Do You Have Five Minutes?

The Bencher—January/February 2024

By Kelly Canavan, Esquire, Evan Johnston, Esquire, and Sherine L. Thomas, Esquire

Welcome to “The Dream Firm.” Every successful attorney you’ve ever seen—across the aisle, behind the bench, or from the audience of a continuing legal education session—is a partner here. And now you’ve joined the firm, too.

As a new associate at The Dream Firm, you walk the office halls. Behind every office door is another brilliant brain just waiting to be picked. You cannot believe who actually works here! (Although The Dream Firm is imaginary, the advice in this article is real and directly from the legal icons listed below. We thank each of them for participating and sharing their thoughts.)

At one end of the hallway, you have Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Boyd and retired Brigadier General Malinda E. Dunn. Boyd has served over a decade on the Texas Supreme Court, formerly served at the Office of the Governor of Texas, as deputy attorney general in the Texas Attorney General’s Office under two administrations, and as president of the Robert W. Calvert American Inn of Court in Austin.

Dunn is the executive director of the American Inns of Court and previously served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, retiring as a brigadier general. She served as the assistant judge advocate general for military law and operations, commander of the U.S. Army Legal Services Agency, and chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

At the other end of the hallway, the offices are occupied by Texas State Bar President-elect Steve Benesh, Esquire, and the president and dean of Southwestern Law School, Darby Dickerson. Benesh previously served as Austin Bar Association president, chair of the Texas Bar Foundation, and president of the Calvert Inn. He is a partner at Bracewell. Dickerson joined Southwestern as its 12th dean and second female dean in July 2021. She is one of the longest-serving deans in the country and served as the inaugural dean at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. She has been a member of five Inns of Court across the U.S.

Across the hall from your office is Senior Judge Orlinda Naranjo, who served on both the County Court and at the District Court in Travis County, Texas, and is a former president of the Calvert Inn.

You would love to sit in these corner offices for hours and drink in every piece of advice you could get. How did they “make it” as a lawyer? How can you? But you know how it is. Phones are buzzing, emails are dinging, papers are flying. Dream Firm partners are busy. If you work up the courage to knock on their door, you know you can only have a few moments of their time.

Five minutes. They’ve got five minutes. Five minutes to ask for the best advice each partner can offer. There’s a lot each of them can teach you and a lot you can learn in five minutes.

On Monday, you catch Boyd in the breakroom and summon enough courage to ask, “Do you have five minutes?” Once he says “yes,” here’s what you learn:

Q: How do you improve your writing?

A: By writing and by reading good writing.

Q: What is the best or worst piece of advice you received as a young lawyer?

A: The best advice was “focus on doing good work every day, and the rest will fall into place. Keep up your timesheets as you go.” The worst was “other young lawyers are your competition, and you need to one-up them to succeed.”

Q: How should young lawyers find their path or their area of expertise?

A: Start by taking the opportunity that is most difficult to get. Don’t limit yourself at first to only certain types of work. Then pursue the types that interest you the most.

Q: How do you find your own clients or niche practice area?

A: Focus on building good relationships with every contact and on doing good work. Then pursue the things that interest you the most. Look for opportunities to write and speak on the subjects you want to pursue.

On Tuesday, you find yourself waiting in the hallway with Dunn while someone fixes the printer’s paper jam. You are determined to get five minutes with her, and she graciously agrees to chat. Here is what you learned:

Q: How does a young lawyer go about learning the culture of a workplace and learning what is acceptable?

A: First, observe and listen. How do people dress? How do they address senior partners and staff? Who is in the office and when? Who speaks in meetings? How are meetings run, collaboratively or more of a reporting environment? Adjust as you figure out how it goes.

Q: How do you suggest finding a mentor?

A: After you’ve had a bit of time to see who is talented, bounce something off of them. Are they collaborative and helpful? Put them in your possible mentor pool. Are they short and make you feel stupid? NOT in your mentor pool. You may find you will have different mentors for different things.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you received as a young lawyer?

A: NEVER shoot from the hip. ALWAYS check your facts and law before telling anyone anything—no matter how simple the question might seem.

Q: Describe a moment that made you feel proud to be a lawyer.

A: While deployed, I gave some advice to my boss that a subordinate commander really did not like. I stood my ground because I was certain I had given the correct advice. About a year later, that subordinate commander became my boss. One of the first things he did was to come to my office to talk to the 100 or so lawyers and paralegals who worked for me. To my surprise, he recounted our disagreement and told my office, “That is what lawyers must do—give the right advice and stick to it no matter how vehemently the client may disagree.”

Q: How do you know when it is time to leave a job or make a change?

