Representing Nevadans in everything from property disputes to succession planning, attorneys are at the center of major deals throughout the state. They play an integral part of any successful business and, like many others, their industry has undergone changes in recent years. Recently, leaders in the legal industry met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss those changes.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
What Kind of Staffing Issues are you Seeing?
Alex De Castroverde: Our biggest challenge has been finding good people and keeping them. I’m having a very hard time finding a Spanish speaking attorney to move up to Reno and a very hard time finding attorneys in Las Vegas, as well as experienced litigation case managers. [I’ve spent] 20 years practicing law and I’ve never had a more difficult time finding talent than I’m having now.
Dana Dwiggins: In the past I’ve had several conversations with associates that just leave at five, don’t tell you they’re leaving and you’re left stuck there until nine because the work has to get done. It’s a matter of consistency. It seems to be an associate market nowadays and it’s very difficult to hire someone, at least we’ve had difficulty in the past. I don’t know if we just have a shortage of attorneys here or people just aren’t making the move anymore, but I know in the past we’ve had a difficult time hiring.
Terry Coffing: When I think of shortage of attorneys, I think shortage of qualified, good attorneys. Law school admissions are down and that’s caused some of the private schools to lower their standards for admission. We have this generation of attorneys that are hugely in debt because of law school and they can’t find a job that will allow them to manage that debt or, heaven forbid, can’t pass the Bar because maybe they shouldn’t have been in law school to begin with. Finding quality employees at every level is a huge issue.
Barbara Buckley: We’ve spent a lot of time on this issue because a non-profit’s success is whether we have good people or not. That’s what we get grants on, that’s what the community thinks of us. We don’t have a pay structure that’s very lucrative, but we have some of the best and brightest, most dedicated people on our staff, so we try to develop an amazing working environment. We spend a lot of time on culture and rewards. We try never to forget to say thank you. I think firms really need to, regardless of their mission and structure, think about retention because retention is the key to being successful.
Shane Young: The challenge we all face, whether it’s a small practice or a large firm, is finding the right people that have the same work ethic, vision and want to make that commitment and be aligned with what our goals and objectives are. There’s no shortage of applications. We’ve had to sift through so many just to find a few qualified people.
How Has Work/Life Balance Changed in Recent Years?
Nile Leatham: The biggest challenge facing Nevada attorneys is the same challenge that all attorneys face, finding balance in their lives in a very competitive and adversarial profession. That has always been, and will always be the biggest challenge.
Dwiggins: The thing I notice is the younger generation has taken family life and balance of work to a whole new level. We’re right near the generation that worked to prove themselves, and we’re the generation that’s working because the younger generation doesn’t want to. I’ve read so many articles on accepting Millennials and what you should do [to work with them]. [The suggestions are to] let them work the hours they want from home. It’s not practical.
De Castroverde: We become more and more flexible each year. I think working from home is not only the future, it’s the present. We allow attorneys to work out of the office, some attorneys, three or four days a week and other staff members to work remote from their home more often. Not just because we’re doing what’s nice, we’re doing what’s necessary to keep them.
Leatham: I think also the way that law’s practiced has changed a great deal. Back in the olden days, we would work in a law library with books and we would have to do research using books at the library. Now your library is with your iPad or computer, you can take it anywhere. You can work in the middle of the night, you can work wherever your circumstances permit. Flexibility is important, it will become more and more important, and I think it’s okay. Every law firm is a dynamic, organic organization that changes and must change in order to meet the needs of clients and those who are in the organization.
Robert Kim: We moved to a platform where attorneys can choose to have a surface pro and dock in the office or work from somewhere else. It seems as though logging time in the office is not a reality anymore. People are a lot more mobile and remote. You kind of lose a little. [Creating a culture] is a challenge. It’s hard to develop a sense of anything when you’re not with people you’re theoretically working with in your office, practice group or department. There is going to be a distancing of sorts. People are working remotely and you’re going to have to assume they’re going to do what they’re supposed to and they check in every so often, but you kind of lose that daily contact that makes you understand who each other are. That’s a big change that’s going to happen.
