The Practice Series – Question and Answer with a Family Lawyer

Jessica B. Heffner is a 2013 graduate of the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University.  She practices with Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton LLP in Raleigh, NC.

Q:  What kind of law do you practice?

A:  My practice includes all aspects of North Carolina family law including absolute divorce, child custody, child support, property division, spousal support, separation agreements, postmarital agreements, and premarital agreements.

Q:  What do you like best about your practice?

A:  I enjoy practicing family law because it allows me to work with individuals.  Family law requires a great deal of client contact—in person, over email, and/or over the phone.  It’s a practice area where you interact with clients every working day.  Also, every family law case is unique and challenging in its own way.  As members of a “learned profession” we are challenged to consistently study and expand our knowledge of complex and evolving issue—it keeps my day to day job very interesting and rewarding.

Q:  How often are you in court as a family lawyer? 

A:  The majority of my cases involve litigation.  There are numerous court appearances and hearings required in family law matters—especially in Wake County.

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

A:  Once I began practicing, I was most surprised by the importance of understanding and navigating the “business” of practicing law from client development to conflicts checks to keeping time—there are a lot of things that are integral to how a law firm works that you don’t learn in law school.

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 wish I had taken advantage of more practical projects and opportunities to “practice” before graduating.  I competed in a trial competition in the Spring of my 3L year that was an unforgettable experience; and I regret not joining a team earlier.  I also wish I took a course on law firm management and the “business” side of practicing law.

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

A:  My least favorite part of being a lawyer is that I cannot always predict my schedule.  Each day brings a new and different workload, and I often have to adjust my routine and priorities accordingly.

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

A:  As a third-year associate, I am still working on the best formula for maintaining balance.  For now, I focus on work when I’m at work, and I focus on home/family when I’m home.  I try to be as efficient as possible during working hours so that when I’m home and/or outside of work, I can be present and allow myself time to recharge.

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

A:  Locally, I have joined Ellevate, which is a women’s professional networking organization.  As a young woman in business, I think it’s important to network with and support other professional women.  Within the legal community, I am a member of the NC Bar Association, which provides great opportunities for networking within the profession and has many externally-faced service events for the community.  I also serve on the Wake County Bar Community Service Committee, which again combines service for the community and getting to know others in my local legal community.  I have also co-authored several CLE manuscripts in the area of family law.  Teaching or helping to teach CLE is a wonderful way to establish yourself as a young lawyer.

Q:  How have you established a client base?                                                    

A:  As a third-year associate in a medium-sized firm, I currently work as the second chair attorney on many of the partners’ cases.  As for the cases in which I am the first chair, I obtain those client by referrals—either in house, client or community referrals.

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

A:  I candidly did not devote a lot of time to networking events in law school.  I focused my efforts on academics and then the 2L interview/recruiting process.  Through my 2L summer internships, I did participate in various networking events but again focused most of my efforts on producing quality work at each firm.  In retrospect, I wish I had worked more networking opportunities into my routine because networking is a crucial part of the practice of law.  It is important to carve out time in your schedule for networking, and the sooner you start, the easier it will be to maintain good habits in the future.

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:  My advice is to be yourself.  Potential employers are accessing students, but each student should also be accessing the employers.  If you are not a good fit for a particular firm or organization, it is better to understand that early and adjust your focus areas accordingly.  When you’re working at a law firm as an intern or summer associate be authentic and produce quality work-product.  Also, proofread, proofread, proofread.  If you think your work-product is perfect, proofread one more time.

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

A:  While at work, spend your time working.  Give your best work to every project and make thoughtful and intentional decisions.  Also, if you do not know the answer to a question or issue, ask someone and/or research the issue to the best of your ability.  You are not expected, nor is it possible, for you to know the answer to every question in your first few years (or really ever).  The key is knowing what you do not know and also knowing where to find the answer (and who to call if you cannot find it).

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