Attorney at Law Magazine Dallas publisher PJ Hines sat down with Frank Stevenson to discuss advice he’d give to new attorneys.
AALM: What is the best advice you received from a mentor figure?
Stevenson: My previous pastor told me: “Never let another person tell you who you are.” That statement invites myriad applications. Lawyers – especially those working in the public sphere – experience criticism and accusation. Always pause long enough to evaluate the criticism. But if you conclude you are doing what is right, keep on doing it. Because if you alter your behavior to staunch unfounded criticism, you’re letting another person tell you who you are. Similarly, when you are working with or opposed by lawyers acting uncivilly, it’s tempting to respond in kind. But, of course, you can’t. Because if you do, you’re letting another person tell you who you are.
AALM: What qualities do you believe separate a good attorney from an excellent attorney?
Stevenson: Good attorneys are in the truest sense advisers. They do more than present the law and lay out the risks, they recommend a course to their clients. It’s tempting and cozy to just provide information, instead of advice; after all, advice has serious consequences. But if a lawyer stops after merely explaining the law, he’s just a suit-wearing search engine. Advice is what clients seek from us – it’s the unique harvest of our training and experience, and thus the essence of what a professional is and does.
AALM: In terms of retaining clients, what single act do you believe is most effective?
Stevenson: Wear their jersey. Recognize and respect, of course, that you are the lawyer and not the client; the ultimate decision is not yours to make. But learn your client’s business, inform your client of relevant legal developments, share their goals, be part of their team, and always thank them properly – not just for the work and the fees, but for placing their confidence in you.
AALM: What advice would you offer a newly licensed attorney?
Stevenson: If you are in a firm, act like an owner. Specifically in the sense of being utterly and ultimately accountable to the client. Don’t hand in work that the assigning lawyer can’t hand in to the client. Don’t justify missing a deadline with an excuse to the assigning attorney that will not justify the missed deadline with the client. While being fully respectful and responsive to the assigning attorney, see beyond and through that person to the client, fully investing yourself in meeting the client’s needs. Further, act like an owner to better ensure one day you’ll be one. Business development, professional growth, civic leadership, mentoring young lawyers – these are not “partner jobs.” They’re your job, too. Work at them from your very first day.
AALM: How do you work to maintain balance between your home life and work life? What single tip would you offer a young attorney?
Stevenson: There is no single “right” way to calibrate your own work/life balance. For one lawyer, never missing a second-grade soccer game is the correct balance because it nurtures his family emotionally. For another, missing some games to ensure success in her profession is the right balance because it nurtures her family materially. And for another, missing some games to attend civic, charity, professional, or religious activities achieves that balance because it nurtures his family ethically. The right balance cannot be taught, it can only be observed. Find lawyers whose lives make sense to you, and calibrate your own work/life balance based on how they achieve theirs.
AALM: How important is culture when selecting the law firm you work with?
Stevenson: Culture is what differentiates a community of colleagues from an amalgam of appetites. Seek to work with people whose behavior never requires an explanation or apology. Better yet, work with those whose behavior is honored and emulated. Fortunately, our Dallas legal community is rich with lawyers just like that. I have been Harriet Miers’ colleague for 38 years. Because I could no longer say that if I left this firm, I’m uncertain another place could add even multiple benefits equal to that single one I’d lose.
AALM: What flaws do you see in the legal community? How would you recommend that they be improved or eradicated?
Stevenson: We make a fetish of our differences and a trifle of our similarities. Instead of understanding ourselves as first and foremost Texas lawyers, we identify and know ourselves solely by our differences. How many attorneys we practice with? Do we close deals or try cases? Do we represent the injured or the insurer? Are we in the civil system or the criminal one? Distinctions that are more than just irrelevant to the public, they’re downright invisible.
Worse yet, we blame the “other kinds” of Texas lawyers for all the profound challenges confronting all of us and our profession, unwilling to perceive this as a fundamentally in-this-all-together type of challenge.
The truth is different. Texas lawyers all want the same things – justice for the people, honor for the profession, opportunity for themselves. Until we can understand ourselves as all striving toward the same goal, engaged in the same enterprise, and seeking the same things, we will lag our potential as practitioners and a profession.
AALM: What is one experience you believe is essential for every attorney to experience?
Stevenson: Firing a client.
AALM: Would you encourage attorneys to become involved in legal associations? Where or how do you believe their involvement would be most beneficial?
Stevenson: No matter where you practice or what you do, you won’t be able to ensure yourself a limitless supply of soul-enriching work. Far from it. Thus there is no greater challenge for today’s lawyers than the need to find satisfaction and meaning in what they do. For many Texas lawyers, that is precisely what they seek and find in volunteer service to the organized bar.
Dallas lawyers are especially fortunate because the Dallas Bar Association is one of the finest and most active metro bars anywhere. And one of its many estimable qualities is the phenomenal number of people it helps.
Through the Dallas Bar I’ve provided Christmas gifts to a needy child through the DBA’s Toy Collection Drive, taught high school classes on our justice system through its Law in the Schools and Community Program, encouraged our city’s teenagers that they could be lawyers – or anything else they wanted to be – through its engagement in Law Day, judged in its statewide mock trial, counseled the afflicted on its LegalLine, awarded clerkships and scholarships through the Dallas Bar Foundation, donated business attire via its Santa-Brings-A-Suit, mentored a DISD rising senior through its summer law intern program, roofed a Habitat for Humanity house, and the list goes on and on.
There’s no doubt that because of these programs, people were helped and lives were changed. But which people and whose lives? Certainly the roughly 30 families in those Habitat houses who tonight will sleep under the roofs the DBA bought and built for them. But what about the lawyers who once worked atop those roofs?
For this amateur roofer, the answer is obvious. When I think of the things I’ve done that make me most proud to be a lawyer, virtually all of them were afforded me through bar work.