If you want to have a long career and not get burned out, find your passion.”
The room feels charged with electricity, all of it emanating from the polished board-certified construction attorney Nicholas Elder. Recognized as one of the leading attorneys in this specialized field, Elder is a partner at Cobb & Gonzalez P.A. in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I love the area of construction law, it’s like commercial litigation on steroids,” he says. “There are so many complexities and so many areas of construction that you need to master. You’re a lawyer on the one hand, but in a sense, you’re also a contractor.”
His level of enthusiasm, far from ebbing, has continued to grow as he enters his 17th year of practicing law.
Like most freshly minted attorneys, Elder began his legal career fielding a variety of cases in diverse areas of the law. Right out of law school Elder worked at a mid-sized regional law firm where he spent most of his time litigating premises liability matters, multi-faceted contractual disputes, and negligence defense cases throughout Florida.
“When you become a lawyer, you’re fresh, ready to go take on the world,” he says. “Then, you start examining various specialties. For me, it was about 12 years ago, construction was really on fire here in Florida, and it came with the inevitable disputes that arise with these large projects. I just seemed to gravitate toward it.
“I was immediately attracted to the fact that these cases were more than just simple contractual disputes,” he continues. “For instance, one case involved a thousand room hotel and there were hundreds of different issues involving various subspecialties. You are defending the general contractor while also trying to track all the subcontractors. It’s a big puzzle you just jump into and try your best to solve. This can be terrifying for some lawyers, but I was excited and motivated when faced with these complex issues.”
In short, Elder lives by the advice he offers young attorneys when starting their legal career, “It’s never too early to pick a lane and go for it!”
THE MAKING OF A LAWYER
Elder’s interest in the law began at a very young age, devouring John Grisham novels and those by other like-minded authors.
“I started reading Grisham’s books when I was about 10 years old,” he recalls. “My family took long car trips, and I used that time to read about the exciting world of attorneys. I was hooked, which was great because I knew then how to plan my course.”
While still in grade school Elder eagerly participated in mock trials, always opting for the role of litigator.
“It was amazing to do this at such a relatively young age,” he says. “We prepped witnesses, did cross-examinations, and just going through those motions really gave me a taste for the law. I knew I wanted to major in political science in college, which would be a stepping stone to taking the LSAT. Mentally I had it all laid out by the time I graduated high school.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
According to Elder, sustaining that level of excitement and drive over the years requires more than just interest or even passion for your work. It’s also imperative to be in the right environment. For Elder, finding that sweet spot was meeting the founders of his current firm, Christopher Cobb and James Gonzalez.
“I love this firm,” Elder says with conviction. “Chris and James have been icons in the legal community for as long as I’ve been practicing. They have created a working atmosphere that is not only professional and productive, but there’s a very positive vibe and highly collaborative environment.”
Elder goes on to explain that the size of the firm can also have a huge impact. “I’ve worked in both large and midsize firms in the past,” he says, “and, this one, with about 10 attorneys, is on the smaller side. It’s more personal and I’m not just talking about inner-office relationships, this extends to our clients as well. We call clients over the weekend and sometimes get to know many of them on a personal level. The point is, our relationship often goes beyond that of attorney/ client, and our clients really get a sense that their case means something to us.”
Another advantage Elder points out is the greater flexibility working within this firm, allowing for him to not only choose the clients he wants to represent, but to do so in a way that makes it financially feasible for those not backed by large corporations.
“Because some of the larger firms have set hourly rates, you’re not able to represent middle-income individuals who may have felt taken advantage of during their construction project. Here at Cobb & Gonzalez, I am allowed to utilize my expertise representing clients both large and small.
“It’s been such a blessing to come into a practice where everyone is relatively normal,” he adds with a chuckle. “It’s an atmosphere where we all communicate with and respect one another so that the primary focus can be on the practice of law.”
With a robust and ever-growing practice, Elder, like most attorneys, must carefully budget his time. It’s not a secret that becoming board certified requires considerable studying, refreshing those lessons from law school as well as other areas. Just qualifying for the opportunity to apply for certification demands an impressive record of representation along with proven abilities and superior knowledge. So why do busy attorneys tackle such an arduous undertaking? For Elder, the motivation was clear and in keeping with his personality and work ethic.
“I try my best to practice what I preach,” he says. “I tell young lawyers if you want to be successful and be at the top of your game, you need to hone in on a specialty. There’s no better way to do this than going through the certification process. It provides an opportunity to actively improve and enhance what they’ve already learned through their practice and develop into a better attorney.”
“It’s also important because it shows both current and potential clients that you take your work seriously and are committed to doing the best you can when advocating for them.”
OFF THE CLOCK
When he’s not with a client, in court, or digging into legal research, Elder enjoys spending time with his wife, Mirela, and their two daughters, Riley, 7, and Isabella, 6. Living so close to the beach, the family can typically be found there enjoying the sun and sand. That is, if they aren’t on a soccer field.
“I played soccer through college and now enjoy coaching my daughters,” he says. “We are practicing three or four times a week with games every weekend. My wife comes from a large family, so we spend a lot of time with our extended family too, which is a great way to unwind after a busy week.”