Coffing: That’s a critical point, culture. There’s no substitution for sitting around a table, whether it be lunch or learning from somebody who’s been there, done that. I have a chef that comes in four days a week and when people have that meal provided for them, they all sit down together and talk about things. We leave one day open, so that’s the day you’re out marketing or meeting with your clients. Building that culture-working remotely is fine, but you lose some of those things.
Debra Spinelli: When you have that culture it grows and changes. People want to make partner, but making partner means fitting into that dynamic and working as hard in different ways. Being that all-around person that can step in the shoes of your partner, that builds community. That’s hard if you don’t see each other face to face at least on some sort of consistent basis. You have to like them, you have to learn from them and find out their expertise and how they fit into this puzzle piece that is your firm and your culture. That’s hard when you’re apart. To figure out how that works remotely when you’re not there all the time, it’s really hard in litigation not to be there all the time.
Leatham: [Culture is] also important for the development of young lawyers. If they’re simply given a task and can perform it anywhere they want to, we risk of legal services becoming a commodity.
Has Courtroom Etiquette Changed?
Spinelli: One of the biggest things that affects the balance is the mental health aspect, what civility among counsel can bring and what is required for civility for all generations. You can fight for your clients, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have a lack of candor in the communications you have with counsel. It makes your life so much harder. It makes your day so much more wretched. It makes your cases a little bit more violent, for lack of a better word. Those go together, candor and civility, and that’s a hard balance for everyone.
Dwiggins: I agree a lot with that. However, there are certain attorneys that I routinely work with that personalize the cases to the extent that, if I ever have an active case with the individual, they won’t even say hi to me in the hallway. When you’re continually working with one another and get to know each other, and even if there’s a trust there, you don’t have to personalize it. You can still be an advocate for your client and have a civil relationship with an attorney.
Buckley: In family court the lack of civility is rampant. This week we talked about civility in the courtroom and one of the attorneys brought up another attorney who said, “Well the court will be hearing from the lying 15-year-old”. We discussed ways to handle it. Our manner of dealing with attorneys like that is not to get down to their level. [We state] what the law is, the facts and what we are seeking from the court. Never get in the mud with those attorneys. I think training the next generation of lawyers to do what you all do, what we all do, is really important.
Dwiggins: Comments like that don’t do your client any good because undoubtedly the judge will intervene and scold you for talking that way. That’s not acting as a proper advocate for your client because you’re pushing the judge in the wrong way already.
Young: In working on family law cases through the Legal Aid Center, I have seen a vast difference with how the courtrooms are managed, the level of civility that is displayed between the business matters and the family matters. It does make me a little sad to see that there’s a difference. We all started at the same place and I don’t know why we’ve gone in different directions when it comes to those things that are so foundational.
Should Judges be Elected or Appointed?
Leatham: If you want a politician as a judge, make them campaign and elect them. If you want a judge that is impartial, my view is, appoint them. I prefer the federal system because they can be appointed for life, they don’t have to worry about being fired. You do not want politics involved in judicial legal decisions. There’s a reason why the Statue of Justice is blindfolded. She can’t see who’s in front of her and she doesn’t care. She will apply the law to the facts that are there. I have a strong view on that simply because I think that electing judges makes it more political than it should be, although appointing is very political as well.
Coffing: There’s certainly no guarantee that the person that was elected was the best candidate. I think there should be a combination where you’re appointed and, if for some reason you’re not a good judge, you can be voted out and someone else will be appointed for that seat.
