Be the Kind of Person People Want to Take to Lunch

Interviewed by Aman Bagga

James Cool is a personal injury and commercial litigation attorney with Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C. in Phoenix, Arizona.

  1. How did you get started along the path that has led you to this place in your career?

I am exactly where I am meant to be. When I was 14, I started
competing in mock trial competitions. I loved it. It became my chief passion for more than a decade. The championship tournament for undergraduate mock trial used to be held annually in Des Moines, Iowa. Therefore, I spent the prime of my mock trial “career” honing my advocacy skills with the goal of impressing the Midwestern attorneys who judge the competition.

  1. Tell me about how you found your first job after law school.

I went to law school in 2007 – three months later the bottom fell out of the global economy. I applied for dozens of paid and unpaid positions, took clinics and externships, freelanced, and took positions where I found them. For the most part, my efforts did little to improve my post-graduate prospects. My third year, I did what I’d been doing since I was 14 – I competed in a mock closing argument competition against our rival school. My partner and I were coached in the competition by Shawn Aiken. We won. Aiken Schenk offered me a position six months later. I was the first associate the firm had hired out of law school in 20 years.

One day it hit me that Aiken Schenk is a firm founded and driven by Midwestern trial lawyers. All of this is a long way of saying that I followed my passion and it led me home.

  1. 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?

Before law school, I worked as the sole employee of a wonderful solo criminal defense practitioner in Tucson named Natasha Wrae. I always thought I would be a criminal defense lawyer. I even applied for the big public defense fellowship my second year of law school and freelanced for private defense lawyers. Yet, I ended up practicing plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, commercial litigation, and administrative law.

I have found that the things I value most in the practice of law can be found in a variety of practice areas and in many different sectors. I crave the energy and innovation that comes from working with great lawyers and good people.

  1. What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?

I worry for my colleagues that my experience was atypical, but I was fortunate to have patient and trusting senior lawyers who gave me as much practical and hands-on experience as I could handle. Our firm encourages an “open door” culture, so my early months practicing law were an amazing and exhilarating experience. I had so many interesting and engaging opportunities and easy access to the resources and guidance I needed to succeed.

I also benefited greatly from acquiring a large book of lower-rate business of my own very early in my career. I assumed primary responsibility for approximately 25-30 active civil matters on behalf of a large public safety union. I acquired this “book” because my former mock trial coach and family friend had recently become general counsel to the union, but had little civil litigation experience. As a result, general counsel wanted someone they could trust, who was capable, who worked for a good law firm, and who would work at the union’s significantly reduced hourly rate. I fit the bill, so I got the work. The union underwent significant changes internally and after approximately two years, the client relationship ended. Nevertheless, the result was a truly unique learning experience and my firm did a wonderful job of supervising, mentoring, and supporting me throughout.

My take-away lesson from that experience about business origination is this: When it comes to garnering good referrals from other lawyers, skill is an important consideration, but a solid relationship built on trust is king.

  1. What have been some of the critical turning points in your career, including both successes and disappointments?

I would describe my law school career search as a largely disappointing and frustrating experience, even though it ended successfully. As a law student with average grades, but an interesting resume, I interviewed for dozens and dozens of positions. I also worked for just about anyone that would pay me to read, write, or think. Ultimately, the series of rejections and disappointments I experienced in that process taught me a lesson that my experiences in practice have confirmed: Legal hiring is about interpersonal and organizational “fit” far more than it is about “merits” or qualifications.

I am now in my fourth year in practice, but I have been blessed with many of the hands-on experiences common to a more senior lawyer. Apart from case results, good and bad, I do not believe I’ve yet reached a significant turning point in my career. I will say, however, that this is the point in my career where I’ve begun to consider how I would fund a partnership buy-in and what the value proposition of partnership is for me at my current firm. I think these are questions every professional grapples with at some point in the 5-10 year period of their career.

  1. Have you ever stepped off your career path for a period of time, or made a significant career change?  What was that change, and how did you do it?