A: When a holistic review of your life and how you are living it tells you that it is time. You should ALWAYS be thinking about this.

On Wednesday, you are in the conference room for the monthly office birthday celebration. As you cut a piece of cake, Benesch, the president-elect of the State Bar, walks in. You hand him a slice of cake and ask for five minutes.

Q: What is the best or worst piece of advice you received as a young lawyer?

A: Worst: Don’t ask questions; just do! Best: Never let the firm take priority over your faith or your family.

Q: How should young lawyers find their path or their area of expertise?

A: Pursue what interests you. A paycheck isn’t worth it if you don’t like what you do. Investigate emerging areas of the law, where demand is likely to be the highest. Seek the advice of others. Most lawyers’ careers don’t go exactly as they had envisioned, and everybody has a story to tell.

Q: How do you find your own clients or niche practice area?

A: Many ways: from pitches to prospective clients; from referrals by other attorneys within the firm; from referrals by clients, friends, or lawyers outside the firm; from people who are interested in an article I have written or speeches I have given. Work comes from many sources, often unexpectedly. As a partner in my firm told me long ago, “There are two types of people in the world: clients and prospective clients!”

Back in the breakroom during Thursday lunch, you run into Dean Dickerson. When you see the dean set the microwave for five minutes, you take the opportunity to speak up.

Q: How does a young lawyer go about learning the culture of a workplace and learning what is acceptable?

A: Introduce yourself to everyone, regardless of their job or position; get to know them and their work. Ask what attracted them to and has kept them at the organization. Seek their input on how to succeed. Understand that not all rules are written. Every workplace will have norms and customs, so observe how others interact with each other in different situations. But remember that while adapting to the organization’s culture is important, don’t compromise your own moral and ethical boundaries.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you received as a young lawyer?

A: Help others with their emergencies. Not only is it a fundamentally good thing to help others when they need help, but it allowed me to do work I might not have gotten to do as early in my career and to build trust and confidence with people I might not have worked with otherwise.

Q: How do you get feedback without bothering your supervisor?

A: Treat feedback as a gift. If you’re not in a place to receive the feedback and are repeatedly defensive, your supervisor may shy away from honest interaction. Also consider comparing the finished product to what you submitted, using previous feedback as a benchmark to see if you’ve incorporated the feedback in new projects. Or use an app like Grammarly or ChatGPT for help.

It’s Friday at last. You’re waiting for the elevator and Naranjo joins you. As you ride down together, you begin to chat, and you decide to use the time walking to your respective cars to ask your questions.

Q: What is the best advice you ever received in your legal career?

A: You may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but you can out-prepare your opponent. Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. No such thing as being over prepared. I always prepared for a hearing, a trial, an assignment. Not only prepare your case but anticipate what the other side is going to argue. I also knew when I had not prepared as I should have.

Q: What advice do you wish you had when you were graduating law school?

A: Give yourself as many legal experiences and opportunities as possible. Don’t be too hung up on what other law students are doing. Sign up for legal clinics, volunteer at legal nonprofits, volunteer to take the unpopular or dog case, volunteer at a high school. This will guide you into a field of law that hopefully you will be passionate about. Part of these experiences will help you determine what being a lawyer means to you.

Q: What advice have you given young attorneys that enabled them to overcome challenges and succeed in the practice of law?

A: Being an attorney is a privilege. Use that license to help others. Be a mentor to young lawyers or law students. Share your challenges and your failures. It is difficult to fail, but use that experience to motivate you, learn, and grow from it. Try to determine why you failed or lost a case.

Q: What is your best advice for young attorneys?

A: Ninety percent of success is relationships and hard work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help on a case or for a job. Do not do anything that would jeopardize you losing your license. You worked too hard to get it.

What an amazing week of connecting with experienced and successful lawyers! “Do you have five minutes?” was the perfect way to get some incredible advice.

Kelly Canavan, Esquire, is the staff attorney to Justice Jeffrey S. Boyd of the Supreme Court of Texas. She is a Barrister in the Robert W. Calvert American Inn of Court in Austin, Texas, and the co-chair of the Inn’s Mentorship Committee. Evan Johnston, Esquire is a partner with Savrick Schumann Johnson McGarr Kaminski & Shirley, LLP. He is the at-large associate board member for the Robert W. Calvert American Inn of Court in Austin, Texas. Sherine L. Thomas, Esquire, gained extensive experience and rose through the ranks at the Travis County Attorney’s Office to become the first woman and minority to serve as executive county attorney. She is president-elect for the Robert W. Calvert American Inn of Court in Austin, Texas.

© 2024 Kelly Canavan, Esquire, Evan Johnston, Esquire, and Sherine L. Thomas, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.