Kim: The majority of the states elect their judges but, in our market, the political dynamics are a lot more heightened than other states we practice in. We have a budget for contributions in our office and other offices don’t because the culture is to not get involved with donations, contributions and campaigns. [Here], it’s a small market, we know everybody, but in other markets it’s different. They’re much bigger and the campaigns are much different and the dynamics are very different. When I describe what we do here versus other markets it’s very eye-opening to some that don’t understand the realities of how we have to deal with judges on a different level because of their races and campaigns. They’re treated like politicians because they go through elections. I [also] would prefer a modified approach where you appoint them in, you hold them accountable through retention elections or other means, by which you can check their power and authority.
Coffing: We’ve tried [to change the system and have judges appointed] four times over the past 20 years. Every time it gets rejected by the voters.
Has Technology Changed Client Expectations?
Coffing: There’s definitely a greater expectation [with communication]. One of the things we try to stress is, emails and texts are nice for conveying information, but when it comes to conveying advice you’ve got to pick up the phone or you’ve got to go meet with them. That interpersonal relationship is critical and we try to encourage a balance there.
Leatham: I also think the quick answer is not necessarily the best answer. When a client calls and they have a question, they want to have it answered as quickly and inexpensively as possible, that’s what we all want. But complex legal issues need some time to think and analyze so that the advice and counsel that’s given will be useful and won’t lead to additional problems. Clients tend to be a little impatient and sometimes you have to move very quickly. That has been a big change in the last 30 years and maybe even more recently than that.
Dwiggins: I’m selective on what clients I give my cell phone number to because there are several clients that expect you to be available 24/7. A lot of text messages at night time, or phone calls at night or on weekends. I’m not a nine to five person but, on the same token, I have to find my balance too. I have a rule that I don’t look at my emails past seven o’clock, when I’m not at work.
Spinelli: My first mentor in law school told me, “You get paid to think.” You have to be able to take that pause and think about what the issue is in order to respond. Sometimes you’ve seen it before, sometimes you haven’t. The fun part is never having seen it before and trying to figure it out. The intellectual draw is why a lot of people are interested in the law in the first place. Whenever I’m talking to some of the younger attorneys about being in a deposition and that fear [I tell them to] pause, take a breath and think before you ask the next questions. Say everything with at least a second or two of thought. We tell that to our witnesses, stop, listen to the question and then answer. We have to be able to give ourselves that opportunity. If you’re in a long-term relationship with some of your clients, they start to know that when you’re sitting back and you’re thinking out loud, you’re more familiar with it and accepting of it. With new clients it might take a little while. But, ultimately they pay us to think, so we should be able to be confident in taking pause.
Young: It also goes to managing expectations. A lot of times clients will appreciate just some form of response and acknowledgment that says “I received your inquiry, I’m looking into it and will get back to you.” I do estate planning and I get asked a lot, “Isn’t going online good enough?” It’s not, because it’s not something that’s customized to your needs. [It’s important to have] those conversations with people and explain a form document versus [the benefits of] sitting down with [someone]. An attorney can have a conversation, find out what it is your family needs and can personalize a plan and your legal needs to suit you and your family. That is a challenge to get over that technology focused generation that we have thinking that everything can be done online. It’s definitely a drawback.
Dwiggins: Adding to that, I think it has resulted in additional litigation. A lot of people don’t realize that, if you create your will and leave your retirement account to X, the beneficiary designation is going to control what you have in your will and because of that, their intent isn’t being fulfilled and it’s resulting in litigation.
Buckley: We run two self-help centers in partnership with the Eighth Judicial District court: The Family Law Self-Help Center and The Civil Law Self-Help Center. We’ve created over 500 fill-in-the-blank forms on everything from “My Landlord Illegally Towed My Car” to “How to do a Guardianship” to “How to do a Divorce”. This is for those folks that can’t afford lawyers. But, we encourage everyone, if you can afford a lawyer you should absolutely ensure that these documents are conforming to your situation in the case of estate planning or in the case of divorce, even if you can buy a little bit of a lawyer’s time. There are so many people that are just priced out of the legal system and they need someplace to go and that’s what those two self-help centers do, along with our pro-bono and staff attorneys.
Learn how to sponsor featured content by clicking here.