December 2013 | The New Partner Issue
Interviewed by Debra L. Bruce
Cameron Vann is an attorney in the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program of the State Bar of Texas (TLAP). She began her legal career at a litigation firm, then transitioned to a solo estate planning and elder law practice, which she continued for decades before joining TLAP. She helps other lawyers, judges and law students with crisis counseling and referrals if they are experiencing anxiety, depression, stress or alcohol/drug issues.
Tell me how you got started along the path that has led you to this place in your career.
Necessity is a great teacher. I would have chosen not to be in the work force at all as a single mother of a one- and four-year-old, but financial necessity was my motivating event. At age 30 I was in a scary place with no job and no income so I used the teaching certificate I acquired as an undergraduate at the University of Texas to begin life anew. After obtaining a master’s attending night classes, I moved into administration. I was working as a principal in a high school when I started attending law school at night. At the time there were very few women attending law school so it was an exciting time to begin the adventure.
Was there something that influenced you in college or law school to move into the area in which you are currently working? If so, what was it?
I enjoyed my estate law class in law school, but it was the pleasure of working one-to-one with people in probate matters as a new lawyer that lead me into that field.
Tell me about how you found your first job after law school.
The University of Houston Law Center had a great program of recruiting jobs for its law students after graduation. I do not know the total number of potential employers available, but more than 25 fit my needs and I chose to interview with several firms. UH provided assistance with resume writing, interviewing skills and selecting an appropriate employer match.
How did you get your next job/opportunity?
My initial job with a midsize litigation firm was invaluable for training and connections in the legal community. Some of those lawyers remain my friends and referral sources today. However, the world of litigation and spending every weekend preparing for trial limited my family time significantly, so I set up shop as a solo practitioner. I did this only after careful planning with the help of other solos in developing a plan to obtain clients, practice in new areas, handle administrative issues and also with their help as mentors in a completely new and unknown venture. I really loved my life as a probate lawyer and continued for decades.
My current job came about in an unlikely way. I encourage lawyers to stay connected and in contact with colleagues through the years as that very practice is what led to my current job. After four years of retirement, I was at peak health, still filled with energy, and ready for a new adventure. I contacted the director of TLAP, whom I had known very slightly through the years, about an unrelated job posted with the State Bar. She invited me to apply for the job at TLAP, proving that even a distant connection can open possibilities for employment. I have been at TLAP for the last five years.
What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?
I think it is very hard for all lawyers of any practice area and at different skill levels to ask for help. I had to stop my resistance to it as a new solo practitioner. There was just too much to learn on my own. What I have learned over a period of three decades is that almost every lawyer is willing to help if asked, and in fact wants to help, as some lawyer has helped them. We are in a service profession, and this is an area where I have seen the best in other lawyers and their dedication to the profession.
Knowing nothing about real practice, I watched the leaders in my field in court and reached out to them; I read articles about new lawyers and my practice area and reached out to those authors; and I observed the good lawyers and how they managed stress under what seemed almost ‘wartime conditions,’ and made a point to connect with them to learn their strategies. I attended any CLE program that gave me hope of improving and talked to the speakers that were approachable. In all these efforts, I found a solid few that offered their ongoing support. Sometimes it proved a good connection for those lawyers as I was later able to refer a client or another lawyer to them for their expertise.
Gaining experience and building confidence for me was sometimes torture, since a lawyer never wants to appear unskilled, inexperienced or lacking in confidence. I just had to take a deep breath, and walk through the learning experience. I am somehow still standing and you will be, too. I am also confident, which is very different from the feeling that I had at the start of my career.
With this confidence, it was much easier to start my job at TLAP. I brought a lot to the table since I had been in private practice for a long time and knew the stress every lawyer is under over the long haul. In practice I had developed the skills of listening, identifying issues/causes, guiding the conversation to significant facts, developing a plan, and establishing goals to get results. The most difficult skill for me to develop was related to computers and technology. I have taken classes and the IT department helps. In learning more specifics about mental health recovery, I adopted the same strategies that I did in learning probate practice—I went to the lawyer assistance community of TLAP volunteers, professional resources, and past impaired lawyers to know what worked. I also went to many educational seminars on wellness, addiction, and mental illness.
What have been some of the critical turning points in your career including both successes and disappointments?
Within the first five years of my practice I was very surprised at the money I was making on my own. I was frugal about my expenses and paid a good wage to staff members in order to have good help. Mine was a high-volume practice with lots of money in and out, but as a child I had learned to save so I was able to meet my financial goals of comfort, travel, stable investments, and time and money for family. Since this was my second career, I wanted to retire an at an age young enough to really enjoy it. On the disappointing side, the stress level of private practice was at times almost overwhelming. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning. The anxiety and stress I experienced affected my physical and mental health, but I did make it to my goal completion.
