GPSolo Magazine - January/February 2004
Voices of Experience
What is your background, and what inspired you to become a lawyer?
I was born in Cuba, and my family emigrated to the United States when I was eight years old. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a lawyer. I suppose this was partly because the immigrant strives to become a part of, and be accepted by, his adopted country. The legal profession, with its inherent intimacy with the laws of the United States, symbolized this ideal of acceptance. I was also greatly influenced by old television shows like Perry Mason, which depicted the competitive aspect of the practice of law. I have always been a frustrated athlete at heart, and litigation has allowed me to keep my competitive juices flowing. There are few feelings that compare to the adrenaline rush at the start of a trial. That feeling alone makes it all worthwhile.
What influenced your decision to pursue a general practice/solo/small firm career?
I started out with a large (for mid-1980s Miami) firm of about 50 lawyers. I soon learned, however, that I did not enjoy the politics of large firm practice. I was not cut out to carry someone else’s briefcase. I wanted to learn by doing, and that opportunity presented itself only in a small firm environment. After a year at my initial firm, I left to join a six-attorney firm, and I have practiced with small firms ever since.
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 most difficult part about getting started in a small firm was finding the right people with whom to practice. My biggest help in this endeavor came from friends who were local to Miami (I came from New York), who introduced me to a group of young, energetic, and ambitious attorneys with whom I spent the next seven years of my professional life.
What are the biggest changes in law practice you have observed through the years?
Clients today are extremely cost conscious and increasingly look for the personal attention that only small firms can provide. While many large firms continue to survive by servicing institutional clients, the all-purpose midsize firm has virtually disappeared—replaced by smaller boutique firms that can address the clients’ needs on short notice. Clients want immediate attention and the ability to reach their lawyers at all times of the day. The practice of law has therefore evolved into a 24-hour-a-day operation, and the most successful lawyers are those who are willing to play by these rules.
What early lawyer experiences have helped you in your career?
I learn by doing. When I first started practicing, I was fortunate to be given a number of small cases to handle on my own. I took many of those cases to trial, often overpreparing to compensate for my lack of experience. I learned from those experiences that one can never be too prepared for trial, and that quite often the attorney who thoroughly prepares can overcome weaknesses in the case.
Whom do you most admire?
I admire those professionals who, faced with the pressures that accompany their everyday personal and professional lives, nevertheless find the time to give back to their communities. Despite the fact that I was never involved in Scouting, I became a Cub Scout leader when my son became interested in Scouting. This is a small way in which I try to give back to my community, and it pales in comparison to what many professionals do in their everyday lives.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
A judge once said to me, “When you die, people won’t remember the total number of hours that you billed—but your children will remember the quality time that you spent with them.” I always keep that in mind when arranging my schedule to ensure that I never lose track of what is truly important.
What was the worst professional advice you ever received?
When I first started practicing, a partner at the large firm that hired me assured me that, if I paid my dues (i.e., billed monster hours and let others take credit for my work), I would be rewarded in the long run. I soon learned that such platitudes did not hold true in the evolving practice of law. I was not happy at the firm and left after a year. The firm broke up a few months later; apparently, others shared my unhappiness.
Who or what got you started with ABA and/or GP Section involvement?
In 1993 I attended an ABA Midyear Meeting in Boston with my wife and met a group of GP Section members one evening at Cheers; we were both impressed and pleased by how enthusiastically and openly they welcomed us. I was encouraged to become actively involved and have been ever since.
What can the ABA and/or GP Section do to be a good home to young lawyers?
Many young lawyers are going straight from law school to small firms and solo practices, and we must address their particular (and evolving) needs. For example the GP Publications Board, which I chair, strives to publish material that is user friendly, informative, and useful to new practitioners.
What personality trait has served you best through the years?
I genuinely like people, which allows me to get along with just about everyone I meet. I find this serves me well in all facets of my life but particularly in the practice of law. Life (and the practice of law) is much simpler and more enjoyable when people like and cooperate with one another.
What area of general practice/solo/small firm practice would you like to see changed?
I would like to see less emphasis on the financial/business side of the practice and greater emphasis on the ideals of the law. This “dollars first” mentality is something that plagues the practice of law as a whole.
What is the one thing you cannot stand regarding the law/lawyers?
The fact that lawyers sometimes forget that they are human beings first and lawyers second.
What advice would you give new lawyers?
• Learn by doing.
• You can never be too prepared.
• Balance your lives.
• Become leaders in your communities.
• When dealing with others (whether staff or other lawyers), the magic word truly is “please.”