As a part of its Top Lawyers issue Attorney at Law Magazine South Florida sat down with William Gerstein of Gerstein & Gerstein PA to discuss his career and plans for the future as a 2019 Superstar.
AALM: When did you first know you wanted to become an attorney?
Gerstein: I went to law school directly from college not knowing exactly what I would want to do with a law degree. Once in law school, I was presented with multiple opportunities in immigration law. There was a class, a clinic, a fellowship that I was appointed to as well as a part time job with a private immigration practitioner. My love of foreign language, travel and the interesting nature of this practice led me to this career choice.
AALM: Do you have any mentors or professors that encouraged you along the way?
Gerstein: My professors and mentors helped transition from the educational side (law school) to the practical side (the practice of law). One of the first lessons in law school is that your clients do not come in a pre-packaged box. This means that everyone has a different story and there’s more than appears at the surface. You have to get to know your clients and draw out their fears so that you can allay them.
AALM: What was the greatest lesson you learned in law school?
Gerstein: I was in a Constitutional Law class in my second year of law school. For the final exam, we were writing in blue books. His instructions said you can only use three. I somehow missed this and used five. In fairness to the rest of the class, he could only review the first three, so I ended up with a C instead of an A. He did bump me to a C+ for good class participation. I now know that you must first read and understand all instructions before embarking on any task (except assembling furniture from Ikea).
As a funny aside, I actually met my wife, Dori, in this class. The professor was from Germany and was a bit hard to understand. He encouraged us to let him know if we had trouble understanding him and he would speak more slowly. Nobody had the guts to tell him that he was difficult to understand except for my wife who was sitting in the front row. I knew then that it was meant to be.
AALM: What experiences have taught you the most?
Gerstein: I had a partner for many years that did not participate in the business to the extent that I did. He had me convinced that he was the rainmaker and that this was simply the balance of power (that we worked as a team and would not work as well individually). We had an incident a couple of years ago that led to the dissolution of our partnership. At first, I was distraught about how to move forward, handle my existing cases and continue to support my family. Little did I know that it was a blessing in disguise. First, my wife became my new partner, our associates, Patricia and Tatiana, followed us to our new office, and we have far exceeded the level of business at the old office. My potential was unrealized until I was forced into a new situation.
AALM: What do you find particularly challenging about your practice?
Gerstein: Immigration law is constantly changing, and it is very much affected by the politics of the day. Keeping up with these ever-changing rules and regulations is almost a full-time job in and of itself. Then, once you understand the changes, you have to apply them to your existing and future cases.
AALM: What traits differentiate between a good attorney and an outstanding one?
Gerstein: You have to have a certain drive to excel as a law firm business owner. I always tell anyone who cares to listen that the highs are higher and the lows are lower than if you were an employee at someone else’s firm. You need to have vision and staying power. Self-employment is not for everyone, but it is what’s right for us.
AALM: Thus far in your career, what are you most proud of accomplishing?
Gerstein: When my wife and I formed our own firm about two years ago, I did not know whether we’d ultimately be successful in supporting a large overhead of staff and space by ourselves. Not only did we survive, but we thrived, as if I was kept in a hamster cage before this time. I now had the room to spread my wings and truly fly.
AALM: How would you describe the culture of the firm?
Gerstein: Casual. Our associates have been to our home to eat and drink, we have celebrated as a firm and we are all friendly. Our dog, Maya, comes to work each day and makes her rounds visiting each employee and keeping potential clients company in the waiting area. We provide our employees with many benefits missing at our old firm with the intention of creating a work environment in which they can concentrate on their career without worrying about their future or finances.
AALM: How has the legal community evolved most drastically over your career? Do you believe this to be a positive or a negative?
Gerstein: The advent of technology has helped us immensely. 15 years ago, we spent tons of money advertising in the yellow pages. Now, we have a much greater reach on Google and Facebook than we ever had with the yellow pages and for a small fraction of the cost. We video conference with clients who are out of town. We provide copies of files to our clients by emailing a link to download rather than copying 500 pages. The list goes on.
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?
Gerstein: I would advise someone to take advantage of all opportunities in college, law school, summer travel, and life. A lawyer needs life experience in order to advise clients. It’s more than just legal advice. We help them to see what they cannot see, to know that they have options. You also need to learn as much about business as possible because they do not teach much about this subject in law school and you sort of learn by being thrown into the fire.
AALM: What do you most hope to accomplish in the future? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years?
Gerstein: I would like to build a firm that runs itself with less supervision from my part. I want to concentrate solely on client relations, marketing and networking rather than the day to day operations of the business. In ten years, I would like for us to have our own building or converted house for use as an office with a staff of more than five associates so that there is always someone available for new business or to cover existing matters.
Photo Caption: Dori and William Gerstein with their dog, Maya.