I almost taught high school English. That was my undergraduate degree. I love teaching and I love writing and composition. However, teaching high school was something I decided wouldn’t engage me in the way I needed to be happy. I need to write. I need to advocate.

  1. What advice would you give to a junior attorney starting out?

I think my experience is pretty unique, but I will offer this advice to young attorneys:

Be the kind of person people want to take to lunch. Treat everyone kindly and with respect. Look people in the eye and honestly listen to them.

When meeting a potential client, my advice is don’t sell. Inform and empower the client through knowledge and validate them by listening. If it’s a fit, they’ll sign on.

  1. What kinds of things have you done to develop clients for your practice?  What has been most successful for you?

Client generation strategies vary significantly from individual to individual and across practice areas. The strategies that land you “A”-grade fee-for-hour clients are not likely to land high-value contingent fee clients and vice versa. At the risk of seeming cliché, I’ve found the old adage “do a good job with the file on your desk and another will replace it” to be true. Regardless of practice area, however, I think the most important thing any lawyer can do to develop clients is to follow some simple rules that we all ought to have learned in grade school:

  • Listen to clients without interrupting.
  • Express empathy, concern, or sympathy where appropriate.
  • Follow-up with your clients – express concern for their well-being—at least as it relates to your representation.
  • Return phone calls and e-mails promptly. When you fail to do so, own it and apologize.
  • Speak the truth—even when it hurts the client to hear it, but speak it as kindly as you can in that instance.
  • Whenever another lawyer refers you a client, treat the client like gold. Your goal should be to make the referring lawyer shine in the client’s eyes. Guaranteed: That lawyer will send you more work.
  1. 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?

All I can think of in my short time practicing would be an increasingly pervasive acceptance of electronic filing and service, and also the proliferation of easily accessible court and other public databases.

Plus, tablets are cool.

  1. If you were advising a young attorney today who was entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to be successful?

I would have the following advice:

  • Work hard and don’t be afraid to (discreetly and tactfully) let people know you’re working hard.
  • Be willing to do unsavory, boring, or unglamorous work.
  • Be willing to work for less than you deserve and for more than you’re paid.
  • Be honest. Have integrity.
  • Listen.
  • Constantly ask: How can I add value here?
  1. What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?

There is a vastly saturated pool of competitors. There are too many law schools graduating too many lawyers for the current legal socio-economic system to sustain. Either the economics of law and our system of justice will adapt, or many young lawyers will find themselves earning far less than their loans will allow.

  1. What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?

Talk to other lawyers. Be friendly and interact with your colleagues. Also, join a professional association or your local bar. In addition, for heaven’s sake, read the wonderful publications and periodicals published by the ABA.

  1. 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? 

Slow down. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. My first year I billed 2,300 hours on a 1,800 hour requirement. I wasn’t a very nice person. I was sort of like George Costanza from Seinfeld in the episode where he works for the Yankees and discovers that he doesn’t have to actually work hard provided he just seems perpetually afflicted and over-stressed. Except, I really was afflicted and over-stressed. In subsequent years, I’ve restrained my billing activities and focused my extra energies on building and solidifying relationships with other lawyers in and out of my firm.

It’s easy when you’re a young lawyer to work very hard in an effort to prove yourself, but in the process become a person nobody wants to have around. Productivity is wonderful and, perhaps in some firms, it’s the key metric of performance. In most situations, however, I think that the practice of law is a largely collaborative and team-oriented profession. Those who bill maniacally, while productive, are often stressed and exhausted, which make them rather unpleasant to work with, which either chills the collaborative process, or leads to division within a firm.

  1. What role have mentors had on your career?  What advice do you have for new lawyers about mentor relationships? 

If you want to be a good mentee, go find someone to mentor. Learn what it’s like to be a mentor, what challenges and frustrations they face, what works, and what mentors find themselves wanting. Then go be the mentee you always wanted.  I recommend Big Brothers Big Sisters with all of my heart as a way to gain this sort of experience.

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