wife and I came across a law school friend of mine, Kevin Berger, and his wife at a local restaurant. Kevin told me he wanted to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse—to become one of the sole practitioners in the office share he had formed. I took him up on the offer and haven’t looked back. Also, my dad was a solo/small firm practitioner his whole professional life, and he prepared me for the issues, trials, and tribulations I would encounter in the field.
What did you find hardest about setting up as a general practice/solo/small firm lawyer, and where did your biggest help come from?
The hardest part was making sure I had enough money to make it through the rough times and knowing how much my overhead would be and how to best spend my money: CLEs? Books? Marketing? Paralegals? The biggest help came from my dad, my brother, Henry, Kevin Berger, and the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.
What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
The overall experiences I had while on active duty helped teach me to roll with the punches—or “adapt and overcome”—and how to keep my clients happy. Even in the military you need to know how to be a people person, how to relate to clients to help them with their various legal issues. Being able to represent a wide variety of clients in the military set me up to be successful in establishing my private practice.
Whom do you most admire?
My parents, Alan and Iris DeWoskin, Colonel (RET) John M. Smith III, Colonel Richard Gordon, anyone who is able to have a successful solo or small firm practice, and last, but definitely not least, my wife, Shelly, for putting up with me and for supporting my decision to leave active duty and open up my own law practice.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
To become a member of the Trial Defense Service (TDS) while I was still on active duty. I was assigned as a TDS attorney inside the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. This was one of the best experiences of my legal career and definitely imparted in me the enjoyment of representing clients in an “us against the world” setting.
Who or what got you started with ABA and/or GP Section involvement?
My father got me started with the ABA and the GP Section a long time ago when I was just a family member attending meetings. I got involved professionally as a law student member of the ABA and as the Law Student Division Liaison to what was then known as the General Practice Section. I have remained involved through the years, even when I was deployed to faraway lands while on active duty.
What can the ABA and/or GP Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
Continue to provide product to the young, newly licensed lawyer and to those lawyers who, although no longer “young,” are undergoing a career change. We can also provide a home to those young lawyers for mentoring and other issues they might need as they embark on their careers.
What personality trait has served you best through the years?
Being a people person and having a good sense of humor.
What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the law/lawyers?
Cockiness in lawyers is a major issue for me. While being a lawyer allows for a certain amount of cockiness, the best and most successful lawyers that I have seen are self-effacing—they know that they are good attorneys, but they don’t need to yell it from the rooftops. Rather, they let their actions and representation of clients speak for their abilities.
What advice would you give new lawyers?
- Take advantage of the great opportunities presented by joining the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.
- Treat your client as if you were the client and the client was the attorney.
- Return all telephone calls and e-mails by the close of the business day or at least within 24 hours of receiving them.
- If there is a client you do not want to deal with, deal with him or her immediately. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it becomes, and nothing good comes from that procrastination.
- Trust your gut in deciding whether or not to take a client. If the “red flag” goes up, the money usually isn’t worth it.
- If a client balks at paying a retainer, the client will argue with you about your invoices and billing throughout the case.
- If you practice in the PI field, oftentimes the client and you are best friends and on the same team—until it comes time to disburse funds.
- Don’t let the practice of law get in the way of your spending time with your family or participating in your community.