Cynthia Duval is Associate Director of Career and Professional Development at Nova Southeastern University.
- What brought you to becoming a lawyer?
After undergrad, I went to work for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services — now Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF)—screening and referring families for public assistance. I watched helplessly as generation after generation of people came through our agency for various types of services. I was powerless to do anything to meaningfully assist those families, short of offering short-term fixes, which quickly became their long-term reality.
- Tell me about how you found your first job after law school?
I contacted the attorney, Delano Stewart, who had handled my father’s personal injury case while I was in law school. During the trial, he let me ask a million questions and invited me to keep in touch during law school. After graduation, I reached out to him and he hired me.
- How did you arrive at your next job(s) and/or opportunity(ies) prior to your current position?
I had worked for that small firm for six months when I got a call from a friend and law school classmate, Nikki Simon, about a federal judicial clerkship opportunity in Tampa. She had been sworn in by then Magistrate Mary Scriven, her sorority sister. Judge Scriven told her she was going to be looking for a clerk and asked for recommendations. Nikki knew that I loved appellate practice and had the credentials the judge required, so she recommended me. Judge Scriven happened to be good friends with Mr. Stewart, so I was able to pursue that opportunity without compromising my reputation in a very small legal community.
Developing and maintaining good relationships has been key to everything I have done as an attorney. Almost every career opportunity has come to me via a call from someone who has worked with me in some capacity or I called someone I know to make an introduction. Of course, the initial connection only gets you in the door and you have to prove yourself to stay in the room.
- What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable and gain skills, experience, & success?
I had the remarkable fortune to clerk for both Judge Scriven as well as U.S. Magistrate Theodore Klein in the Southern District of Florida. Clerking was a profoundly humbling experience, but it was also the best preparation for practice I can imagine. I had a chance to be exposed to numerous practice areas, and learned to effectively interact with people from the entire spectrum of the legal system. From judges, to seasoned attorneys, to clerks and support staff, I learned something from everyone. I was grateful and humble in all my interactions. As a result, I learned a tremendous amount about the law, professionalism, and people in general. And of course, I reached the next level in my researching, writing and analytical skills. I developed lifelong friendships and still maintain contact with many of the people I worked with. And though I haven’t been on the active job market for some time, I still get calls when they hear of different opportunities.
- What have been some of the critical points in your career, including successes & disappointments?
I am disappointed that I have not done more policy work. When I was working with DCF I was disappointed that I was not making a real difference. I was just a cog in a wheel I did not believe in. I did not think our social service paradigms were very effective at changing lives and really moving people out of poverty. So I do plan to do more in that arena. I am in the learning phase right now and am in the perfect place for that.
Interestingly, as a lawyer, I still only worked with one client at a time. I do feel a sense of fulfillment, however, in that I know that some of those people would have met far worse outcomes had I not been there and that’s what being a lawyer is ultimately about to me.
I had a client in dependency whose five sons were taken from her when one of the boys appeared with a substantial bruise on his face. In fact, the child was hurt at the very daycare that filed the abuse report against the mother. After months of heartbreaking proceedings, the children were finally returned to the mother. This was one of those cases that could have easily ended differently because we had a poor mother with a difficult personality pitted against a respected business owner in a legal climate of extreme caution when it comes to child protection. In that moment, I knew that my involvement made a difference and those types of experiences are what I miss most about litigating.
- You left the daily practice of law for a job in legal education. Why? Was it a decision you’re glad you made? Do you miss anything about daily practice?
Two of my sons were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome a few years ago, and I had to refocus my life and my energy to attend to their needs at that time. I did not intend to leave the law permanently, but quickly found that I loved being in higher education. I am able to leverage my experiences and my relationships to develop effective programming and opportunities for our students. I have a good sense of what they are experiencing and can help them navigate the process. In a way, I feel like I am having that broader impact I always seek. It is also a tremendous learning experience for me. I am surrounded by some of the best minds in law and can keep abreast of new developments in law and legal education.
The legal profession is changing quite rapidly—awareness and adaptability are critically important qualities now more than ever.
- How did the practice of law change you?
I have been forever changed in many ways. I am more critical and I do not take much at face value. Paradoxically, I am comfortable with ambiguity because I know that I can adapt to any setting and challenge I encounter. I have worked with so many different types of people, personalities and in different settings. What has emerged is one universal success strategy for me: humility, hard work and adaptability.
I also have better insight about the world and why some things are how they are. And the spirit of the advocate remains strong in me, so from my position in an education center I am well positioned to collaborate with people who are working on big ideas and reforming policies. I hope to do more of that.
- How do you see technology impacting the practice of law? What recommendations do you have for law students or recently licensed attorneys to ensure that they are up-to-date with the impact of technology on the practice of law?
Legal technology is changing the way law is being practiced. Firms are less dependent on the young associate for many services that now are provided by process companies and other litigation support providers. So it is incumbent on the new graduate to be able to articulate what added value they bring to the table. It is difficult to know what firms consider added value, however, if one is not engaged in the industry. To that point, practical exposure in the industry is key—whether through interning, clerking or clinical opportunities. In addition, those people skills we always reference are going to come in very handy in a world where the hard-skills business is substantially automated. There is no substitute for an accountable, ethical and responsible professional.
- As a law school career development officer, you regularly advise graduating law students as well as recently licensed attorneys about entering the profession, finding a job, etc. What advice do you give them in order to be a successful attorney?
At the heart of it, law is a relationship business. Your competence is not easily quantifiable— it cannot be measured through a straight wins/losses analysis. It always comes down to what people think of you. Whether you get that first job, get the referrals or advance in your firm depends on what people think of you. And you really can’t fake that. There is no course in law school that teaches people skills—but with my little megaphone, I can keep saying it, loudly and often, that relationships matter. How you interact with people matters. Your reputation matters.
- You find yourself, now, in what most describe as a “non-traditional” legal job. What advice do you have for new law school graduates or recently licensed attorneys who want to become a law school career development officer or acquire some other “non-traditional” legal position?
You have been trained to be a problem-solver. That is the core skill that you can take to any profession and succeed. And you can approach a career transition using the same processes you apply in law school. Research and learn your new industry well—including committed outreach to professionals in the field. Be humble about what you don’t know and be open to asking for help and guidance. Network, network and network.
- If someone were to have offered you some advice about your career early on, what would you have wished that they had suggested to you?
I cannot overstate the importance of having a good mentor— or even a few good mentors. I now have an industry mentor, a professional development mentor, a health and fitness mentor, and an autism parenting mentor. A mentor is someone who is committed to seeing you develop in the area they know well. They don’t have to be a particular age, gender, race or background. They have to have superior knowledge and an interest in seeing you succeed.