Practice Series: Question and Answer with a Civil Litigator

Matthew D. Quinn is a 2009 graduate of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University.  He practices with the Law Offices of F. Bryan Brice Jr. in Raleigh.

Q:  What kind of law do you practice?

A:  I have a general civil litigation practice.  I typically, but not always, represent the plaintiff.  Over the years, I have developed a niche practice of representing individuals and families injured by mold contamination.  In fact, I have found that the best way to build a practice is to find a discreet type of case and build up experience in that area.  There are not many mold litigators, so I receive a lot of those cases.

Q:  What do you like best about your practice?

A:  The diversity of duties.  I might spend one day reading, writing, and researching.  The next day I could spend in the field at a property inspection, or perhaps learning about a scientific issue at an expert’s office.  Then twenty-four hours later, I could be at a court hearing.  There is never a dull moment in civil litigation.

Q:  How often do you go to trial as a civil litigator?

A:  It has varied over the years, but lately I have consistently tried at least one jury trial every year.  Really I think it depends upon the type of cases you handle.  If you have a high-volume personal injury practice, you probably try more cases than, say, an attorney handling environmental litigation.

Q:  What is the most surprising thing about practicing law compared to law school?

A:  Law school is mostly about the mental element of the law – how should attorneys read case law?  What do the Rules of Civil Procedure say about such-and-such issue?  And on and on.  But, in my opinion, being an attorney is far more about relationships and networking and practical problem solving.  I spend much more time speaking with other attorneys or witnesses than I spend researching legal issues.

Q:  Is there anything you wish you had done differently or learned during law school to be better prepared to be an attorney?

A:  I should have studied traffic law to help my family with their terrible speeding habits.  But in all seriousness, law students should pay very close attention to lectures on the Rules of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence.  Those rules govern most of what I do.  Also, if available, law students should jump at the chance to take a class on depositions.  I spend far more of my time in depositions than in trial, but when I first started out, I had only the foggiest idea how to take or defend a deposition.  Any law school instruction in that area, or other practical skills, would have been invaluable.

Q:  What is your least favorite part of being a lawyer?

A:  The time demands.  I could literally work every minute of every day but still not accomplish all my goals.  Most attorneys have Type-A personalities, and it is difficult to accept that you cannot complete each day’s to-do list.  Also, there is an unpredictability to being in civil litigation.  I may have my entire week planned out with depositions and hearings and a dedicated office-day, but then – without warning – I might be hit with an emergency motion for temporary restraining order that requires immediate action.  When confronted with this situation, the temptation is to sacrifice time with friends and family.

Q:  How have you maintained a healthy work/life balance?

A:  I am not sure that I have.  But I try.  I think the most important thing is to set boundaries with clients early.  If you take weekend calls early in the representation, it will be an expected routine.  Instead, be firm with yourself and your clients that, barring a true case emergency, your evenings are for you and your family.

Q:  How have you established yourself in your community in general?  The legal community?

A:  To my mind, these are the two most important things: volunteer in your community, and do not be a jerk.  Obviously you should not volunteer for self-promotion reasons.  That said, volunteering is a great way to meet attorneys and potential clients, and provides an opportunity to showcase your talents.  And like I said, do not act like a jerk with opposing counsel.  It is hard to know when you are being zealous versus being a jerk, but you will figure it out with experience.  It takes years to build a solid reputation, but only a minute to destroy it.

Q:  How have you established a client base?

A:  Client service.  Remember that your client is, in many ways, no different from any other type of customer.  You must strive to be responsive, likable, and accommodating.  Also, look for practice areas where you can gain unique experience early on.  For example, during my first year of practice, I received a random mold contamination case.  Because I did a good job with that case, my client referred a friend to me who also had a mold contamination issue.  Compound this pattern over a period of years, and I receive a lot of mold contamination cases, and I have figured out how to handle such cases efficiently.  I think that is the key – do something that most attorneys are not doing.

Q:  How did you approach networking as a law student? 

A: Traditional networking does not come natural to me.  I am terrible at small talk so it makes networking tough for me.  Because I am not as capable at working a room with conversation, I networked in other ways.  For example, I tried to establish a reputation in law school as having a very strong work ethic.  Thanks to that reputation, I sometimes receive referrals at this point in my career from class mates, because my class mates feel confident that I will treat the cases with the seriousness they deserves.  The point is, try to network in a manner that plays to your strength.  If you are a great conversationalist, do the traditional networking through lunches and take advantage of chances to get in front of potential employers at On Campus Interviews.  If not, find other ways to prove that you are worth hiring.

Q:  Now that you’re in practice, what advice do you have for law students who are looking for a job or actively trying to increase their network?

 A:  Law students should know how far I – and most other attorneys – will go to help them.  Sometimes I sense that young attorneys or law students fear that they are pestering me with questions, but that could not be further from the truth.  In fact, I remember how hard it was to set out into the legal field, and with that in mind, I would do most anything to help a law student or young attorney.  Most attorneys feel the same way as me.  Oh, and if I don’t respond to your email, don’t take that as a hint – I probably just got busy and forgot – so email me again.

Q:   What final advice would you give to a brand new attorney? 

A:  Don’t burn bridges.  Grant favors, such as informal extensions of time, when possible.  Do more than the bare minimum, but do not let your clients or employer pull you into a fifty-five hour work week except in true case emergencies.  Do not take unreasonable positions, even if your client wants otherwise.  And try to enjoy yourself.  Sometimes the practice of law is stressful; but if you act ethically and do your best, you are doing enough and should not sweat missteps or the occasional bad result.

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