As a part of its Top Lawyers issue Attorney at Law Magazine South Florida sat down with Eugene Pettis of Haliczer Pettis & Schwamm to discuss his career and his outlook on the law as the 2019 Legal Legend.
AALM: What personal trait most aided you in your career?
Pettis: Those that know me would say that I’m a very competitive individual. While there are circumstances where competition is not a positive, when utilized appropriately, competitive energy is a great career fuel. I have always channeled my competitive spirit toward my strategic goals. From my earliest childhood memory, I hated losing at any activity. That same energy has been a driver of my extra professional activities.
AALM: How has the legal community evolved most drastically over your career? Do you believe this to be a positive or a negative?
Pettis: There have been seismic changes in the legal profession since 1985 – 105,000 members today versus 36,000. The pace and channels used to deliver legal services have expanded the “workday” to almost a 24/7 enterprise. When I started, legal secretaries were excited to have IBM Electra typewriters that could “white-out” and there was no consideration of a computer for lawyers. I could not imagine that within my lifetime lawyers would transact business from a smart phone. These technological advances have made it easier in a more complex world, but it has come with a price – greater tension. Clients’ time expectations are virtually instant. Overall, the changes have been for the better, enabling us to reach clients more effectively and meet the demands of an ever-growing population.
AALM: Looking back on your career, which case most impacted your practice?
Pettis: As a young lawyer, I had the fortune of working with the late Rex Conrad who was a preeminent trial lawyer. On my first day, May 1, 1985, I was asked to join him in a three-week, brain-damaged infant trial. That was symbolic of the trajectory of my career. In 1994, I represented a hospital in a catastrophic medical malpractice case which was a 12-defendant case with the late Shelly Schlesinger representing the plaintiffs. At the time it was the largest medical malpractice case that South Florida had seen. It lasted four months. I was the youngest lead counsel with the target hospital defendant. We prevailed in that case and it immediately propelled me onto a larger stage as a litigator. The case was reversed, and my client elected to try the case a second time despite nine defendants having settled out on the eve of the retrial. The second trial lasted five months and we prevailed again. That gave me the confidence that I could compete with the best!
AALM: What do you most hope to accomplish in the future?
Pettis: I’m enjoying the practice of law today as much as I did on day one. Therefore, I am likely to become one of those 50-year practitioners. Within my remaining years of practice, I hope to continue to elevate the true meaning of professionalism. To me that is larger than just a given case but rather a presence of leadership within the Bar and the greater community. It is imperative that we create mechanisms within the Bar that maintain the core principles of our profession in an ever-changing landscape of society.
AALM: What is the one piece of advice you would give to a student or young attorney who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Pettis: Hard work pays off! There is no shortcut to excellence. Maintaining consistency in your career requires dedication to excellence. With more lawyers opening up smaller and solo practices, more than ever it requires lawyers to master strategic multitasking. Not only do you have to market and network to generate the work, you must simultaneously be working on the representation of the clients you already have. However, at the end of our legal journey I hope that each of us has done something more than chased the next case. In our Creed of Professionalism, it mentions “Doing Public Good.” We must keep that in the balance and utilize our skills of advocacy to make our surrounding communities better for all citizens.
AALM: Thus far in your career, what are you most proud of accomplishing?
Pettis: Over the course of my career, I have been blessed with many great moments. The most high-profile accomplishment was serving as the President of the Florida Bar in 2013- 2014. That is an honor of a lifetime. However, my proudest accomplishment is not a single event but rather the fact that I have been able to make a career-long contribution to strengthening our Bar and serving our community. I am a true believer that those deeds will be the lasting legacy long after my last case.