Although I retired with the intention of never working in the marketplace again, after four years of ranch retirement, travel, and volunteer work, I found I was happier working and made the decision to return to work. Really, this was a shock to me that I missed the structure of employment and the camaraderie of the legal community. I found a job that is not stressful for me, yet helps lawyers. My financial security came from private practice and I was lucky in my practice to be able to choose the work I wanted to do and to choose the clients I wanted to represent, which always involved helping people; the rewarding part of the practice. My ‘encore job’ of assisting lawyers with addiction and mental health issues is a day-to-day opportunity to be of service to the legal community.
Networking face-to-face, and one-on-one, produced many clients for my probate practice. I am a very social lawyer so it was easy for me to be actively involved in local bars and law-related groups by serving on boards and committees. A wise Houston judge advised me not to just show up but get involved in leadership and that paid off for decades, although it takes about a year of knowing a group and being active to be accepted. So don’t get discouraged that building that trust relationship takes time. I was also active in non-lawyer organizations. Although the majority of my business came from other lawyers who did not practice in my area, you have to be ‘out there’ and seen, consistently. Another avenue for business development is to attend sections within the bar that do not have any/many members who practice in your area. This is cross pollination. Referring another lawyer a case certainly gets that lawyer’s attention and a relationship can build. Every time I was invited by a group to speak about probate/elder law with a simple presentation, I accepted and as a result had invitations to speak once or twice a week for the span of my career. I made presentations to different professional and community groups, from 500 people at our country club to four people at a neighborhood gathering. As a teacher this is fun for me. A simple handout of four main subjects covered and a list of helpful senior numbers proved to be a marketing piece that brought clients to me soon after the presentation or sometimes years afterward.
How has the practice of law changed in the time that you have been practicing? How has it impacted your particular area of practice and your own work?
Sometimes an area of practice changes by statute but always another door opens. As one old-timer told me, ‘it is scary when you are standing in the hall.’ When the economy changed drastically, I added a couple of additional areas of practice until stronger economic times returned. I suggest always being frugal about expenses and personal spending to make these transitions easier.
This is my weak point since I am a believer in personal contact, or alternatively voice contact. Personal testimonials on websites, blogs, etc. always get my attention.
If you were advising a young attorney today who was entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to find a job, how to develop their expertise, and how to be successful?
Do your part! You will find a job, you will be an expert in your chosen field, you will be successful, and you will become completely confident to face any situation…but it takes time and perseverance beyond what you think you can tolerate. As lawyers we want what we want NOW and with minimum EFFORT and often we have a chatter of NEGATIVE self-talk going on in our heads. If you are ‘out there,’ if you have gotten this far (remember getting into law school, surviving it, passing the bar), you know you are plenty good enough. No one can be perfect. You shall succeed. The more I asked for help and to share ideas from other lawyers, and that was often hard to do, the more help I got, so asking becomes easier. Ask for help, ask for help, ask for help……
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?
The weak economy, poor job market, and high student loans are the challenges. I stress that it is more important than ever to maintain positive mental health and wellness to meet these horrendous challenges. Peer and group support, talk therapy, and medical assessment are vital steps to take early as symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and drinking too much begin to appear. Staying engaged with other lawyers in many settings is the key, since getting a job usually results from “whom you know.”
What are some changes and challenges you see on the horizon for the practice of law?
Law practice becomes more and more a business than a service to others. It must remain a balance of both to survive. Reminding new and long term lawyers to appreciate each client representation either for the help provided, the end result, or the learning experience (even if painful) may help. For me, the technology changes are the greatest, but I think there will be a swing back to in person communications as that is the environment where a lawyer can be most persuasive.
What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?
Keep up with all current literature—national, state, local and technological. Be sure you know and engage with leaders and those in charge in any situation. You must become a presence or be marginalized.
If someone were to have offered you some advice about your career early on—what would you have wished that they would have suggested to you?
After practicing with a firm I respected, enjoyed and will always be grateful to, I wanted to find a type of practice that for me was more meaningful. I did my own independent investigation and the advice I was given is set out above. I listened, took notes about ideas to implement, practiced those strategies and they worked for me. These strategies will work for you!
What role have mentors had on your career? What advice do you have for new lawyers about mentor relationships?
I cannot imagine lawyer success without several mentors….in many areas: practice, business strategies, and personal support. I found this in a handful of lawyers that I could count on for one-to-one help when I needed it, which was not too often. The players changed from time to time, as my needs, the law and business practices changed. These lawyers are my professional confidants and personal friends and they guided me to success.
If I can help any lawyer, at any time, with anything, please contact me at 512-427-1457.
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