Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003
Voices of Experience
Martha J. Church
Too many mentors? That's an oxymoron for law students and new lawyers setting up practice. In the coming months, GP Mentor will give you the benefit of experienced voices from general practitioners, solos, and small firm members who'll be able to tell you what they know now that they didn't know then.
What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
My undergraduate degree is in history and, as was customary for females in those days, I began teaching when I finished college. Three years of teaching taught me that I did not want to make it a lifetime career. At the same time, my then-husband was taking a psychology course in testing, and I was often a guinea pig. On a vocational preference test I scored highest as a chemist, naval officer, and attorney. The first two were out of the question, but those test results did make me think about going to law school, especially since Emory University was just up the street. The next year I was in law school, spending much of my time wondering if I had really lost my mind. However, each succeeding quarter my grades improved; it all began to make sense. I was graduated in 1975 with a J.D. and an LL.M. in taxation.
What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/solo/small firm career?
Just after I finished Emory, we moved to Cumming, Georgia, a town of maybe 3,000. General, small firm practice was what one did in Cumming, where the largest firm at the time had five lawyers. No one really specialized, and I took most anything that came in the door if there were collectible fees involved. I did everything from debtor bankruptcy to DUIs to domestic to business transactions to felony cases.
What did you find hardest about setting up as a general practice/solo/small firm lawyer, and where did your biggest help come from?
Everything was hardest. Remember, for five years I had been a schoolteacher (i.e., a government worker), and I knew absolutely nothing about setting up a business. Fortunately, one of the lawyers in Cumming was willing to take me in on a space-sharing basis, which eased the way. Before that, I tried to find a job with a paycheck, so I interviewed with other lawyers in town. I did not get a job and was actually told by one older guy that he didn't believe women should be practicing law but should be home with their children.
What are the biggest changes in law practice you have observed through the years?
Well, I doubt that any lawyer today would tell a female she shouldn't be practicing law. On the other hand, the civility seems to have dissipated to the point where it has about disappeared-I'm not sure if this is a function of time or the difference between practicing in small town versus a large city. Today, everything MUST be in writing. Also, there is simply no time. Once was, you could get a letter from opposing counsel, consult your client, and then respond-and you were done with that matter for at least a week. Now with fax and e-mail, you are done with that matter for maybe an hour if you are lucky.
What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
Finding out that I could do things that scared me to death-and not die.
Whom do you most admire?
Queen Elizabeth I.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
Pigs get fat-hogs get slaughtered. Unfortunately, the attorney who first told me that forgot it himself and has since been disbarred.
What was the worst professional advice you ever received?
To always behave like a lady.
Who or what got you started with ABA and/or GP Section involvement?
Allen Tannenbaum, with whom I practiced for several years, came bounding into my office one afternoon in September 1991 and asked if I'd take his place on the Publications Board during its October meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona, at The Phoenician. He had to leave the board because he had just been elected Section Secretary. That sounded like a great deal to me-and the rest is history.
What can the ABA and/or GP Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
Keep in mind that younger lawyers have a notion of balance in life and are not committed to the 2,200 billable hour year-and encourage that way of thinking. Continue the strong emphasis on cutting-edge technology, keep fun in Section meetings, and cut the cost of the social functions.
What personality trait has served you best through the years?
Two actually: being a good listener and being naive.
What area of general practice/solo/small firm practice would you like to see changed?
More time: time to learn how to practice law, time to practice law, and some time to enjoy life after law.
What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the practice of law?
The uncertainty of it all.
What advice would you give new lawyers?
-Pay attention to your gut.
-Some money is not worth earning.
-You never learn anything with your mouth open.
-Don't be the third lawyer in a case.
-Don't ever predict case outcomes to clients.
-A closed mouth gathers no foot.