Attorney at Law Magazine Miami publisher Rhenne Leon sat down with Jeannete C. Lewis of Lewis Legal Group P.A. to discuss her career and her plans for the future in the 2018 Women in Law special issue.
AALM: When did you decide to become a lawyer?
Lewis: We have several attorneys in my family and my father, who is quite skilled in the art of planting seeds, used to tell me regularly that I should be a lawyer. Typically, this was in response to my efforts (mostly unsuccessful) to convince him it was imperative for me to do this or to have that. However, what truly sparked a desire to pursue a career in law did not occur until my junior year in high school. I was asked to stand before my AP English class and deliver the entire closing argument of Bigger Thomas’ criminal defense attorney Max in the book, “Native Son” by Richard Wright. Bigger, a young African-American, was standing trial for the murder of a young white female. It was in delivering Max’s impassioned and brutally honest soliloquy aimed at saving an “innocent” life, that the planted seed began to take root.
AALM: What do you find rewarding about being an attorney?
Lewis: One of the greatest rewards is the relationships made and the ability to do something positive for others that they could not do for themselves. Taking a situation, typically tragic and life-altering, and forging some positive pathway toward healing is fulfilling for me on a number of levels. Personal injury litigation is so personal for the client – understanding that is essential. I try to never lose sight of the human element. Clients place so much trust in us, sharing intimate details about their losses, lives and feelings; you cannot help but forge a meaningful bond. I am fortunate to have those bonds turn into lasting relationships. In fact, I remain in touch with many former clients even decades later.
AALM: What was the beginning of your career like? How has it evolved over the years?
Lewis: I was fortunate to land a great position as a research attorney with a highly respected law firm during my second year in law school. After passing the Bar, they offered me an associate position. My mentor, Robert Parks, was amazing. He allowed me to work alongside him on air crash cases and cases involving injuries occurring at resorts around the world.
We litigated against some truly talented defense attorneys with well capitalized clients. Since air crash litigation usually involves multiple plaintiffs, I got to know and work with icons in the plaintiffs’ personal injury field. I could not have asked for a more rewarding beginning to my legal career.
From the outset, I was covering important hearings, handling appeals, having speaking engagements, and taking depositions of skilled witnesses. These opportunities raised my confidence; there is nothing more exciting as a young attorney than being thrown into work on complex legal cases.
Today, I still handle aviation and products cases. Currently, most of my cases are referrals from clients, witnesses whom I’ve deposed, and lawyers with whom and against whom I have litigated. For all of them and their confidence in me, I am truly grateful.
AALM: Did you have any mentors or professors who helped you develop your career?
Lewis: I was fortunate to have two mentors, each are tremendously successful and continue to practice today. They have very different styles, yet both have achieved monumental success in plaintiffs’ personal injury litigation. Accordingly, I would have to say, observing both allowed me to see that there is no “one right way” to present a case or an argument. They allowed me to develop my own style. They taught me to consider my audience and to be aware of myself and my demeanor. What worked for them was not necessarily going to work for me. They taught me to use my strengths as a female and as a lawyer’s lawyer to present my case in a warm but firm manner. They also taught me that there is the practice of law and the business of law, both of which need watering and feeding to grow. Their instruction was invaluable.
AALM: How welcoming do you think the South Florida legal community is to women practitioners?
Lewis: Women practitioners in South Florida are fortunate to have many opportunities to advance and succeed. A friend of mine has a perfect saying that stems from one of his life’s important lessons: “There is a butt for every seat.” Meaning, for every need, there is someone wanting to fill it. This is true no matter the gender, task or practice area, but is particularly appropriate when considering the diversity afforded women in the field of law. Success is measured by one’s perception of themselves and what they have done with their career and how it fits within (or defines) their lives. I have met many fulfilled and successful female attorneys who have or have nearly achieved their various goals and for the most part, each are energized by their different practices and levels of practice. South Florida has many welcome “seats” for women to both create and to fill.
AALM: How do you personally try to help women following in your career path?
Lewis: For young girls and women who are interested in pursing legal careers, I simply take the time to talk to them whenever I can. I talk to them about balance, focus, hard work and determination. I talk to them about difficulties, hardships and choices. I have spoken to Junior Honor Society students and their families about Biblical principles and the law in the hopes of making a relevant impact. A few years ago, I sponsored an essay contest for eighth grade students that was open to either gender but which, because of the topic, was of particular interest to female students. That exercise gave me an opportunity, Socratically, to instill thought and discussion about an important issue that uniquely affects females, using a controversial legal opinion as the springboard. Additionally, I have taken female law students for coffee to open a dialogue and answer any questions they might have about the practice of law and what it is like as a female practitioner.
AALM: How do you balance your home life and work life?
Lewis: Balance is a dynamic term as the respective levels for each – life and work – seems for me at least, to change frequently. I think it is essential for success that you recognize that many aspects of one’s life are priorities, and none can be sacrificed or ignored. This is not to say that our various priorities are in competition for our time and attention because they are not. They are meant to be complementary. Each must be respected and nurtured for us to be effective.
This realization is one of the reasons I decided to leave a firm where I had been for nearly two decades to open my own solo practice. Even now my work laptop will often invade my kitchen island and command my attention. The key to achieving this elusive, healthy work/life balance is scheduling – making time for spouses, workouts, late nights at work, etc. Communication is also an essential ingredient to achieving the balance. Creating the opportunity for understanding in our kids and spouses who are non-lawyers as to why and for what we are working, and reassuring those who would rather we play than work, that there will be a time soon for play helps satisfy expectations and allows us the breathing room we need given the nature of our ever-changing and at times unpredictable work. It allows us to enjoy more fully our precious time with loved ones and concurrently, give our clients and the trust they repose in us, the respect and attention they deserve.